Obama 1, Osama 0

Weighing risk and opportunity, the President moves with deliberation, patience and force

  • Pete Souza / White House

    White House Situation Room, Sunday, May 1. The "minutes passed like days"

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    Obama's national-security practices, if not his actual policies, have been almost the exact opposite, almost to a fault. There have been no three-week victories; there have been three-month deliberations about what to do in Afghanistan. There were precious few victories at all before the bin Laden operation. There was a lot of multilateralism and deference to foreign leaders. Critics said Obama bowed too deeply to the Emperor of Japan. There were few dramatic pronouncements and zero foreign policy bumper stickers; there were more than a few embarrassments. He was dissed by the Chinese. He was dissed by the Iranians. He was defied by corrupt nonentities like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai; he was double-dealt by the Pakistanis. And in recent weeks, there was a growing chorus that his handling of the Arab Spring revolutions had been incoherent and his indulgence in a humanitarian intervention in Libya had been muscled through by a coterie of female policy advisers who were tougher than he was.

    In the days before the bin Laden raid, Obama's national-security staff was increasingly frustrated with how his foreign policy was being portrayed. He was not indecisive, they argued, just careful. They made a transcript of a crucial Feb. 1 phone call between Obama and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak available to me. It was classic Obama. "I have no interest in embarrassing you," the President said. "I want to help you secure your legacy by ushering in a new era." He worked this track patiently, twice, three times. "I respect my elders," Obama said, "but because things worked one way in the past, that doesn't mean they're going to work the same way in the future. You need to seize this historic moment and leave a positive legacy." Mubarak said he'd think about it and would talk again in a week. Obama said he wanted to talk again the next day. Mubarak said maybe over the weekend; Obama said no: "We'll talk in 24 hours." No threats, but no give, either.

    "You have to see this in the context of history," a senior Administration official told me. "That's a pretty tough decision to make, involving a longtime U.S. ally. But he was very firm with Mubarak. If you look at Reagan, he agonized far longer over whether to abandon governments we had supported in Indonesia and the Philippines than the President did about Egypt." Last Aug. 12, four months before the Tunisian rebellion began, the President issued a national-security directive ordering his staff to develop a new policy that assumed the governments in the Middle East were rickety and might soon topple. A copy of this memo was provided to me as well.

    Too much has been made of what some are calling Obama's taste for humanitarian intervention. Officials at the National Security Council and the State Department insist that the roles of NSC staffer Samantha Power, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and former State Department director of policy planning Anne-Marie Slaughter have been exaggerated. Power is a well-known human-rights activist, but she attended only one meeting with the President on Middle East policy in the past six months; Slaughter is a prominent academic, but she never met with the President on these issues. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was leaning against taking military action in Libya until the last moment, when members of the Arab League convinced her that a massacre would take place in Benghazi if nothing were done. The President opposed a no-fly zone because it wouldn't effectively stop a Gaddafi massacre. "He expanded the U.N. resolution to include attacks on Libyan equipment and forces about to move into the city," an Administration official said. "He drove the policy. No one talked him into anything."

    But there was something incoherent, or perhaps insufficiently explained, about Obama's foreign policy performance. The Libya intervention opened the door to a series of logical questions: Why choose this humanitarian intervention and not others? Why not get involved in Syria, a far more crucial country, where the government was brutally suppressing its citizens and perhaps even conducting massacres? Whom were we actually supporting in Libya? What if the conflict slipped into a tribal stalemate? How were we going to deal with the economic catastrophe looming in Egypt, which Administration officials say is the most pressing problem in the region? Weren't the President's priorities all screwed up? "Libya was tough," the official told me. "The President decided to make a front-end decision to save Benghazi and let our allies carry the burden after that." This policy became the subject of ridicule after an anonymous Administration official called it "leading from the rear."

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