Strutting Like a Peacock?

by Shannen W. Coffin

President Obama declines to release photos of OBL post-mortem, arguing that we don’t display trophies or “spike the football.” Yet his administration — presumably driven by the president himself — rushed to get out before the cameras after 11 p.m. (Eastern) on a Sunday night when it is clear that they didn’t yet have the basic facts of what transpired. (Wisely, the president himself spoke in generalities in his speech.) One wonders whether a simple written statement by the president at that point might have sufficed, with a more detailed address the next day, when the dust had settled. And the sense of triumphalism conveyed in the speech — especially the president’s focus on his central role (one that few would have questioned in the absence of the emphasis in his address) — was palpable. 

The strutting didn’t end there. As Andrew Malcolm notes on an LA Times blogJohn Brennan’s 49-minute briefing earlier this week focused heavily on the tension within the safety of the White House situation room, trumpeting the heroism of the president while squeezing in a single reference to the mission’s “very brave personnel.” And the president plans a victory lap trip to Ground Zero tomorrow. While there are some good justifications for that visit, viewed together, the approach his administration has taken looks a bit like the end-zone dance that he decries.

At the same time, the president’s “spike the football” analogy fits his pattern of knocking down straw men. The commentary in favor of the release of the photographs has focused on a lot of things, such as proving to skeptics in other parts of the world that Osama bin Laden is dead. (Though I suspect there are some fringe elements in the U.S. that would doubt his death in the absence of photos, no serious, rational American would doubt that fact). Proof of death was the reason, we were told, that the president opted for a risky assault by special operations forces, rather than a bunker bomb. The closest I’ve heard to a victory lap has been the Wall Street Journal editorial’s suggestion today that release of the photos would be a show of American force to those terrorists who continue to plan operations against us. But that is a serious projection of American resolve for a strategic purpose, not the sort of pure triumphalism decried by the president.  

That is not to say that there are not good justifications for withholding the images. I join those who suggest the justifications for release ultimately outweigh the reasons for withholding the photos. But, rather than lay out the merits of his decision, the president has opted to preen. And it tarnishes what should be a pretty good week for him.   

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