Joe Biden didn't have the guts to say we should take out Osama bin Laden

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Joe Biden wants to run on Barack Obama’s record. Obama himself, speaking at the Democratic convention last month, glossed over Biden’s own record while reassuring listeners of Biden’s value as a wing man: “For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision.”

The single best moment of Obama’s presidency was the May 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. It only happened because Obama ignored Joe Biden when he said, “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go.” Biden is all too aware that he got the biggest decision of the Obama presidency wrong, which is why he changed his story years later to claim that he had actually supported the raid. That history is important to remember as Biden seeks to become the next commander in chief.

Biden has four main reasons for embracing Obama’s record rather than his own. One, Obama won two national elections and remains popular with Democrats. Two, the rest of Biden’s career is as a legislator, so his years as vice president are important to evaluating how he would handle an executive job. Three, many of Biden’s own legislative stances are now sufficiently unpopular with Democratic activists that Biden has felt compelled to renounce them. And four, the tasks Biden handled himself as vice president, ranging from overseeing “shovel-ready” stimulus projects to dealing with Ukraine, are a morass of ineptitude, favoritism, and sleaze that Biden would rather avoid. So why not run on the best thing Obama ever did?

Killing Osama bin Laden, who had evaded American justice and retribution for nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, was a big deal, and a big factor in Obama’s re-election a year and a half later. It was cheered, and justly so, by Republicans as well as Democrats across the country. It made Obama look strong and successful compared with the years of fruitless search by George W. Bush, and helped distract from the many foreign-policy areas in which Obama was weak and timid in standing up to bad actors. Biden himself famously turned it into a pithy campaign-trail slogan he repeated across the American heartland: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!”

The Democrats at the time leaned so hard on bin Laden’s killing being a “gutsy call” that Obama for America even registered the domain name GutsyCall.com. John Brennan described it as a “gutsy call.” Denis McDonough called it a “gutsy call.” Robert Gates described it as a “very gutsy call.” John Kerry, Leon Panetta, and Dianne Feinstein varied the script by calling it a “gutsy decision.” Biden himself told a Democratic fundraiser just weeks after the operation: “The American people now … have a crystal clear picture of how strong and decisive this president is. And that’s the last piece of the puzzle that had to be put in place for this great man. The American people will no longer confuse being contemplative with being a coward.”

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Obama apparently agonized for months over the decision. Richard Miniter reported, based on unnamed sources, that Obama canceled the raid three times between January and March 2011, on the advice of Valerie Jarrett. (At the time, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest called this a “fabrication.”) Biden himself later claimed that he had known about bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan as far back as August 2010, and the Cabinet was briefed in January or February. Robert Gates warned against the raid, reminding Obama that Gates had been in the room for the failed 1980 Iranian hostage rescue operation that helped sink Jimmy Carter.

Biden’s advice against the bin Laden raid has been widely reported for years and confirmed on the record by multiple senior Obama advisers. Panetta, Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Ben Rhodes all described it in their memoirs. It was, at one time, even admitted by Biden himself during the “gutsy call” stage, when it was politically useful to emphasize the decisiveness of Obama.

ABC News, January 2012:

Vice President Joe Biden confessed this weekend that he advised President Obama not to launch the mission that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden last spring. During remarks at a Democratic congressional retreat this weekend, Biden explained that when it came time to make the final decision, he had some lingering uncertainties about whether the 9/11 mastermind was in the suspected compound in Pakistan. When the president asked his top advisers for their final opinion on the mission, all of them were hesitant, except for the former CIA director, now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Biden said. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51,” Biden said, as he offered the unsolicited details of the decision-making process. “He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,’ ” Biden recalled.

The Obama White House confirmed Biden’s account at the time. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Biden was “speaking accurately.” He added, “The broader point, as the president has made here, is that this was not a sure thing, but the president had so much faith in our special forces and their capacity to fulfill this mission, that he made the call to go forward.”

In an October 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, recounting doubts John McCain and Romney had advanced years earlier about going into Pakistan, Obama told the nation, “Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”

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Once Biden considered running for president in 2015, however, he began reconsidering his recollection of what happened — as well as challenging accounts that Hillary Clinton had advised in favor of the raid.

On Oct. 20, 2015, in a piece entitled “Biden says he backed bin Laden raid all along,” Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere reported:

Biden said that he remembered being in favor of the raid all along, but worried about saying so in front of the other people in the room if Obama ultimately decided against it, to avoid causing a problem for the president on such a major decision. “It would have been a mistake. Imagine if I had said in front of everybody, ‘Don’t go,’ or ‘Go,’ and his decision was a different decision,” Biden said. “It undercuts that relationship. I never — on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval [Office] with him alone.” Biden said that when he and Obama spoke privately after that meeting, he pressed the case to send in the Navy SEALs. “As we walked out of the room, walked upstairs, I told him my opinion: I thought he should go, but follow his own instincts,” Biden said.

Earnest refused to comment on Biden’s new story. The next day, Oct. 21, Biden announced that he was not running for president in 2016.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence both hit Biden, albeit briefly, in their convention speeches for his stance on the bin Laden raid, which Biden is no longer eager to talk about, and which none of his rivals for the Democratic nomination felt fit to mention. It’s a strong point for Trump, as two of the biggest successes of his presidency came in taking out ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. And when the time came for a “gutsy call” to avenge the September 11 attacks, Joe Biden said “Don’t go.”

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