Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 May 2011

“The Die is Cast”

Julius Caesar said those words over two millennia ago, in crossing the Rubicon River to do battle with Pompey in the great Roman civil war. After 52 years, I still remember the Latin I studied as a kid: “Alea jacta est.”

Those three simple words stuck in my mind. Why? Because hazard and risk inhere in any great enterprise, especially armed conflict.

Nothing essential in the human condition has changed in the two millennia since Caesar. You never know enough―about your enemy, about the condition and morale of your own forces, about the terrain, about the weather, or about all the things that can go wrong, like our Black Hawk stalling in bin Laden’s compound.

That’s why, despite all our vaunted information technology, it still takes a great leader to do great deeds. No computer yet devised can sense the unknowable, weigh the imponderable, and make a right decision that works. Certainly no committee can. But the President and Commander in Chief did in ordering, “It’s a go!”

Like Caesar’s, just three words. They sound so easy, but they’re not.

We now know what should have been obvious. Careful and risk-averse advisers were constantly warning of “Black Hawk Down,” the humiliating episode in which unknown rebels dragged the charred bodies of our troops through the streets of Mogadishu. The warning was apropos, for it was Black Hawk helicopters that carried our forces on their successful mission. And it was also one of them that failed on landing, producing the mission’s most harrowing moments.

Of course everyone involved could not forget Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the Iranian hostages. Several helicopters went down in a desert sandstorm, Marines died, and the Islamic Republic thumbed its nose at our vaunted military. Jimmy Carter lost the election and became a one-term president, but his diplomacy brought the hostages home unharmed, without another drop of blood shed. (The Ayatollah so hated Carter that he waited until just after Reagan’s inauguration to release them.)

Carter was right to negotiate the hostages’ release after the military mission failed. He was probably right also to authorize the mission. There are always risks in military action, and the dice don’t always come up your way. The electorate was not kind to him, and the right wing now vilifies him. But history will be kinder.

Win or lose, big deeds have long levers. The failure of that 1980 rescue mission tarnished American prestige and soft power for decades. Now we have redeemed ourselves and avenged a heinous crime. The mission to get bin Laden was a stunning success, with no casualties on our side and minimal collateral damage―a single woman used as a human shield.

That, of course, was just what the President intended when he made his fateful decision. Smart bombs or Predators could have killed bin Laden. But Saddam escaped them at the start of the Iraq War. Local bin Laden sympathizers, including Pakistanis, could have covered up bin Laden’s body or falsified evidence, making his fate uncertain and giving him legendary status, like El Cid.

As always, the President understood the human dimension of this mission. This was personal. It was a quest for long-delayed justice for the most terrible mass murder ever to target Americans.

It was, if you will, a personal vendetta. So it required flesh-and-blood Americans, superbly trained and skilled, to pull the trigger, witness the killer’s death, spirit the body away and dispose of it as best fit our own geopolitical objectives (albeit respectfully and without violating Islamic law). And it required boots on the ground to recover a treasure trove of intelligence from bin Laden's inner sanctum, without letting it pass through untrustworthy Pakistani hands.

Everything about this mission was superbly planned. For weeks our forces practiced on two separate replicas of the bin Laden compound. Of course credit goes to the Navy Seals on the mission, to our Joint Special Operations Command, and to our Admiral McRaven, who led the mission.

But none of it would have happened without the right decision from the top. Troops don’t take the blame when things go wrong. That sandstorm in 1980 might have been unpredictable; but military leaders also may have overestimated the ability of our helicopters to survive one. Whatever the reason, Jimmy Carter took the blame, as he should have. Harry Truman said it best: the buck stops there.

As we who support him always knew, the President is a great leader. He has superb perspective and great judgment. His mind can play three-dimensional chess, considering not just the immediate implications of a decision, but the internal political and external geopolitical implications now, next year, and for decades to come. He just gets bogged down when lesser men, like hungry chickens, squawk and peck at this heels in Congress and end up doing nothing.

Oddly, bin Laden had one thing in common with the President. Bin Laden knew the power of myth and legend. By all accounts, he was no military leader. He seldom saw combat and fled it repeatedly. But he was a gifted propagandist who made himself a legend. Quite consciously, he built up a myth of his own invulnerability and favor by God. The President knows that that myth, not bin Laden himself, was and is our real enemy.

Now Muslims everywhere also know. No one is invincible. Allah does not protect mass murderers of innocent people. Skilled, well-equipped, patient and persevering avengers will track down and dispatch killers of our people no matter how long or how much it takes.

And they won’t do it with computer-controlled automatons from the sky, or with unnecessary wars against irrelevant third countries. They’ll do it in person, man to man. That’s an outcome any culture in any time can respect.


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  • At Monday, September 12, 2011 at 9:59:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    My 8 year old son and I have had some interesting discussions at to whether it was okay for Seal Team 6 to go into that compound with the goal of killing Osama bin Laden? Or should we have captured him alive if given that chance to put him on trial in a real court of law that we profess to believe in? Or is he so bad that we make this one exceptions just for him? Didn't we even put some of the worst WWII Nazi's on trial before killing them? Why is it okay for Seal team 6 to merely kill Osama when it appears they could have easily captured him?

    Anyhow, my 8 years old son that wasn't even alive on 9/11 uses crystal clear logic and expresses no hesitation that he should have been captured alive and not killed if that was an option.

    Best Regards, Rod H.

  • At Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 12:37:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Rod,

    You son, whom I know, is exceptionally bright and precocious for an eight year old. (Don't let it go to his head!).

    In abstract theory, I agree with him. Furthermore, as I’ve written, I agree with Attorney General Holder that 9/11 was the “crime of the century,” not a war, and that its perpetrators should be put on trial in criminal court in New York City. Doing so would show the strength of our system and might renew our confidence in ourselves, just as did the Nuremberg trials.

    But even for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, let alone bin Laden, I expressed the view that the type and venue of a trial should yield to domestic political expediency. When you have no reasonable doubt of guilt, as in both these cases, the trial and execution become political instruments that the victims or their government have a right to arrange for their own political purposes. (I’m not speaking of ordinary criminal cases, but of extraordinary cases of international terrorism like these.)

    If we had brought bin Laden back, there are people here who would have insisted on a secret or closed military trial, which is the worst thing we could do. That’s what Cuba, Soviet puppets and banana republics do. In addition, the delay and argument about procedure would only have encouraged the terrorists and given them time and reason to recruit and stir up trouble.

    This is my one quibble with precise statutory or written law, as distinguished from the common law, or case-by-case law. No previously written prescription can ever hope to capture all the requirements and morality of an exceptional case like this.

    In bin Laden’s case, I have no doubt we did the right thing from a political, military, social and national-security perspective. No one had the slightest doubt about bin Laden’s guilt. We needed a quick catharsis and a sense of closure. Even the terrorists grumbled a bit, muttered about revenge and accepted the fait accompli. Al Qaeda's own website posted the news within two days.

    I don't expect an eight year old—even one as bright as your son—to understand all this. But the lack of protestation from anyone here or even any terrorist abroad suggests that justice was done. There are a thousand ways, all important, in which this case differs from Nuremberg. Perhaps the most important is that we needed Nuremberg to convince the world of the guilt of Nazi leaders in the aggression and Holocaust. In contrast, there was and is no doubt about KSM’s and bin Laden’s guilt. Both bragged repeatedly about their deeds and expressed a desire not for a fair trail, but to be made martyrs.



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