Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Picture Perfect

President Obama has reached one of those stages in his presidency when he realizes exactly how much of a thankless job it is. After achieving one of the few things that pretty much all Americans have been waiting for for decades--the end of Osama bin Laden--he was most likely expecting a grateful, celebratory nation. Stacked on top of this was the humiliation of his opponents and their petty demands for his birth certificate, all but negating Donald Trump's aspirations and neutralizing all but the most recalcitrant fringes of his adversaries. It seemed like a good time to be Barack Obama.

And yet he's now caught in a dilemma over the photographs of  a dead bin Laden. Here is a problem that must be resolved and yet has no positive resolution. Release the photos and you may incur the wrath of the global community with the very real chance of bolstering bin Laden's martyrdom and agitate already-violent terrorists. But keep the photos hidden, and you create a brand new cabal of conspiracy theorists--as well as regular Americans who just want to see proof of justice--that will dog him for years. There is no right solution here,* but either way Obama has to live with the consequences.

In fact, this may become a wider issue for Obama as the election draws near, and the death of bin Laden may be worse for him than he thinks. Based on the information that has been released so far, the location of bin Laden was drawn from information collected from Guantanamo Bay, with the possible introduction of torture. By claiming (political) credit for bin Laden's death, he's also going to have to embrace the methods used to capture him--and that is a ton of baggage he's spent his entire political life constructing a political culture against.  By playing down his involvement, he'll give credit to his Republican predecessors and have to accept any political fallout thereof. To Obama's credit, he has not tried to do either one yet, but it's another decision he will have to make before long and one that probably could have been handled a lot better.

And supporters for both sides, at this point, will have to realize that it's not easy for their opponents, either. Despite the tattered legacy that most people view George Bush's legacy, his presidency was riddled with the exact sort of no-win political decisions that Obama is facing now. To be fair, many of Bush's problems were self-inflicted, but certainly not all of them (and I would argue not even a majority). Unlike domestic policy, where factions can be played off of one another and nuisances punted to another election cycle, for foreign affairs and domestic disasters the Presidency requires quick decisions made with imperfect information in which there may be no positive outcome. This was particularly burdensome for Bush, and is becoming more so for Obama.

Obama's record of dealing with things such as this, so far in my opinion, has been mixed. Hopefully it will end up being more positive than negative.

*A possibility that I think would work is to release to photos to a few trusted sources--say a handful of senators and trusted media pundits from each party--to view the photos, and publicize it. This may reassure most Americans without the drawback of releasing them to the public. You'll never please everybody, but I suspect this will do the least amount of damage.

Also, this is most likely a problem that could have been handled better. One would think that there would be a pre-determined plan as to what to do in a case like this--I can guarantee Bush did--but there appeared to be no such plan. CIA director Leon Panetta said they would probably release them, then Obama said no, and everyone in between was hinting in every direction. While I can't really blame them that much, it's exactly the type of problem his predecessor was frequently blamed for. Turns out sticking on message isn't so easy.

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