Michael Rubin’s Provocative on the Killing of Bin Laden

by Reihan Salam

Michael Rubin of AEI argues that the United States has placed too heavy on emphasis on conflict avoidance: 

Bin Laden has been public enemy number one well before 9/11. In 1996, after the Clinton administration pressured Sudan to expel the Al Qaeda leader, the Taliban embraced him. What followed was not the State Department’s proudest moment: On more than two dozen occasions, senior American diplomats took tea with their Taliban counterparts. Declassified documents show the Taliban bamboozled Americans. Their promises to expel Bin Laden were empty, but they offered enough hope for the State Department to believe diplomacy might work. All the while, the clock ticked and Bin Laden expanded his network and grew more entrenched. Hindsight shows talk was not cheap.

Bin Laden’s high security and swank compound in Abbottabad, a town favored by Pakistani army officers, highlights Pakistan’s complicity in protecting he Al Qaeda leader. Pakistani officials knew, however, that American diplomats prioritize conflict avoidance. Even though American officials long suspected Pakistan’s duplicity, American diplomats and generals embraced the fiction of Pakistani cooperation.

In Rubin’s view,  President Bush and President Obama have been too forgiving of Pakistan, though he credits Obama for making a break with past practice:

Somewhere along the line, however, Obama recognized that success precluded diplomacy. Reports suggest Obama’s team briefed Pakistani officials only when the operation was complete. Had American officials been less trusting and perhaps less multilateral, Bin Laden might have met his demise years ago.

Rubin didn’t have enough room to articulate an alternative approach, but I do wonder if this is right. One can imagine a scenario in which we had played hardball with Pakistan earlier on, yet this meant that our helicopters were not allowed to enter Pakistani airspace or that we couldn’t gather actionable intelligence in and around the country. This operation would have been considerably more difficult to pull off had it more closely resembled Operation Eagle Claw, when U.S. forces had to penetrate deep into hostile territory. To be sure, we could have simply fired a missile at the compound, though that would have created considerable uncertainty as to whether OBL had actually been killed and it would presumably have exacerbated tensions.  

There’s a reason diplomats are often “weenies,” for lack of a better word: risk-aversion is the natural bureaucratic mode, and it is the natural stance of the world’s most powerful country, i.e., the country with the most to lose if all hell breaks loose. I agree with Rubin. But my guess is that a more confrontational stance towards Pakistan struck President Bush and President Obama as fraught with danger. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.