[Update below; December 20.]
With the imminent release of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie depicting the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I thought this would be a good opportunity to address my controversial views on the topic of the raid on his compound in Pakistan. There is almost unanimous agreement among Americans that the raid was a huge success.
Whenever I find myself tending towards a fringe viewpoint, I find it useful to try to identify the factors that make my view so unusual in order to ensure I’m not being led astray by a cognitive bias or something. In this case, I think my fringe view stems from my rejection of nationalism, which I think is some combination of the choice-supportive bias, bandwagon effect, empathy gap, irrational escalation of commitment, and maybe a bit of the endowment effect. When it comes to Obama’s decision to give the go-ahead on the raid, I think supporters have an obvious outcome bias and are misusing the affect heuristic. These are powerful biases and seem sufficient to explain why most Americans disagree with me.
Although Americans mostly agree that the raid was a good decision, Zero Dark Thirty actually has generated substantial controversy, mostly for its creators’ illegal access to confidential information, but also for its departure from reality in depicting a successful torture interrogation that never happened despite director Kathryn Bigelow describing her approach to the movie as almost “journalistic“. However, I want to point out what I know is much more controversial but I consider to be pretty obvious: the actual Navy Seal raid that ended bin Laden life was a terrible decision unless you consider the revenge fulfillment to be a worthy consideration. Revenge can actually be a worthwhile strategic consideration because it can serve as a deterrent to those who might consider attacking you in the future. What I do not see as worthwhile or respectable, either ethically or strategically, is the feeling of triumph that accompanies revenge. If we remove this from the equation, what did America and Obama really gain from the raid? What did we lose?
The answer to the first question is really quite simple: we gained another four years of Barack Obama as president. The killing of America’s bogeyman made Obama essentially impervious to any attacks against him on foreign policy, which was until then a traditional campaign advantage for the Republican Party. Indeed, Romney’s campaign strategy was to minimize any foreign policy disadvantages by simply mirroring Obama. Without the bin Laden raid, the campaign would have been much different and Romney would have had some hope of winning.
Did we gain anything else? The elimination of an influential and effective terrorist mastermind, perhaps? Not really. Bin Laden was probably mostly out of the game at that point. He was in hiding and had to go through elaborate processes to send and receive messages. He may have had some influence on long-term planning but probably no influence at all on day-to-day operations. Protecting him was arguably using up more of al-Qaeda’s resources than he was really worth. I suspect that the idea that bin Laden was still an important factor in al Qaeda was motivated partly by the bias towards escalating commitment, which reinforces belief in the original reasons for pursuing a major project.
What about the strategic value of revenge? I would argue that when you are dealing with religious extremists willing to blow themselves up in suicide bombings, the threat of revenge loses some of its effectiveness. All of its effectiveness, actually. Jihad is motivated by what the jihadis view as righteous fury. A moment of mercy on the part of their enemy (us) would give them much greater pause than yet another killing – or, as they would put it, yet another martyr.
We got to learn what sort of pornography bin Laden was into, and supposedly we got some of his writings. That’s about it for the benefits of killing bin Laden. It’s pretty thin once you remove the satisfaction of revenge and the dubious benefit of reinforcing nationalistic pride in America. We didn’t even get an acceleration in the drawdown of the War on Terror.
What about the costs of the raid? Most directly, four other people were killed in the raid (and bin Laden’s wife was shot in the leg). I suppose these were probably guards, but we don’t know that for sure. Even militant deaths basically just add to the unnecessary body count.
The raid showed American arrogance in violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. America sends its assassination teams into other countries against the will of that country’s government simply because we have the power to do so. American foreign policy: Might Makes Right. America disregards its international obligations because there is nobody who can stop it. Still, there was no love lost among Pakistanis: they hated us roughly as much before the raid as after.
If you don’t consider the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty to be a war crime, the manner in which bin Laden was killed probably was. According to the first hand account in Mark Owen’s book, bin Laden was shot and killed after being incapacitated. International Law scholars disagree over whether this is a decisive factor, with some contending that killing a seemingly incapacitated person is legal if there is legitimate fear that he is faking. However, this does not seem to have been a concern in Owen’s account. They simply executed him.
Of course, the specifics of the raid do not necessarily reflect on the wisdom of Obama’s decision to go ahead with it. As is often pointed out, war is chaotic. If the SEALS committed a war crime, Obama is not directly culpable unless he could have reasonably foreseen such an event.
This reasoning works both ways, though. One of the biases I mentioned earlier was the outcome bias, which leads people who are evaluating a past decisions to consider factors that were unknowable when the decision was made. Common examples are results-based reasoning among poker players and Monday-morning quarterbacking among football fans. The fact is that the raid could have gone much worse. Bin Laden might not have been there (if this had been a certainty, supposedly Obama would have opted for a drone strike instead), they might have failed to breach the defenses, or one or more of the SEALs might have been injured or killed.
The raid had some easily foreseeable drawbacks (a few deaths and the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty) and essentially no plausible advantages beyond base revenge fulfillment. Add to that some significant downside risk, and I simply cannot conceive of any respectable justification for Obama’s decision to go ahead with it. The conclusion is that Obama was willing to pay these costs in order to appease his vengeful electorate. Considering the celebrations after the raid and Obama’s subsequent reelection, I suppose his decision was rational – if you understand the word “rational” in the most cynical way possible.
Update (12/20): One of the many offensive aspects of the hunt for bin Laden was the use of a fake vaccination program as a ruse designed to provide the CIA with DNA evidence of bin Laden’s likely proximity (looking for his relatives). The use of a fake vaccination program severely hinders the ability of future aid exhibitions (of all types) into Pakistan and other regions where people have reason to suspect CIA involvement. The CIA was undoubtedly aware of this adverse effect of such a program, but I guess they decided that the health of the people in those regions was not as important as confirming bin Laden’s whereabouts. I imagine it would have been difficult to voice this dissenting opinion within the CIA regarding such a program that might lead to the that organization’s holy grail; in any case, it’s easy to see that it would be quickly disregarded even if it were brought up. This topic was the original reason I wanted to write about this post about bin Laden, but in the end, I did not address this in the above post because it didn’t quite fit into the analysis of Obama’s final decision to go ahead with the raid.
I bring this up because I learned from Mano Singham’s blog that five volunteers administering the polio vaccine in Pakistan were shot dead by the Taliban over the course of two days this week, Monday and Tuesday. (Singham, who grew up in Sri Lanka, has an interesting perspective on how obvious it should have been to the CIA that this might happen.) Pakistan, Algeria, and Afghanistan are the only three countries in which polio has not been eradicated. Largely because of the CIA’s vaccine ruse (and, by extension, the American people’s blind lust for getting bin Laden), not only have five likely completely innocent and noble volunteers been killed, but the life of the polio disease is extended for an unknowable length of time.
Interestingly, the New York Times does not seem to have picked up this story as of this posting.Never mind, I see in their print version today that they did cover the story, and the number is now eight polio workers
Let me also note that although this post did not get any comments, I did receive some feedback on it in person and on twitter. The main argument was that the symbolism does matter, especially when one considers that symbolism was the main impetus behind choosing the World Trade Centers as targets for the 9/11 attacks. My initial response is that while symbolism can matter in motivating our allies and demoralizing our enemies, that is not a worthy excuse for violence. It is certainly not an excuse for war crimes. This probably demands some deeper reflection on my part, but I can’t help thinking: isn’t violence for the purpose of this sort of symbolic victory the essence of Terrorism itself?
Another argument that was put forward was that by killing bin Laden, we don’t have to worry about him escaping his compound and regaining influence within al Qaeda. I have to concede that it probably cost fewer tax dollars to end the ordeal quickly by killing bin Laden rather than monitoring his whereabouts indefinitely. However, the cost is probably not all that significant, and besides, how important would bin Laden’s freedom be to al Qaeda, anyway? I don’t really see how this one terrorist could make that big a difference, especially considering that he would still need to be in hiding.
While I don’t find these arguments compelling, they would have been worth considering in my post. (4493)