Mitt Romney has been making great hay in recent weeks comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter.
In some ways, Carter had it much tougher than Obama did last year, and his big moment of command decision was a much bigger risk.
Mitt was referring to Obama’s (correct) decision to pull the trigger on the Bin Laden raid, of course. On the one hand, it would have been a tough decision for any President – sending American troops into harm’s way deep inside a “neutral”, “friendly” country on the basis of intelligence tips.
But Obama had at his disposal a military with ten years’ experience fighting a hard war overseas – and at the point of that spear was a special forces community (including many units from all four services, including the SEALs) that has had a decade of very hard experience doing every kind of mission that can be imagined, and some that can’t be. From tracking fugitives to winning tribal political fights to rescuing hostages, the US military, especially our various special operations forces, have done it all. And they’ve all done it together – the Navy’s SEALs operate with the Army’s special ops helicopters and the Air Force’s special ops aircraft seamlessly, without the inter service rivalry that so paralyzed earlier US efforts. And they flew from a base they knew well, in a part of the world in which they now have a total of a decade (maybe two) of experience, using equipment that’s been tried and refined in ten years of continuous conflict.
So while it was a tough decision, “are they capable of pulling it off?” was not one of the variables.
When Jimmy Carter pondered “Operation Eagle Claw” – an incredibly ambitious plan to rescue the American hostages in Iran – he had a few dodgier variables to deal with:
- The US military had just gone through a traumatic, un-earned defeat, and an equally-traumatic defunding in the wake of Vietnam. The seventies were a terrible low-point in the US military; there were Army units in Germany rated combat-ineffective due to drugs and crime; equipment was old and unreliable. Conservatives actually short Carter a bit on defense; a few of the reforms that came to fruition under Reagan first germinated under Carter.
- The military’s pre-Nunn/Nichols command structure was a breeding ground for political infighting and turf-guarding. Over-officered and underutilized, the Pentagon’s inter-service rivalries made this year’s GOP primary battle look sane and rational.
- The various special forces – not really recognizable to anyone who follows the field today – were in disarray, treated with deep suspicion by regular military officers, who regarded them as unreliable, unpredictable cowboys after the uncoordinated way they’d been employed in Vietnam. And they’d had no real success at rescuing hostages. While the British Army’s SAS, the German federal police’s GSG9, the Dutch Marines’ BSE and Israel’s Sayaret Matkal had all carried out successful hostage rescues (in buildings, a hijacked plane in Somalia, a railroad train and an airport, respectively), the US military’s attempt at rescuing closely-held hostages, the utterly snake-bit Mayaguez raid in 1975, had been a thoroughly-botched disaster.
- “Delta”, the US Army’s new counterterrorism unit, was brand new and untried in this sort of action. While its troops were all experienced and many had seen action in Vietnam, this was its first live raid. And the other troops involved in the raid – the Navy and Marine choppers and Air Force planes that carried the unit into action, the Rangers that guarded the “Desert One” airbase from which the raid was launched – had never trained together.
- Helicopters in 1980 were ubiquitous – and still only thirty years old. They were still famously unreliable – much worse than today. The SEALs rode into Pakistan in choppers that benefitted from the lessons learned the hard way in 1980, not to mention 1991. Which helped the SEALs, but not Jimmy Carter or Delta on its first big mission.
- Iran was a much bigger country, more explicitly hostile to the US.
- Finally, after acknowledging all those variables – the mission itself was much more complex. It involved flying from an improvised base in a friendly but neutral country (Oman) to an improvised base in the middle of the desert (Desert One), then to another hidden base in the desert (Desert Two), travelling from the base into the heart of Teheran via truck, seizing not only the embassy and the hostages but the stadium across the street to serve as an exfiltration point for the helicopters to land in, and then flying back to Desert One, and thence by plane back to Oman. That’s a lot of moving parts.
So Jimmy Carter pulled the trigger on a raid with many, many more variables than the Bin Laden raid, all of them bad.
And it showed. Eagle Claw was a resounding failure, one that took down whatever part of his presidency that the economic stagflation might have left standing.
So a rare bout of kudos to Jimmy Carter. He held, and played, a much weaker hand than Barack Obama did.