What made it a ‘gutsy call’

WHAT MADE IT A ‘GUTSY CALL’…. John Brennan, assistant to the President for Counter-Terrorism, spoke to reporters yesterday about the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He noted that there had been some disagreement among advisors about whether to greenlight the operation before the president gave the order, a move Brennan called “one of the … gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.”

I got an email last night suggesting this was needless hyperbole. The reader said, “Anyone would have given the order to kill bin Laden. What’s so ‘gusty’?”

This must-read, tick-tock piece in the New York Times helps flesh out the answer.

As more than a dozen White House, intelligence and Pentagon officials described the operation on Monday, the past few weeks were a nerve-racking amalgamation of what-ifs and negative scenarios. “There wasn’t a meeting when someone didn’t mention ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ” a senior administration official said, referring to the disastrous 1993 battle in Somalia in which two American helicopters were shot down and some of their crew killed in action. The failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 also loomed large.

Administration officials split over whether to launch the operation, whether to wait and continue monitoring until they were more sure that Bin Laden was really there, or whether to go for a less risky bombing assault. In the end, President Obama opted against a bombing that could do so much damage it might be uncertain whether Bin Laden was really hit and chose to send in commandos. A “fight your way out” option was built into the plan, with two helicopters following the two main assault copters as backup in case of trouble.

About a week ago, the president asked his national security team for options, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates was skeptical about a helicopter assault, preferring an aerial bombardment using smart bombs. The result, however, would have been a crater — with no physical remains.

On Thursday, Obama led another meeting with his top national security officials.

Mr. Panetta told the group that the C.I.A. had “red-teamed” the case — shared their intelligence with other analysts who weren’t involved to see if they agreed that Bin Laden was probably in Abbottabad. They did. It was time to decide.

Around the table, the group went over and over the negative scenarios. There were long periods of silence, one aide said. And then, finally, Mr. Obama spoke: “I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now — I’m going to go back and think about it some more.” But he added, “I’m going to make a decision soon.”

Sixteen hours later, he had made up his mind. Early the next morning, four top aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room. Before they could brief the president, he cut them off. “It’s a go,” he said.

Obama, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “rolled the dice.”

Is it reasonable to call this “one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory”? It seems fair to me.

To reiterate a point from yesterday, there’s a difference between talking tough and being tough, just as there’s a difference between chest-thumping rhetoric and getting the job done.