1. Opinion

Obama's solid record on national security

Published May 1, 2012

On the first anniversary of the successful operation that killed Osama bin Laden, we should look back on the national security leadership that achieved that objective but also consider, especially with a presidential election just around the corner, the broader national security track record of the Obama administration.

The iconic image of President Barack Obama and his national security team huddled in the Situation Room to monitor the unfolding operation in Pakistan has come to symbolize the president's difficult decision to override several of his advisers and launch the operation.

Perhaps less appreciated, but also crucial, were other decisions he made about that operation. The president chose a risky helicopter raid over a more cautious but imprecise air strike that might have compromised success and risked significant collateral damage in the surrounding Pakistani town. He then personally decided to add backup helicopters.

He also decided not to inform Pakistan of the operation beforehand, since Pakistan has previously tipped off terrorists to help them escape surprise raids. Still, this is a difficult calculation: Pakistan remains a necessary partner in the pursuit of al-Qaida, and the raid came against the backdrop of tense diplomatic battles over the U.S. drone campaign in that country.

The president's impact on the successful pursuit of bin Laden dates even earlier to 2009, when he reviewed activities aimed at bin Laden and ordered a stepped up operation to find the terrorist leader. The truth is that under President George W. Bush, resources had been diverted from the hunt for bin Laden, and the White House had played down the importance of his capture. Obama has also kept up a relentless campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. The United States launched more strikes in Obama's first year than in Bush's eight, and the targeted strikes have severely reduced the ranks of senior al-Qaida figures. Even as al-Qaida's central leadership is in disarray, though, al-Qaida affiliates based in countries including Somalia and Yemen remain a serious threat that demands continued focus and attention from a strong national security leadership team.

Obama's national security team, including those huddled in the now famous Sit Room photo, is testament to the commander in chief who assembled it. We saw early signs of Obama's astute national security leadership when he chose then Sen. Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy hand, as his vice president. Obama also kept Secretary Robert Gates, his Republican predecessor's pick, to maintain continuity and strong leadership. He chose his campaign rival Hillary Clinton to serve most ably as secretary of state. Later, he persuaded Leon Panetta, the former OMB director, to lead the Defense Department through difficult budgetary times and a necessary rescaling of the armed forces. These choices and those at lower levels have created a steady, competent national security team that has handled a myriad of crises with aplomb.

Obama and his team have ended the American military presence in Iraq and laid the groundwork for a hand-off to Afghan security forces and an end to that military engagement, too. The U.S. intervention in Libya was limited and focused, and it had impressive multilateral support including, critically, from many Arab nations. With Iran, Obama has leveraged effective multilateralism to put in place targeted and effective sanctions that seem to be having an effect.

It is easy to take these achievements for granted, but they stand in stark contrast to the situation Obama inherited: two wars, an overstretched military and a damaged reputation in the world. As Bush-era national security figures have rushed to advise various Republican candidates in recent months, we should note how different the past three years have been from the eight that came before. And we should think seriously about the consequences of the potential return to power of the Bush national security team. We have come a long way from the years characterized by unilateralism, unclear objectives and misplaced priorities that weakened our national interests and put an unreasonable burden on our economy and our armed forces.

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As we pass one year since the successful raid against bin Laden and think about who will be commander in chief for the next four years, we should remember not only the achievement of May 1, 2011, but the many other national security achievements of the past three years, as well.

Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism coordinator at the National Security Council from 1993 to 2001, is chairman of Good Harbor Consulting and the author of "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror."


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