The Cost of Victory

By Carter, Stephen L. | Newsweek, May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Victory


Carter, Stephen L., Newsweek


Byline: Stephen L. Carter

It's the finest moment of Obama's presidency--but it also raises uncomfortable moral questions.

An hour or so after President Obama appeared on television late on the night of May 1 to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces, a veteran political commentator on one of the cable-news networks mused that the only person he could remember whom Americans had hated as much as they did bin Laden was Adolf Hitler. This notion seems apt: for Americans today, Osama bin Laden symbolized evil.

Every war needs an enemy, and bin Laden, through his campaign of murderous attacks not only in the United States but in the Muslim world as well, earned the hatred and vitriol directed at him. His sudden end, after nearly a decade of searching, caught everyone by surprise. Even now, the story seems improbable. Correct intelligence, punctilious organization, rapid deployment, precise execution, the target eliminated without any American being injured. This is the stuff of Hollywood. In the real world, we attack with drones, too often missing high-value targets and blowing up wedding parties and funerals.

Not this time. This time we hit our target. America is celebrating. We turn out not to be in decline after all: we are still the superpower the rest of the world envies and fears. President Obama boldly greenlighted a high-risk operation, a decision surely not easy to make, and the gamble paid off. True, the blood on the corpse was barely dry before calls began for American withdrawal from Afghanistan: the risk of going to war over a symbol. That debate may soon sharpen. Still, for the moment, the dancing in the streets continues.

And yet, amid the national joy, ethical questions abound. Consider the most obvious one. It appears that the mission all along, despite White House assertions to the contrary, was to kill bin Laden, not capture him--that is, to assassinate him. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, continues to insist that setting out to kill the other side's leaders pursuant to a very general congressional grant of authority is not the same as assassinating them; but this semantic argument cannot cloak what we have been doing, both with our drones and with our Special Forces. I am not arguing against a policy of assassination, but I do think we should call what we are doing by its proper name.

And there is a deeper ethical dilemma. In the end, we were able to track bin Laden because he communicated only through two couriers believed to be brothers. And what was the source of this vital clue? The intelligence apparently came from detainees imprisoned in secret facilities overseas and subjected to what has been euphemistically called "enhanced" interrogation.

We must not shrink from this possibility, distasteful though we might find it. If the United States is to carry out President Obama's announced policy of seeking out and eliminating the nation's enemies, accurate human intelligence is of first importance. Bin Laden was clever enough to avoid all electronic communication, and to build his compound sufficiently close to Islamabad that he fell within its air-defense intercept zone. Electronic monitoring from a distance would not have located him, and a drone attack would have been difficult.

So the information from the detainees was crucial, and we face an uncomfortable irony, both political and ethical. The finest moment of Barack Obama's presidency to this point came about precisely because of the detention system against which he railed during his campaign. …

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