Walking softly, using the big stick on Osama bin Laden

by John MacBeath Watkins

Perhaps the most fatuous thing said in the media coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden was the MSNBC reporter who remarked that this was surprising because no one had been talking about this, and in fact it appeared that only a very few people in either the Pakistani or the US government knew this operation was on the horizon.

Um. Do you suppose it was a secret?

But the reporter's remark does highlight an important point. President Obama has taken a lot of heat for not talking tougher, but there may be a connection between not talking tough and getting things done. It's not like bin Laden's compound was small, or even particularly out of the way. The force that attacked his compound didn't find him in a spider cave. Pakistan's secret service, the ISI, must have had people within it who knew where he was.

Trouble is, ever since the Zia administration, the ISI has worked with various types of jihadists, whether in the long struggle with India over Kashmir, in opposing the Soviets with the mujaheddin, or working closely with the Taliban, and such habits die hard. People who have spent their careers working with organizations opposed to the US will have loyalties and views on where the interests of their country, their agency, and their careers lie.

That's why bin Laden felt safe in Pakistan. Overcoming that was a major accomplishment. And talking tough, getting people's backs up, and browbeating people for not already being on your side wasn't likely to get it done. It will no doubt take years for the full story to come out, but perhaps the most interesting part of it will be how we got the cooperation of people who had resisted helping us before. I have no doubt that there were people in the ISI and other branches of the Pakistani government who would have tipped off bin Laden if they could. Part of the game must have been to know who those people were, and how to get around them.

That's done in the shadows, not in the press conferences or campaign speech. That's effective government, not aggressive government. You don't get there by talking brusquely and bragging about how big your stick is.