In Time's latest issue, Graham Allison chronicles the timing and decisions leading up to the raid and killing of Osama bin Laden. "How it Went Down" is a pop analysis by a rock star foreign policy analyst, one who cut his teeth and made his fame on the Cuban missile crisis, and its many—many—idiosyncratic, occasionally terrifying, revelations of the decision-making matrix in the halls of power.
"How it Went Down" tells a different story, maybe even an encouraging one, about how large scale bureaucracies and enormously powerful personalities and institutions can collaborate to produce precise, calculated results. These are not the adjectives that jump to mind for the American government, but Allison's piece is a touchstone for those who believe, rightly it turns out, that provided enough motivation modern governments can function swiftly, deftly, and intelligently in a modern media environment.
The killing of Osama bin Laden did violate national sovereignty, severely compromise Pakistani and American relations—on both sides—and did America few favours in reputation in a region already perceiving it a bully. All that aside, and some may claim this is a rather significant aside, the capacity to execute such a clandestine plan, over the course of many months, is in fact quite remarkable. There was no leak, no half-baked group think (à la Bay of Pigs), but instead a slow, methodical, admittedly narrow, group of decision makers that eventually pulled the trigger.
Here are a few of Allison's more significant lessons.
- The U.S. government remains capable of extraordinary performance, under extremely volatile circumstances. The question is not whether the U.S. government can perform in such a manner, but how the lessons from this raid can be adapted to be put to use in more ordinary policy making processes.
- Secrets matter, and "when they do, secrecy matters more." The bin Laden lead, tipped by his favourite courier, was discovered already in August 2010. Every day after this fact was a delay which increased the chance of alarm and failure. Who to include in the process? How to ascertain the details, without spooking the target? What style of operation (all options, including a full B-2 bomber strike, were on the table) would ensure success? Experts were needed, but experts were also potential liabilities in a sensitive process of this nature.
- And so, the group of decision makers was indeed kept relatively small, the details of the raid even being kept out of the president's super-secret morning security briefings to prevent tripping alarms at other agencies and departments. Tightening the decision loop was the price, and mistakes—especially damaging state relations with Pakistan—were made.
- Perhaps most significant is the circle's extraordinary success in providing the president time between the initial discovery in August of 2010 and the operation of May 2011. The pressure for decision making on an issue of this magnitude, both for domestic political and international security reasons, was enormous. In a town in which National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon mused, "The only way to keep a secret is not to tell anybody," the American government and its executive accomplished the seemingly impossible: total secrecy, giving the president precious time to consider his options, to weigh and verify data, before rushing in.
In politics, as in life, many regrettable mistakes are made by urgency, whether false or not. The president would have been vilified in American media if it were discovered he knew of bin Laden's whereabouts for months and did nothing. He took a big risk taking his time, and it paid off.
But the most interesting message Allison has is one of hope: the American government, which some have already consigned to the dust bin of failed imperial administrations, is still up to some tough work. Can Americans now tackle their tax policy, their deficits, and social disparities with the same calm, clear-minded vigour as the assassination of their most hated nemesis? That, I expect, will be the true test of governance.