How much should we credit Obama for killing bin-Laden?

by Alan Cohen

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The politicians, news media, and pundits are busy debating these days about how much to credit Obama for killing Osama bin-Laden a year ago. Yes, this is all political grandstanding and campaigning on both sides, but it’s also an interesting question. (We have to take for granted that killing bin-Laden was morally the right thing to do, and that we’re not too squeamish about the incursion into Pakistani territory or other aspects of the means…)

The argument of the right is mostly that anyone would have made the same call. This argument is well refuted by those on the left and those from the security establishment, who argue convincingly that it was a difficult and risky call: many things could have gone wrong and there was little certainty that bin-Laden was in the house. I’d like to make a different and counterintuitive argument: it was precisely because the outcome was uncertain that we should give Obama less credit.

We are used to judging events by their outcomes: The raid went well, bin-Laden was killed, and no US or civilian casualties were incurred, therefore Obama made the right decision. This is an intuitive and emotionally satisfying way to look at things, but it is not really very rational nor correct. There is real uncertainty in the world, and decisions are made in the face of uncertainty. Sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don’t, but we are generally not able to know in advance if they will (that is why it is uncertainty). Whether things work out is thus largely a matter of luck.

Imagine the counterfactuals: (1) bin-Laden was not there, and we had a major diplomatic crisis with Pakistan. (2) The Navy SEALS were killed by Pakistani troops protecting their country against a foreign invasion. (3) Lots of civilians were killed in a helicopter crash. In any of these cases, we would be blaming Obama heavily for a failed effort. My argument is that our judgment of him should not depend on the outcome (since that was unknowable) but rather on whether we think that such a decision in general (in the face of uncertainty) was a worthwhile one, regardless of the eventual outcome. And by that standard, we can say that his decision was a risky one, but not clearly either good or bad.

The only way this argument breaks down is if we believe that Obama had some greater insight into whether the mission would succeed than that supplied by his advisors. Perhaps he did, in some intuitive sense. He certainly thought the original plan was too risky and ordered additional helicopters and soldiers – a prescient decision given the crash of one helicopter, and a competent example of micromanaging. In my view, this is the decision that deserves the most credit. (Again, not because he was vindicated but because it shows an engagement with the risks and benefits in an effective way.)

More generally, I think human brains are not built to deal with the statistical and uncertain nature of the world. We have an inherent tendency to see causality underlying correlations and associations, to lump experiences into simple categories (accounting in large part for racial stereotypes), and to jusge decisions post-hoc based on whether they worked out, not whether they were rational given the facts. If Obama’s advisors had told him there was a 1 in 1000 chance that bin-Laden was there but he had made the decision anyway, it would have been a bad decision even if the raid succeeded in the end. Nonetheless, we would have intuitively judged it as a good decision because we are incapable of intuitively evaluating counterfactuals and uncertainty.