Many commentators have been quick to argue that President Obama deserves the credit for the spectacularly successful mission to kill bin Laden, because if the mission had failed or gone terribly wrong, he most certainly would have been blamed for the fiasco.
Recall, for instance, John F. Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs operation, Jimmy Carter’s “Desert One” embarrassment, and Bill Clinton’s “Blackhawk Down” calamity in Mogadishu.
But here’s the thing: Each of those military catastrophes resulted from inadequate and subpar U.S. military and intelligence capabilities and poor operational planning and direction.
The Kennedy administration, for instance, failed to keep the Bay of Pigs secret and, as a result, Castro and his Soviet supporters knew of and anticipated the operation before it happened. U.S. intelligence about the situation on the ground in Cuba also was lacking and erroneous.
Then, too, President Kennedy failed to follow through and ensure mission success after the operation faltered in the early stages.
Clinton and his secretary of defense, Les Aspin, likewise refused the military’s request for tanks, armored vehicles and AC-130 gunships, which might have prevented or minimized the fiasco that followed “Blackhawk Down.”
And President Carter’s “Desert One” mission was always a huge gamble, given the logistical difficulties inherent in trying to send helicopters vast distances from the Indian Ocean into Iran without the benefit of forward operating bases and state-of-the-art helicopters.
Today, by contrast, the United States has the best educated, best equipped and most capable military in the history of the world. And our political and military leaders benefit from a huge U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which enables them to collect invaluable human intelligence and to plan and stage operations.
So while Obama certainly deserves credit for his decision to carry out this operation to kill bin Laden, he’s also the undeniable beneficiary of a series of political and military decisions made by his predecessors and colleagues to enhance and strengthen U.S. military capabilities, and to improve the U.S. military posture overseas.
Thus, unlike President Obama, President Carter most certainly would not have been able to conduct Operation Geronimo given the constraints on U.S. military power at the time, and given our lack of forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
Yet, in the wake of our stunning success at getting bin Laden, some commentators have argued (ostensibly with a straight face) that the United States should get out of Afghanistan, or severely limit our military footprint there. How, exactly, this would strengthen our military and intelligence gathering efforts in this crucial part of the world is never explained; it is just assumed.
But it is a fatally flawed assumption. The truth is that there is no substitute for human intelligence and for boots on the ground. And there is no substitute for highly trained military personnel operating advanced, state-of-the-art equipment. Yet, all many in Washington can do is call for further cuts to the U.S. defense budget.
For example, some have called for eliminating the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey aircraft. The V-22 is a “waste,” they cry. The Marines should use less costly and more conventional Army Blackhawk helicopters instead.
But the Marines know better. They know that the V-22 was designed in specific response to limitations in aircraft speed, range and survivability identified in the failed “Desert One” operation.