The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking; just because he had the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands, and necessary because his continued escape from justice was an inspiration to others to try to follow in his footsteps. But it should not be occasion for joy. The Talmud tells the story of angels dancing and singing as the waters of the Red Sea close over the heads of the Egyptian troops after the Israelites have safely crossed over, only to be rebuked by their God: “How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the sea?”
Barack Obama’s solemn announcement of this tremendous achievement hit the perfect note. The president did not boast. He did not preen. He did not claim divine guidance for American bombs and bullets. Coming, ironically, almost eight years to the day after George W. Bush all but danced the Watusi across an aircraft carrier beneath a misleading Mission Accomplished banner, the president’s cool, calm decision-making and demeanor—coupled with the peerless professional execution of the operation—can only impress world opinion with the mature and steely determination of America’s post-Bush leadership.
Consider the contrast with the self-described “Decider.” As if living inside a B-movie version of a John Ford film, Bush boasted after 9/11 that he would capture bin Laden “dead or alive,” warning the world, “You are either with us or against us.” Soon thereafter, he changed his mind and decided he was “not that concerned” after all about bin Laden, and actually, it was cool for Pakistan to be with us on Tuesdays and Saturdays and against us the rest of the week (subject to scheduling changes).
Left unsaid in this reversal was the fact that Bush & Co. blew their best chance to capture the killer. Like Lincoln’s famously timid general George McClellan, America’s then–commander in chief failed to seize the moment when opportunity presented itself at the battle of Tora Bora in November 2001. Both bin Laden and his still-uncaptured lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri were believed to be among those trapped there by US forces. But for reasons never explained—though likely as a sop to Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf—US forces chose to close off only one of two escape routes, and allowed about 600 Al Qaeda fighters to leave by the unguarded route. It remained unguarded for weeks, and so bin Laden is believed to have made his dash with another 1,000 or 1,500 of his followers.
Not long afterward, Bush’s obsession with Saddam Hussein led to a near complete loss of focus on bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Ex–CIA official Vincent Cannistraro told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that the search for bin Laden “lost at least half of its original strength” in favor of the Iraq operation, adding, “some intelligence-collection assets [remained] in Afghanistan, but mostly it [was] just small teams looking for signals. That’s because of Iraq.” Many of the 800 Special Forces personnel who had been chasing Al Qaeda were quietly brought back to the United States, where they rested before being shipped to Iraq. Former National Security Council top counterterrorism official Rand Beers observed of the Bush team, “They didn’t want to call attention to the fact that Osama was still at large and living along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, because they wanted it to look like the only front was Iraq.” “The reason these guys were able to get away,” added a former Bush official, speaking to Time, “was because we let up.”