News from the Bubble: Credit for Killing bin Laden

Yesterday my old boss shared this graphic on his Facebook wall:

Of course, the analogy is deliberately flawed to achieve the comic effect of calling Obama a “clown”. A more apt analogy would compare the president with McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson. Does Mr. Thompson cook your burger when you visit McDonald’s? Of course not, but he is an important member of the team that produces all those burgers. The real question is whether Mr. Thompson deserves any credit (or blame) for your crappy McDonald’s burger?

Ever since President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed, various parties on the extreme right have tried to claim that Obama is taking too much credit when it is Seal Team Six that really deserves the credit. This narrative started within minutes of the announcement but a textual analysis does not support this conclusion at all.

I used Wordle to evaluate the text of Obama’s speech announcing the raid on bin Laden’s compound. You can view the “word cloud” I created by clicking on the thumbnail on the right. In addition to the visual representation, I used a word frequency counter to obtain the raw numbers. If we ignore articles, prepositions and conjunctions, the top words are “our” and “we” with respective frequencies of 47 and 37. The most common “selfish” word is “I” which occurs only 10 times in the speech. The word “my” appears three times and the word “me” appears twice. There are a total of 1374 words. Here is the excerpt where he takes credit for his role:

“And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.
Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.”

I have taken the liberty of bolding the “selfish” words. By my reading, Obama does not go out of his way to claim credit and is simply describing his role as commander-in-chief. Contrast this with the closing paragraphs of the speech:

“Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.
We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.”

This is not unusual for Obama – he thanks the military constantly – but that does not fit the straw man that conservatives wish to construct.

Of course, people in the military have their own opinions about Obama but we don’t often hear them. When a member of Seal Team Six appeared on 60 Minutes a few months ago, he discussed the team’s interaction with the president after the raid:

Scott Pelley: Did the president ask you guys which ones of you had shot Osama bin Laden?
Mark Owen: Yeah. He asked who was the one. And we told him we wouldn’t tell.
Scott Pelley: You wouldn’t tell him? Why not?
Mark Owen: Pulling a trigger’s easy. You know, a couple pounds of pressure on your trigger finger, and I’ve done it millions of times, and it’s not that hard. You know, so it’s not about who that one person was. It’s about the team, or the helicopter pilots, or the intel folks that teed this whole thing up. Who cares who the one person is? Doesn’t matter.

Later, he added:

Mark Owen: Our team played a small little piece. Some people would argue bigger. But, you know, to us, it’s very– we were just doing our jobs. Not a big deal. We were just lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

For the military it will always be about the team. Like him or not, Obama leads that team. He gets the blame for failures and he should get credit for the successes, along with the rest of the team.