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Should Obama have tried to capture Osama?


This morning, both John Yoo and Michael Barone hit on the same points I hit on Sunday in more thorough detail. Barone essentially outlines the framework of a political attack on Obama for moving away from his prior promises, but I think, as Barone seems to, that such an attack would be blunted by the fact that Obama ended up closer to the country's center. Only the leftward side of his base dislikes these moves with any intensity, and it's doubtful they'd cast a vote for anyone other than him in 2012.

Besides making the same point, Yoo makes the interesting argument that one side-effect of Obama's embrace of the Bush-era policies he once opposed is a greater willingness to kill terrorists as opposed to capturing and interrogating them. He outlines an argument for why Obama should've considered a capture instead of a kill:

Mr. Obama's policies now differ from their Bush counterparts mainly on the issue of interrogation. As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leadersâ??whether by drones or special ops teamsâ??than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.

Early reports are conflicted, but it appears that bin Laden was not armed. He did not have a large retinue of bodyguardsâ??only three other people, the two couriers and bin Laden's adult son, were killed. Special forces units using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive, as with other senior al Qaeda leaders before him.

If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands. Some claim that bin Laden had become a symbol, or that al Qaeda had devolved into a decentralized terrorist network with more active franchises in Yemen or Somalia. Nevertheless, bin Laden was still issuing instructions and funds to a broad terrorist network and would have known where and how to find other key al Qaeda players. His capture, like Saddam Hussein's in December 2003, would have provided invaluable intelligence and been an even greater example of U.S. military prowess than his death.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the SEAL team had orders to take bin Laden alive, "if he didn't present any threat," though he correctly dismissed this possibility as "remote." This is hard to take seriously. No one could have expected bin Laden to surrender without a fight. And capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. But he should also recognize that he succeeded despite his urge to disavow Bush administration policies. Perhaps one day he will acknowledge his predecessor's role in making this week's dramatic success possible. More importantly, he should end the criminal investigation of CIA agents and restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden.

Yoo's argument is probably the best that can be made, philosophically, on this point. But there's little question in my mind that Obama made the right decision. Osama bin Laden is more valuable to the future interests of the United States - and as a statement about our approach to enemies - not as a captured target, legal controversy and living symbol, but as a corpse in the bottom of the sea.

(AP Photo)

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.