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To most Americans, the main foreign policy accomplishment of former President Barack Obama’s time in office was the killing of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who evaded justice for 10 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and met his end in a raid by US special operations forces on May 1, 2011.
Bin Laden’s death was one half of the bumper sticker slogan coined by then-Vice President Joe Biden to justify Obama’s reelection.
“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” Biden would say at rallies, illustrating that Obama had made the country safer and helped the economy. Obama won reelection.
Biden won in 2020 in large part promising to carry on Obama’s agenda. But on military policy in particular, he often broke with his old boss and there’s evidence he’ll be a much different kind of President, starting with his decision to carry on with former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
The bin Laden raid worked out – reading about it is still fascinating – but it was a gamble. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who did not win reelection, what can happen when a daring special operations raid goes wrong.
Now it’s Biden in the Oval Office and he’s the person with the ultimate say on foreign and military policy and we know enough about him to say he might not be as quick as other presidents to use US military power.
Would Biden have green-lit the bin Laden raid?
It’s impossible to say, since he was not President back in 2011, but Biden was in the room with Obama watching the bin Laden raid go down. In the many, many accounts of those days that have been published, Biden is universally portrayed as a skeptic of the raid.
Obama wrote extensively about the raid in his 2020 memoir about his first term, and notes that not everyone supported the raid. His defense secretary Robert Gates opposed sending Navy SEALs in to raid the compound where US intelligence suggested (but did not 100% know) bin Laden was hiding.
Biden wanted more time and information, Obama wrote.
“Joe also weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision until the intelligence community was more certain that bin Laden was in the compound,” Obama wrote, adding that he “appreciated Joe’s willingness to buck the prevailing mood and ask tough questions, often in the interest of giving me the space I needed for my own internal deliberations.”
Biden’s position on the raid was a minor campaign issue in 2020, during the presidential campaign. Factcheck.org has a roundup of other accounts of the decision-making around the raid, all of which show Biden to be skeptical of sending in the SEALs.
Here’s how Biden described it himself on Meet the Press in 2012:
President had a roll call. Everybody had some maybe yes, maybe no, I think on balance, “Go.” The only guy who had a full-throated, full-throated “Go, Mr. President,” was Leon Panetta. I walked out of that meeting as I usually do, I get to be the last guy to be with the president. We walked up toward the residence, toward his office and I knew he was going to go. And what I always tell him, when he said — looked at me again, I said, “Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring. Follow your instincts.” I wanted him to take one more day to do one more test to see if he was there.
Why does Biden view the use of military force differently?
Biden has denied that he opposed the raid. But it’s clear he might have treated everything differently. He told Obama to go with his instincts and Biden’s were to wait.
It’s also important to note that Biden has a very good reason to view the direct use of US troops differently than any President. He’s the first since Eisenhower to have a child deployed to a combat zone.
Biden often talks about this and how it affects his thinking – he mentioned it during his address to Congress on Wednesday – to explain his reasons for ending US military involvement in Afghanistan.
“We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We delivered justice to Osama bin Laden and we degraded the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. After 20 years of American valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring our troops home,” he said.
He closed that speech not by asking for God to bless America, but rather by saying, “May God protect our troops.”
Even during the Obama administration, when the military and Obama decided to surge tens of thousands of US troops into Afghanistan, Biden was internally opposed.
What is the terror threat now?
Biden also moved directly from a pledge to protect the country from international terrorism to talking about domestic, white nationalist terrorism.
This domestic threat may be more dangerous to the US right now, certainly more than al Qaeda, which Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post this week has turned from a global movement into local threats from local discontents.
“Alienated individuals, radicalizing online, find ideologies that weaponize their fears and furies. America has many more alienated White men these days than Muslims, hence the changing composition of the terrorism on its soil,” he wrote.
Let’s hope this is true and Biden doesn’t have to weigh the use of US troopers risking their lives to helicopter in to foreign countries. We can assume Biden will use the utmost caution – perhaps more than his predecessors – in making that call.
How will Biden use the military?
Most American service members aren’t special ops forces, and their deployments to foreign lands, part of the broader US military might and backed by international agreements, is something Biden has no interest in changing. In that address to Congress he also made clear that even as he pulls US forces out of Afghanistan, he’s going to keep them stationed in Europe and the Pacific region as a counter to Russia and China, part of a US war of ideas, democracies vs. autocrats.
“We will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe – not to start conflict – but to prevent conflict,” he said.
Plus, in the past 10 years, threats have changed and evolved. There’s a much larger emphasis on artificial intelligence, cyberwar and space. For those, the military will have to change, and along with it a President’s decision making.