How risky was the Osama bin Laden raid?
April 30th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

How risky was the Osama bin Laden raid?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of

By Micah

Last week, the Obama campaign released a video starring Bill Clinton, in which he extolled the president’s decision to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden one year ago. In the video, Clinton hypothesized: “Suppose the Navy Seals had gone in there, and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for [Obama].” According to the former president, Obama’s decision was “the harder and more honorable path.”

Obama’s authorization of the bin Laden raid was indeed risky: based on incomplete information (such as the lack of definitive proof that the al Qaeda leader was in the Abbotabad compound) and objections from a split cabinet. Even if the operation had failed or cost American lives, many analysts and commentators — including Clinton — exaggerate the likely political costs to the president.

Throughout recent history, U.S. presidents have authorized limited military operations that were mixed successes or outright failures. In most instances, the president neither suffered a noticeable decline in public support nor faced sustained criticism among elite observers for the decision. Policymakers and pundits generally refrain from criticizing presidents, military commanders, and the armed forces for failed operations.

In perhaps the riskiest military misison authorized by a U.S. president, Jimmy Carter ordered the unsuccessful hostage rescue operation in Iran (Desert One) on April 24–25, 1980, which resulted in eight U.S. soldiers killed and no hostages freed. In the initial stages of planning, the Delta Force commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, admitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “the probability of success is zero and the risks are high.” According to a Newsweek article on June 30, 1980, the Pentagon estimated that as many as fifteen of the fifty-three hostages as well as thirty of the U.S. special operation forces would be killed or injured in a successful operation.

There is no evidence, however, that Carter’s decision-making negatively impacted the mission. An internal review conducted by the Pentagon found that “the decision process during planning and the command and control organization during execution of the Iran hostage rescue mission afforded clear lines of authority from the President to the appropriate echelon,” and, “the command and control arrangements at the higher echelons from the NCA [the President and Secretary of Defense] through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to [Combined Joint Task Force] were ideal.”

Although Carter was aware of the potential costs of the rescue attempt, he believed, according to a senior adviser, “Ending the crisis — once and for all — became the major factor in the president’s decision-making.” And the American public agreed: two-thirds approved of Carter’s decision to authorize the ill-fated mission. Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush was the most outspoken supporter: “I unequivocally support the president — no ifs, ands, or buts… He made a difficult, courageous decision.” Afterward, the president’s approval ratings, previously plummeting, actually stabilized — until he was easily defeated by Ronald Reagan.

U.S. Foreign Policy and Inflated Threats

Ronald Reagan authorized the December 4, 1983, air raid on Syrian air defenses in Lebanon, which was both a military and political disaster. Two of the U.S. planes were shot down by either anti-aircraft rounds or surface-to-air missiles; one pilot was killed, another was captured by Syrian forces, and another parachuted safely into the Mediterranean Sea. (The hostage, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, Jr., was held and interrogated in a Syrian prison for thirty days.) Furthermore, although the Pentagon claimed the airstrikes were “very successful and achieved our objective, which was to prevent, through a measured response, repetition of the attacks on our reconnaissance aircraft,” Syrian forces continued to target U.S. reconnaissance flights.

Many policymakers opposed the open-ended deployment of Marines to Lebanon, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress refrained from criticizing the botched air raid. Senator Charles Percy, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned, “We’re not going to be driven out by terrorism.” Meanwhile, as the economy recovered, Reagan’s approval ratings improved fifteen points in 1984.

Read: The CIA Wants Your Kids

George W. Bush authorized the February 16, 2001, airstrikes against five Iraqi air defense sites, located just north of the southern no-fly zone. The raid was a mixed success, as all but two of the twenty-eight Joint Stand-Off Weapons missed their targets due to a programming error. The intensity and scope of the strikes, revealed on CNN, caught President Bush off guard and upstaged his first international visit. The Joint Staff’s director of operations, Vice Admiral Scott Fry, later admitted to me that the bombing “was a mess and set the tone for much of the bad blood between Rumsfeld and the military.”

Perhaps because the targets were considered part of the Iraqi no-fly zones — although they were not, and required explicit presidential authorization — the strikes went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media and Bush’s approval ratings jumped by five points.

Read: America’s Third War

The most interesting aspect of Clinton’s campaign appearance is that he knows, from his own experience, that presidents are granted significant latitude in the use of limited force. Clinton authorized the August 20, 1998, cruise missile strikes against the El-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, and al-Qaeda’s Zhawar Kili complex in Khost, Afghanistan. Operation Infinite Reach was a failure: El-Shifa had no demonstrated connection to al Qaeda, the CIA erroneously assumed that factory produced VX nerve gas; and bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders were not killed at Zhawar Kili.

The unsuccessful operation received the Washington Post headline: “Tough Response Appeals to Clinton Critics.” Senate majority leader Trent Lott commented, “Our response appears to be appropriate and just,” while House speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “I think the president did exactly the right thing.” Clinton’s approval ratings, already a high 65 percent, only improved over the next seven months.

The Pentagon’s Threat Smorgasbord

In the face of emerging or persistent foreign policy challenges, policymakers and pundits want presidents to “do something,” and support such decisiveness — even if, in retrospect, it was ill-advised or unsuccessful. If the special operations raid to kill Osama bin Laden had failed, history shows that Obama would not have faced personal attacks for the effort (unless there was clear evidence of micromanagement). And, of course, it would not be included in the campaign’s highlight reel.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.

Post by:
Topics: Politics • President Obama • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. J. Foster Dulles

    It wasn't nearly as "risky" as the right-wing news media wants us to believe. Now Barack Obama is going to play this up bigtime just to make himself look good. Besides, nobody outside the inner government circles knows whether or not that it the actual bin Laden who got murdered that day or some Osama bin Laden impostor. They could just as easily have taken him alive but didn't!

    April 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      He was not captured but killed to hide truth from US people and make them more fool in future.

      May 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        I hope he squealed and squealed as he died from over 3000 cuts.

        May 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
      • .

        I heard they buried him in a pig carcass.

        What a waste of a perfectly good pig.

        May 2, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
      • Patrick

        hey dot, we know your sympathies are with Allah.

        May 2, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • 2020

      RIGHTLY SO !!! At least, there is no "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" Banner. Credit is due where it deserves. The President acknowledged this with his colleagues, his seal team, and in practical terms, by taking care of the military families. Action speaks louder than words!!!

      May 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
      • whynot

        Well said 2020, I had completely forgotten about the GW screw up in 2001 and Ron's in 83. Wonder why. Oh the right wing media and the loud mouth right can only critcize the non-right then twist the facts 180 to make them lies.

        Keep hearing about Carter's, though that was so public it is impossible to forget and Clinton's keeps hitting the waves so we keep thinking anyone not on the right is weak.

        May 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Does it work to revive the death of America's most wanted man as an essential backdrop to Obama's re-election campaign. His team doesn'tt allow anyone to run away with the idea that the Navy Seals raid was the inevitable result of obvious decisions taken by invisible figures within the administration.The raid was risky but successful due to a big portion of luck.

    April 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      That raid was nothing but a highly publicized hit carried out for political purposes and nothing else. Cold blooded murder should never be an acceptable way of achieving foreign policy goals. They should have taken this supposed Ussama bin Laden alive. Moreover, this kind of action should never be a reason to celebrate!!!

      April 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
      • Thor the Badass Thunder God

        Get that name off of there, you defame Patton with your idiocy

        May 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
      • Tahir

        Your are certainly not a US citizen. US people don't think in this way.US voting on healthcare and war care in congress can be compared to see US mind set.

        May 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
      • Chris Tan

        You are no George Patton. Gen Patton had the guts and would have done exactly what the President did. It is good that they kill him rather than bringing him back as a prisoner. That way his graveside cannot be turn into a martyr and since he like so many wives he can use all the 72 virgins that he will meet to be his wives.

        As for you using George Patton name, dont disgrace the freedom that so many others died so you could enjoy it.

        May 7, 2012 at 4:25 am |
      • NotForYou

        Another wuss heard from.

        May 21, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  3. Anti terrorist

    No risk because that was a fake operation . US could not provide enough evidence .

    April 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠  

      Let's assume that Bin Laden was either found or knowingly being kept by Pakistanis. Would they actually rat him out or kill him on their own ?? Fat chance of that ! But if word got out of that he was in fact there, the Pakistanis would be in a bind. Pakistan could never knowingly kill him, nor admit to abetting him. So what's the best solution ?

      May 1, 2012 at 2:10 am | Reply
  4. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected, The Editor Garu, About Osama assasination by U S force, it is not a risky operation, because that while he is in village, so it is a unknown area for the police Dept . but forces catched him and with in a minutes operation was ended. In mean while,Osama not having security -on T V visuals seems like that. So no risky there.

    May 1, 2012 at 2:48 am | Reply
    • otomakascram

      Am I the only one who does not understand this?

      May 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply

    You only really need to know where he is and keep it that way, I would have left him there and the day we left Afghanistan ordered the raid, by then it may have been coordinated strikes. That way you do not place 140,000 troops at risk next door it could have resulted in war and you have more options to respond with force. I also would have used stealth bombers and JDAMS, not special forces.

    May 1, 2012 at 3:34 am | Reply
    • A B

      " I also would have used stealth bombers and JDAMS, not special forces."

      you cannot go into a country airspace like that and start using "stealth bombers". we are not at war with Pakistan and the operation needs to be as small footprint as possible. if you were at war with a country it is a different matter, but not so in this particular case....

      May 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply

    See the ISI increased support to the Taliban after that, that effects the mission in Afghanistan, it was predictable that even as a minimal response they would do that. It made an under resourced mission harder in Afghanistan. Harder to blunt the insurgency and build up the ANSF.

    May 1, 2012 at 3:42 am | Reply
    • S.V.P.YADAV

      Inter sevices intelligence (I S I), operations was much more, Because I S I received funds from U S Govt. About that World community known. U S done some un necessry works and some malpractieces, that effect moved entire Democratic World.When U S stopped financial support to Pakistan then all problems will solve, other wise Democratic World will suffer a lot. U S please do needful.

      May 1, 2012 at 4:57 am | Reply
  7. ✠ RZ ✠  

    Judging by the live action photo above, I'd say our boys were really well disguised. But maybe they could have brought a ladder or rope or something ?

    May 1, 2012 at 7:53 am | Reply
  8. Thor the Badass Thunder God

    What killed the Iran raid was the Navy's insistence that they be part of it with their sub-par Sea Kings that were leaking fuel inside the passenger compartment itself. Air Force would've never allowed for that kind of shoddy work. Good thing that the Navy has shaped up in the Helicopter department since then

    May 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  9. iraqi government are terrorists

    رابطة الشفافية تكشف ان اثنين من البنوك الخاصة على الاقل في العراق توليا نقل كميات كبيرة من اموال المعونات الامريكية عبر الحدود لصالح تنظيمات عراقية مسلحة لاقامة مشاريع في لبنان وسوريا ودول اخرى

    – May 1, 2012

    دبي-الشرقية 1 مايو: كشفت رابطة الشفافية ان اثنين من البنوك الخاصة على الاقل في العراق مما يتعذر على الشرقية نيوز ذكر اسميهما كما ورد في تقرير الرابطة توليا نقل كميات كبيرة من اموال المعونات الامريكية عبر الحدود لصالح تنظيمات مسلحة عراقية لديها مشاريع اقتصادية في لبنان وسوريا ودول اخرى.كما ادارت شبكة لنقل الاموال من العراق الى الخارج لخدمة المصالح الاقتصادية لعدد من الميليشيات والسياسيين الذين كان همهم بالدرجة الاولى بناء شبكة مالية قوية خارج العراق تضم موارد قادمة من داخل العراق.وتوزعت هذه الموارد بين الاستحواذ على المعونات الامريكية في العراق الى جانب المبالغ التي يجري ابتزاز الافراد والشركات لدفعها داخل العراق.واستمرت هذه الحالة بعد انتهاء الاحتلال الامريكي حيث يجري نقل كميات كبيرة من الاموال لصالح مسؤولين حكوميين وتنظيمات شبه عسكرية واحزاب سياسية.وشددت الرابطة على الدور الذي يقوم به اثنان من البنوك في ادارة الاموال المريبة المتداولة حاليا.

    May 2, 2012 at 3:45 am | Reply
    • .

      Rant it in English, monkey face.

      May 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Reply
      • An opened mind

        So says the person who drinks beer watches football (which lowers your IQ) and yet you called someone Monkey boy. Perhaps you should attempt to learn another language as you are clearly showing signs of being a monkey than someone who writes in another language.
        Since you are going to watch ESPN and continue to have no idea what really goes on in the world, here is a translation
        uncovered Association of transparency that the two private banks, at least in Iraq, which can not be on the Eastern News, to name them as stated in the report from the Association Tulia transfer large amounts of aid money the U.S. across the border for the benefit of organizations, Iraqi armed with economic projects in Lebanon, Syria and other countries. As ran the network for the transfer of money from Iraq to the outside to serve the economic interests of a number of militias and politicians who are concerned primarily to build a network of strong financial outside Iraq, with resources coming from inside Iraq. and distributed these resources between the acquisition of U.S. aid in Iraq, along with the amounts that are being blackmailed individuals and companies to push it inside Iraq. and this situation continues after the end of U.S. occupation where they are transferring large amounts of money for government officials and organizations, paramilitary and political parties. stressed Association on the role played by the two banks in the management of money dubious currently in circulation.

        May 20, 2012 at 11:16 am |
      • Patrick

        An Opened Mind
        Some opened mind???? You are such a chicken that you waited until you thought noone would come back to this discussion to rant about how tough you are.

        May 20, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • troubledgoodangel/Voiceinthedesert

      Beautiful writing ... I can only wonder what it says.

      May 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      Mohammed was a qu eer sheep phu cking drunk

      May 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  10. Benedict

    It was risk, but the truth is that any attempt to capture or kill Bin Laden would be welcomed by the American public since he was the master mind behind Sept.11 and was the most wanted man in the world!!

    May 2, 2012 at 5:56 am | Reply
  11. Tahir

    He was killed and not captured to hide the truth from the US people and make US people more fool in future.

    May 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • RocketJL

      Good point. I am sure that it was an accident and that no one really meant to kill a guy who does not, (sorry), who did not care about killing anyone he felt like it. I know our SEALS are sadden by this death, how many times did they accidentally shoot him? I am surprised that you did not complain when 'we' dumped his butt into the ocean as fish food. You did not hear it from me, but the news media refused to report that when he was dumped into the ocean, all pirates, fish, and sea mammals have left the area.

      May 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  12. .

    The only thing Obama has done right is kill Osama Bin Lardass. It really is the economy, stupid. Bush 41 kicked the crap out of Saddam and we had a big V-day parade in Manhattan.

    A fat lot of good that did him.

    May 2, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  13. BABA

    with sane republicans in the past- you have a point.But with the present crop of Tea politicians,you can bet your last dime he will be crucified

    May 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  14. troubledgoodangel/Voiceinthedesert

    I think that this operation was in the category of the rescue at Entebbe Airport, in Uganda. The Operation Entebbe was a counter-terrorist hostage -rescue mission carried out by the Special Forces of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Still it is extremely difficult to compare it with anti Bin Laden operation. The Israelites at least knew that the hostages were there. This was not the case in Abbottabad.

    May 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  15. White supremacists accused of planning for 'race war' in Florida

    White supremacists accused of planning for 'race war' in Florida

    LOOK AT THEIR STUPID FACES THOSE RED NECKS FROM ireland, scot and UK back round are losers and jelous from those who are latinos and others who make good life here , while those thugs busy with the drugs, stealing and killing go back to uk you village idiots you are not americans to start with, you hate the jews like your father hitler did before , you are the gabage of hsitory KKK. FK U all

    May 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  16. brownpride14

    Forget about Bin laden,Oscar Arriola my man is will be back better than ever. Stay strong oscar, your empire is still running and my chicanos are still doing there thang. Romney can build the wall of china for all i care, my chicanos will jump the wall and steal your food, money, jewlery, and jobs from you quote this line you stupid americans.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • Dont tread on me

      Well said brownpride14. While your comments were completely irrelevant to this conversation, it does bring up a good point. The President has defended his actions in what many people consider to be a drawn out war in Afghanistan. In his defense, there is and has been a strong insurgency there that disrupts the government and creates instability in the region. This insurgency is funded by the trafficking of narcotics. The insurgency that we are fighting in Afghanistan is no different than the one in Mexico. The drug cartels are using the same tactics as those in Afghanistan. Both take advantage of the poor, both use terror to achieve their goals, both are preventing their nation’s growth, both behead humans to make a point. You are right about Oscar’s people, they are continuing on much like the insurgents in Afghanistan are without Bin Laden. Congrats brownpride14 you are an insurgent. You are an enemy of the Mexican people and the US Government.

      May 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
      • brownpride14

        Why, Thank you very much for the compliment.

        May 15, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Dont tread on me

      There is no need to thank me as it was certainly not a complement. We will see how long that confidence lasts when the cartels are being treated like the terrorists that they are. I am sure they will run and hide and force real men to hunt them down and kill them like we have been doing for the last 10 years. Keeping in mind that we have been fighting real gunslingers who knew nothing but war and guerilla tactics, how long do you really think it will take us snuff out some backyard bullies?

      May 16, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • An opened mind

      I laugh at your worthless comments. Your cesspool of a country will soon be leveled by your own hand.

      May 20, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
      • Patrick


        May 20, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. Edward

    It is all a con just like 911 which was executed by Israels Mossad.

    Bin Laden died in 2001/2002.

    May 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  18. achepotle

    Obama is a hero.

    May 9, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • Ben

      why? You make a short statement like that, and I am just curious as to why.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  19. HIND

    HE is the only person who cause fear for the most powerful country in the world

    May 11, 2012 at 12:26 am | Reply
  20. Ben

    "Suppose they’d been captured or killed..." a few months later, 38 members of Seal Team 6 were killed when their Chopper was shot down while trying to get the head of the Taliban. No consequences for Obama and we will never see that video of him sitting in the whitehouse watching it unfold. The media calls him on nothing, so there is no consequence and it is hardly a profile in courage.

    May 11, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  21. Bob

    Obama voted 3 times against the techniques used to get the intelligence required to kill Bin Laden. The this loser takes credit for it when Bush should have been given part of the credit and the Seals most of the credit. BHO deserves nothing.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  22. Walter Sieruk

    "How risky was the binl Laden raid." It was risky enough some of the Navy SEALs could have died. It was the degree of risk, but there was still much risk.. Thetrurt ids the Navy SEAL team VI are thetrue American heroes forthe extermination of that murderous fiend Osama bin Lanin. In addition, that villiian, bin Ladin, is is not a martyr. That heinous character is now suffering in the fires of hell.

    May 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  23. Walter Sieruk

    The Navy SEALs did risk much to carry out what was needed. Which was the elimination of that terrible vilian ,Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, it should also be noted that when bin laden heard the news that his evil scheme worked and all those people were murdered in America on Septemper 11, 2001. All that fiend could do was sit around and grin. It must be true in what they say ,being "What goes around comes around." Or as the Bible teaches "A man reaps as he sows." Galations 6:7. For when the time came for the payback, when it all came back on him, bin Laden is was reported was ln longer grinning. That S.O. B. could not take what he had a hand in given to others on September 11, As for the death of Osama bin Laden it's good riddence to bad rubbish,.

    May 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  24. American Steve

    CNN...Are we done analyzing this yet? Continued exposure to that evil face just keeps bin Laden's dream alive. Free press to keep the al Queda agenda hot. Thanks CNN! (He's dead, it's over and yes; it was VERY dangerous.)

    May 14, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  25. ART

    Say what you want but it was risky and if it had failed President Obama would of been lambasted by the idiots on the right

    May 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  26. Jeff

    Fareed omits the potential 2nd and 3rd order effects of Obama's decision to violate the border of Pakistan, with whom the US has a tenuous relationship, with a clandestine mission featuring ground troops. None of his examples of past presidential decisions are nations we had functional foreign relationships with. The extent of trouble an angry Pakistani government, nuclear armed and with the sole useful supply route into Afghanistan for NATO troops, made the decision this an incredibly difficult decision on its own.

    May 15, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  27. TBONE

    Here is what I have to say, agree or disagree with me. Being a Veteran, I feel what we did was put this SOB out of his sad terrorizing life for good. Pakistan takes money from us just like Afghanistan has, and so therefore we have a right to do what we feel is the right thing. We got attacked and so by Pakistan hiding this guy, their in the wrong for what they did. So bottom line is that Obama did what he had to do. I would of sure did. If the Pakistanis or any other country who hid him or let him have safe haven refused to acknowledge he was there, then too bad, and let them jump up and down and get angry. The fact he hated what we represented and wanted to destroy us, just came back to bite him in the butt and he gone for good, and joining his hate loving buddies, Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong Ill. I don't condone that we should just go in and invade countries at our free will, but I do feel what we did was the right thing. I think this is where Bush and his party dropped the ball and probally knew where Bin Laden was, but did nuttin about it because of the fact that this would short changed their plans. Anyway, time to withdraw our financial support to Afghanistan and Pakistan and send our troops home to guard our borders and let the Russians and Chinese deal with it since its on their borders, not ours.

    May 16, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      You are no Veteran of the US.
      Maybe Pakistan??????????

      May 20, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  28. Kawish

    Good point. Thanks for talking some sense.

    May 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  29. paul martin

    All SEALs and special forces raids are extremely risky though carefully strategised.....America wold have received far better mileage if they had kept him alive and given him the fair trial in front of the World....that he denied so many innocent people he ordered slaughtered !

    May 19, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • Ihateyoupeople

      Thats not possible because he didn't exist. Dont you stupid people get it?

      May 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
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    September 8, 2012 at 4:49 am | Reply

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