Presidential Success or Failure

There are two kinds of presidential foreign policy decisions, one operational like the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, which can go right or wrong almost by chance, and the other strategic like the invasion of Iraq that can be based on fraudulent information and bad judgment, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Right up until Vice President Joe Biden announced that he is not running for president, mainstream media deemed to be of significance the advice that he had given President Obama about whether to attempt the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. This was seen as a measure of the relative judgment that he and another adviser to the President at the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, exhibited.

Clinton has received kudos for reportedly being firmly in favor of an operation that achieved its immediate objective and is widely regarded as a major success; the advice Biden gave evidently is more uncertain. But whether each one voted yes or no while this operation was being discussed by the President’s senior advisers in the Situation Room, with our giving more points in hindsight for a “yes” than a “no”, tells us much less about the presidential level of judgment that each was demonstrating than many seem to think it does.

President Barack Obama and his national security team monitor the Special Operations raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and his national security team monitor the Special Operations raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

Using an episode such as this as a gauge of fitness for high office is another instance of the all too common practice of rating leaders in large part for events that are outside their control, rather than reserving praise or blame for things that are more in their control and that are better measures of good or bad judgment.

Based on what we know about the decision to go after bin Laden, and some journalists have been telling us that we may not know as much as we thought we knew, there were important things that the President himself and his advisers evidently did not know, beginning with whether bin Laden was for certain in the house that would be raided.

The decision was not a straightforward matter of applying good judgment to known facts but instead a matter of taking a risk. Insofar as a president needs to take some risks to get things done, Mr. Obama deserves credit for being willing to take this one, but that evaluation should not depend on the particular outcome that the operation happened to have.

The operation easily could have gone wrong in several ways, and not just if bin Laden had turned out not to have been in the targeted compound. There could have been mishaps in the movement of the U.S. forces involved that would have prevented completion of the mission. Worst of all would have been a violent altercation with Pakistani forces.

If any of these outcomes had materialized, then the operation would have been widely regarded as a failure, it would have been seen as a black mark for the President and his advisers, and association with the decision to attempt the raid would be seen as a political liability rather than an asset. But notwithstanding these public perceptions, the judgment represented by the advisers’ recommendations would not actually have been any different than with the outcome that actually occurred.

Compare this with a daring U.S. operation that turned out to be a failure: the attempt in 1980 to rescue Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an incident usually remembered under the label Desert One. The failure resulted directly from very specific, down-in-the-weeds military mishaps: mechanical failure of helicopters and a fatal collision between two of the U.S. aircraft at the desert rendezvous site. Such happenings are not the stuff of presidential judgment.

A president can press his military commanders about whether they have been thorough enough in their planning and preparation, and he can include in his own decision-making a fudge factor for how even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry, but beyond that he essentially has to leave much to chance as far as his own role is concerned.

Desert One was regarded as a low point in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and Carter himself singled out the failure to gain freedom of the hostages as the biggest reason he was defeated for re-election. But if Barack Obama deserves credit for making a gutsy, risky decision with the operation against bin Laden, then Carter deserves comparable credit for a gutsy decision to attempt the rescue in Iran.

If the aircraft failures in the Iranian desert had not occurred and the operation succeeded in bringing the hostages home, the whole episode would have been perceived as a shining success and Carter’s political stock would have risen significantly. But again, we really would not be justified in making an evaluation about Carter’s judgment being good or bad that is any different with this counterfactual outcome of the operation from whatever evaluation of his judgment should be made given the actual outcome.

Giving inappropriate credit or blame to the person at the top for these sorts of unpredictable variations in the outcome of U.S.-initiated operations is a subtype of the larger tendency to assign credit or blame for unpredictable things in general, including ones the United States does not initiate, such as terrorist attacks.

This issue has come up again with Donald Trump’s assertions about George W. Bush and 9/11. Trump’s accusations are inappropriate because no matter how soundly an administration may have assessed an underlying terrorist threat and attempted to respond to it, that is different from being able to detect and prevent a specific terrorist operation.

It is with the larger matters of assessing threats and setting strategic direction that we can confidently and appropriately evaluate presidential judgment. We should not blame George W. Bush for the occurrence of 9/11, but we can charge him with bad judgment for misunderstanding and/or twisting the nature of the underlying threat such that it somehow got translated into a problem with Iraq.

He, and his most influential advisers, displayed atrocious judgment in initiating a war in Iraq. That war turned out to be such a costly mistake not because of unpredictable, tactical occurrences, and not for any reason having to do with the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction. It had a very bad and costly outcome for reasons involving the political culture and political demography of Iraq and the limitations of military force. Those reasons were not only knowable but known, to experts inside and outside government, but Bush and his advisers did not avail themselves of that knowledge.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


10 comments for “Presidential Success or Failure

  1. Guy Mullins
    October 23, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Biden and his administration may find that they have to change their story again.A very interesting book has just been published about the Abbottabad raid. Osama’s Angel, by Michael McWilliams is an alternative story to that disseminated by the US administration. Instead of killing bin Laden, the SEALs captured him and took him to a German airbase where he was interrogated. The CIA used an ancient Muslim faith-based technique to get the prisoner to tell them all he knew. Meanwhile, a false sea burial diverted the world from what was really happening. The story ties in flawlessly with everything known about the operation and events afterwards. The fatal crash which killed many of the SEALs who were involved in the raid was because they had unknowingly found evidence of CIA drug running operations which tied in with bin Laden, the Soviets and Colombia. The book is very detailed on tactics and weapons and could read as a handbook on demolitions, military parachuting and weaponry, not to mention aircraft handling and operational effectiveness. Osama’s Angel can be found on Amazon and is available both as a hard cover as well as in Kindle form. A great and entertaining read.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    October 23, 2015 at 10:37 am

    Every incident mentioned in Mr Pillar’s article here, has an alternative narrative, so for me it is impossible to engage in a conversation over a bunch of lies. Even, Carter’s unfortunate rescue mission, could have been sabotaged. After watching Hillary officially kick off her 2016 presidential campaign at the House Benghazi hearing yesterday, I once again, have come to the conclusion that it’s all a great big show. It is hard not to except at least some of these events, as being stuff conspriracy theories are made from, when we know our politicians are nothing more than front people for our corporate run government. So, I will just sit over here, with my tin foiled hat on my head, and go about my business. Now, which one was Building Seven?

    • dahoit
      October 23, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Unless the author has proof we the public don’t,any tales issued by serial liars(MSM)should be given the widest skepticism,so I’m with you.It looked like they might have been watching the climax of breaking bad in that picture,which we just learned wasn’t a live feed at all.
      Next they’ll tell US Hitler was inspired by a Arab to kill all the Jews.oops.

    • John
      October 25, 2015 at 9:17 am

      The logic which we are meant to buy into vis a vis Libya is that it was not a failure, because it wasn’t just the Republicans who supported regime change, but Hillary Clinton as well, and the Benghazi hearing exonerated her of the loudest criticism she faced on Libya. Thus all other supporters of the Libya debacle are ok as well, by association. So yes, it’s absolutely all a big show, if anyone is willing to use their mind.

  3. James O'Neill
    October 23, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    I agree with Mr Tedesky. The best evidence is that OBL died of renal failure in late 2001 as David Griffin pointed out several years ago with all the relevant evidence. The Abbottabad raid is a king sized fairy tale.

    Ditto the offical story about 9/11. If you believe that I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

    I am afraid that Mr Pillar’s article is an extended piece of disinformation.

  4. October 23, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    I think that you really have to know what really happened, whether it be the capture of Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 tragedy, Desert One, the ouster of Saddam, etc. before assessing its validity, much less evaluating presidential or anyone else’s decision-making.

    Take Desert One, for example. It was a far riskier covert effort than made out. Even if the plan had gone according to the nuts.and-bolts assessment, there is little likelihood that all the hostages, much less all the attackers, would have returned safely, and that would be the end of the confrontation between the mullahs and Washington.

    As for the killing of bin Laden, there is little likelihood that he was still alive when the assault occurred, and no likelihood that he would have had any relevant information about current Al-Qaeda operations if he was. Obama was apparently going through some big charade to draw an end to the wars he was faced with when he was elected

    The ouster of Saddam was a desperate attempt to explain way the vast 9/11 fiascoes which Donald Trump is most correct to complain about, but he just would have made matters worse by stopping them before they ever got to the USA by some kind of pre-emptive military action elsewhere rather than just arrest the alleged 19 hijackers when they attempted to board the four planes.

    In sum, anything is far messier than you make out.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    October 24, 2015 at 9:56 am

    I have to at least post a link to Paul Pillar’s speaking at a conference in regard to Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians. We should understand how Mr. Pillar needs to protect himself from his becoming marginalized within the beltway of our political system. While, I might end up wearing the ‘tinfoil hat’, Paul Pillar needs to guard his every word, in order to do some good for the oppressed. Although, I have a problem attempting to join in a conversation about modern world events centered around the official narratives, Mr. Pillar is a better man, and can plow right through these sleazy narratives, and in the end make some common sense, that we can all agree on. The c-span video includes Ray McGovern and others so enjoy, if you have never seen this video from the conference.

  6. H. E. Parmer
    October 24, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    We should not blame George W. Bush for the occurrence of 9/11 …

    Sorry, but I do believe George W. Bush deserves some, though by no means all, the responsibility for what happened on 9/11.

    There’s more than enough evidence now that the Bushies did not treat the threat from bin Laden as seriously as the previous administration, and that attitude came direct from the top. Even the most proactive approach might not have prevented what happened on 9/11, but surely it would have improved the odds of thwarting it, as opposed to the plain lack of urgency demonstrated by blowing off a Presidential Daily Briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” — the last in a series of increasingly pointed warnings from the intelligence community — with “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” And then taking a month-long vacation, only nine months into his presidency.

    At the very least, it was a major error in judgment. It’s not that Bush should have been micro-managing every aspect of detecting and stopping the plot. But there is such a thing as setting priorities, or else there’s no point in having a Chief Executive. There’s no way his response to that Aug. 6th briefing indicates that preventing an imminent terrorist attack in the U.S. was high on Bush’s list. Not compared to his angling, anyway.

    Put it another way, I blame someone far less for an action that fails, like the hostage rescue, than I do for a failure to act, especially after receiving multiple, urgent warnings.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 24, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      If everything were to be run right, as many of us expect it should be, then at least the Bush administration would have been seriously investigated, and dealt with appropriately. I’m sorry, that 9/11 Comission Report, just didn’t do it for me. How about you? No, we save deep investigations for political reasons. Still, with all of what went on with the Benghazi hearings, it all turned out to be but another American government produced TV show. Didn’t Hillary just look grand? Wasn’t her appearing in front of the congressional hearing board, just so special of away to kick off her 2016 presidential run, that this maybe enough to score her a win into the Oval Office? I wonder how hard she will work the White House cleaning staff scrubbing it all down with disinfectant. Just say’n. Why, Bernie is even running is a conundrum to me. America is not going to elect any kind of socialist into the White House. This is the land of the free, don’t ya know? Talking about the Benghazi hearings, where was David Petraeus? After all, he was the CIA Director who was running the CIA, when the CIA compound in Benghazi when it got attacked. Not a word about our ever loving cheater of a general. Sorry, even many cheaters are better than him. This guy, has hatched the plans which we are seeing unfold today. Petraeus along with Brzezinski are cut from the same cloth, and it is from this cloth, that America could experience more blow back…if that was what 9/11 was. Attached is an article by Webster Tarpley October 23rd describing Benghazi’s Petraeus factor. Even if Webster doesn’t have it completely right, he definitely brings something to the table worth investigating.

      Read Mr. Tarpleys October 23rd article.

  7. Evangelista
    October 28, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Carter’s “Desert One” effort was a rescue attempt. It was launched after more than a year of unsuccessful negotiating to attempt to resolve a situation.

    The Bushes’ attacks against Iraq were both aggressions, the first with ‘covering pretext’, the second an outright foreign invasion. Both were illegal assaults and murder.

    The Clinton (Hillary) pushed Libyan event was an assault on a sovereign nation under ‘covering pretext’. It was, pretext or not, a violation of UN rules all the assaulting parties had agreed to. The operation against Libya was an illegal assault and murder.

    The Obama raid against bin Laden was a vengeance killing. It was illegal, it constituted murder. All drone-strike killings are murders. All are hits, gang-land style, except for the UAV and missile technical details.

    Reading this posting and its comments, and now reviewing them, I found, and find, it interesting that no one appears to recognize the primary and essential, and ethics-defining difference between the action Jimmy Carter approved/authorized and the actions of the others that the article and comments compare to it. That Carter’s was positive-purposed: A last resort after all else had failed effort to rescue, while all the others were rule-of-law-bypassing aggressions purposed to destroy and kill, or kill and destroy.

    The United States is going where it is going now because it has gone gangster. U.S. leadership uses gang-land methods against ‘rivals’. Rule-of-law is out the window. And no one seems to notice, let alone recognize a problem of ethics, or throwing over of ethics, and dismissal of ethical behaviour.

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