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Obama's no-win decision on bin Laden photos

By Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, Special to CNN
  • Rick "Ozzie" Nelson says President Obama faced no-win decision on bin Laden photos
  • To avoid inflaming opinion in Muslim countries, he was right to to hold them back, Nelson says
  • He says there were pros and cons to issue, but short-term security concerns won the day
  • Nelson: People may continue to clamor for photos, and Obama may yet end up releasing them

Editor's note: Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is the director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama faced a no-win decision over whether to release photographs of Osama bin Laden's corpse. In the short term, the president was right not to make public the graphic images, because doing so might inflame public opinion in Muslim-majority countries and actually feed support for al Qaeda's agenda.

In the longer term, however, Obama may be forced to release the photos -- with time, conspiracy theories are likely to mount, and the photos may eventually be leaked anyway. And, of course, visual proof of bin Laden's death would serve as a powerful endpoint in this chapter of American history.

There were compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. Releasing the photos would have mitigated skepticism about bin Laden's death, hopefully snuffing out any nascent conspiracy theories about the late al Qaeda leader's fate. For a president who has already been forced to dignify inane and insulting charges about his origins, the chance to avoid another round of absurdity must have been tempting.

Releasing the photos also may have had the less obvious benefit of deterrence if the images had a visceral effect on other terrorists, militants and rogue leaders. It is entirely possible that seeing the photos could lead such individuals truly to understand that their murderous ways place their lives at risk.

Bin Laden photos won't be released
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Remembering the fallen
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Al Qaeda
  • Barack Obama
  • Islam

Another view: William Bennett offers 4 reasons for releasing bin Laden photos

Finally, precedence also exists in these matters. Images of Saddam Hussein's brutal and inhumane sons, Qusay and Uday, were released during the Iraq war -- although the bodies were somewhat cleaned up -- as were photos of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

On the other hand, there were significant downsides to releasing the photos. For supporters of al Qaeda, images of a bloodied and disfigured bin Laden may have become a cause for additional terrorist attacks. The photos also may have angered Muslims who do not support al Qaeda, potentially making these individuals less inclined to support U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

The Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy relies on engaging the vast majority of Muslims who do not support extremist violence. Muslim anger at the U.S. would have weakened this strategy.

In the short term, the costs of releasing the photos outweighed the benefits precisely because doing so would have posed unacceptable national security risks to the U.S. Ultimately, the president's job is to keep Americans safe, and right now, this necessitates that the photos be kept under wraps.

In the coming months, though, mounting pressures are likely to test this position. Growing skepticism over bin Laden's fate could force the White House to spend valuable time defending the fact of the al Qaeda leader's death. Al Qaeda sympathizers may come to believe that bin Laden is not truly dead, thus bolstering their conviction in al Qaeda's cause.

One of the chief outcomes of bin Laden's death will be its psychological impact on both al Qaeda's opponents and supporters. Lingering doubts only serve to weaken the resolve of the former group and buoy that of the latter.

In the end, Obama made the right decision given short-term national security priorities. But we should not be surprised to see his decision come under increasing pressure in the next few months.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rick "Ozzie" Nelson.

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