The killing of Osama bin Laden says a lot about the United States at war. It occurred almost a decade after 9/11, contradicting the notion that a democracy can’t fight a long war. It demonstrates that our presence in Afghanistan, without which the raid would have been impossible, is our main point of leverage on Pakistan. It reveals that even a reluctant commander in chief can summon the strength of will and nerve to order the assassination of a terrible enemy.

The mission says a lot about our government’s ability to carry out its most fundamental task: providing for our security. Al Qaeda has had some successes since September 11, 2001, but nothing remotely on the scale of that terrible day. Our law enforcement, domestic intelligence agencies, and even the Department of Homeland Security have been more successful than anyone would have guessed.

Our foreign intelligence efforts have been transformed. By the end of the Cold War, the CIA’s ability to conduct covert operations was a shambles. East bloc spies had penetrated its innermost circles. Our technical intelligence capabilities were unmatched—but those were focused on Soviet missiles and the Red Army. Now, if press reports are accurate, the agency can run an undetected safe house while scouting the bin Laden compound for months.

Most of all, though, last week’s mission was a snapshot of a superb military. The nearly flawless raid stands in stark contrast to the Desert One tragedy of 1980. But the leadership distinction between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama isn’t so great as some would have us believe. -Carter’s decision to go ahead with Operation Eagle Claw was as bold as any Obama had to make. And the nature of a large-scale hostage rescue attempt meant greater risk.

The big difference between 1980 and 2011 is that President Obama is blessed with an infinitely more capable set of military tools. Today’s force stands at the end of a 30-year trail of investment in recruiting, retaining, and training the best people and providing them with world-class equipment. The fighting in our long war against global terrorism has been varied and exhausting, but the force has been sharpened to the cutting-edge. The SEALs who killed bin Laden were prepared to succeed.

In Desert One, the “chances for success were very slender indeed,” recalled mission leader Col. Charles Beckwith. As Beckwith wrote in Delta Force, such a complicated operation “revealed that at this time the Armed Forces of the United States had neither the present resources nor the present capabilities to pull it off. Training was needed to accomplish unique and demanding tasks.” Operation Eagle Claw was undertaken at the nadir of the post-Vietnam years. The fledgling all-volunteer force was weak. Service leadership was dispirited. The generation of weapons that marked the Reagan build up was largely still on the drawing board. Training was little removed from the low-budget “shake and bake” approach created during World War II.

The irony, of course, is that Barack Obama—the commander in chief who owes his newfound martial reputation to a military built and maintained by his predecessors of both parties—is leading the charge to cut defense spending. His most recent proposal to eliminate $400 billion from future Pentagon budgets essentially doubles the cuts from his first two years in office. The long-term result will be a smaller, less-well-equipped, and less-well-trained force. If President Obama continues to employ the force at current rates, it will be more rapidly run down.

Congress, which has the constitutional obligation to provide for the armed forces, may well slash defense even more deeply than the administration would like. Senate Democrats are preparing a set of budget proposals, based upon the recommendation of the Bowles-Simpson commission on “fiscal reform,” to gut defense. Defense secretary Robert Gates described these spending levels as “catastrophic” for the force.

Meanwhile, the Republican party is in danger of losing its deserved reputation for being strong on defense. President Obama’s “bin Laden bounce” in the polls will fade. But if his 2012 opponent is the nominee of a quasi-isolationist, green-eyeshade GOP, Obama will be able to claim he’s the most assertive candidate for commander in chief.

Luckily, Republicans can begin to reclaim their national security credentials by sticking to the defense numbers proposed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Of course, until four weeks ago, these were also the Obama administration’s defense numbers. They’ve gone from being a political floor for Pentagon spending to a ceiling. And the final irony? The president’s boldness in launching the bin Laden raid is one of the best arguments against his proposed defense cuts.

On May 1, an important mission was accomplished with astonishing success. Now we must prepare for the missions to come.

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