Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Bin Laden, Obama, and the Arab Spring

by Elliott Abrams
May 2, 2011

The spectacular news of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces could not have come at a better time. Al-Qaeda’s message that violence, terrorism, and extremism are the only answer for Arabs seeking dignity and hope is being rejected each day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and throughout the Arab lands. Al-Qaeda and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption. Bin Laden’s death weakens al-Qaeda and Salafi movements further by taking away their most powerful symbol.

President Obama will bask in the satisfaction of all Americans that justice has finally been done—and done through an assault that combined the best of intelligence work with a courageous and well planned military operation. It is entirely appropriate that Mr. Obama and the administration get and take a fair amount of credit.

It is therefore unfortunate that Mr. Obama seems to want more than that fair share the American people will naturally and rightly give him. His remarks last night were far too much laced with words like “I met repeatedly,”  “at my direction,” and “I determined,” trying to take personal credit for the years of painstaking work by our intelligence community. Mr. Obama might have noted that this work began under President Bush, but as usual he did not. It was also a mistake for him to use this occasion to deliver unrelated comments about “the pursuit of prosperity for our people” and “the struggle for equality for all our citizens.” A shorter and more straightforward announcement would have been more appropriate for this occasion.

Once again here the White House appeared unable to get the messaging quite right, a failure magnified by the amateurish delay of more than an hour in Mr. Obama’s remarks. The White House told the nation at roughly 10 p.m. that the president would speak at 10:30 p.m. Had the president done so, he would have delivered fabulous and shocking news. By the time he actually spoke nearer to midnight his words were an anticlimax, for all the news had leaked. Whatever the cause of this delay—Mr. Obama editing the remarks for too long, or a belatedly discovered need to brief Congressional and world leaders—it suggested that the calm professionalism in the face of crisis shown here by our military and intelligence professionals has yet to be achieved in the White House.

Al-Qaeda may redouble efforts to commit acts of terror, but its prestige and power in the Arab world are on the decline. The administration should turn back now to the cases of Libya and Syria above all, pushing further to end the vicious and violent regimes that rule those countries. As the republics of fear fall, al-Qaeda’s message will fall further into disrepute and the message of freedom that is now spreading in the Middle East will grow stronger.

An update: The following reaction to Bin Laden’s death is from Maajid Nawaz, director of the London-based anti-extremist think tank Quilliam and emphasizes the timing of the event in the context of the Arab Spring:

“Bin Laden’s death comes at a time when al-Qaeda is struggling to remain relevant. As events in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have also shown, the Arab world has moved on since al-Qaeda was founded in the 1980s. A clear majority of Muslims around the world have decisively rejected al-Qaeda’s vision; people’s real concerns are now about poverty, unemployment and a lack of government accountability; not about establishing a caliphate and fighting a worldwide jihad against the West. Bin Laden’s death – combined with the events of Arab Spring – offers a clear chance for Muslims throughout the world to move on from the era of al-Qaeda and to find ways to achieve dignity, prosperity and social justice without resorting to violence. It is a chance too for jihadist groups around the world to reconsider their aims and methods, and to consider how they can help Muslims around the world rather than attacking them.”

Post a Comment 52 Comments

  • Posted by Shaykh Yerbouti

    George Bush said in 2006 that capturing bin Laden is “not a top priority use of American resources.” From that moment on, the ball was dropped. For FIVE YEARS. President Obama made it a priority and quietly got the job done. And he didn’t even resort to using a “Mission Accomplished” banner after he did it.

  • Posted by what the

    bush never even looked for Bin Laden…
    and if he could not find him in 8 long years adn billions of dollars later….he deserves no credit…
    the surge has been going on for less than 18 months and Bin Laden is now dead.. and gone..no thanks to Republican obstructionism..
    oh fyi quote from Bush
    “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”
    – G.W. Bush, 3/13/02

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I don’t think it’s far from the truth to say that the President , once again , “led from the rear .”

    Many years ago a true leader once said at the moment of a signal victory ; “This is not the end . It is not even the beginning of the end . But it is the end of the beginning .” That leader was Winston Churchill .

  • Posted by Yagur

    You’re right… it was egotistical and immature for Obama to take personal responsibility for the actions he ordered as Commander in Chief.

    He should have dressed up in a borrowed military flight suit, arranged for cameras to film him as he was flown onto an aircraft carrier, and announced his victory under a banner saying “Mission Accomplished.” That would have been more fitting, modest, and Presidential.

  • Posted by John Ellis B.

    Well written.

  • Posted by Grant C

    “It is therefore unfortunate that Mr. Obama seems to want more than that fair share the American people will naturally and rightly give him. ”

    Yes, how dare he go on television and make a short sober speech in which he used personal pronouns. How inappropriately attention whoring of him!

    The appropriate response would have been to get flown out to the site, dress up in military garb (like, oh, a flight suit maybe), and create a giant photo-op with a massive “Mission Accomplished” banner… or something equally understated and tasteful.

    You know… all humble like, like someone else I could name would have done.

  • Posted by Mary Murphy

    Does anyone question the validity of this claim happening at this most opportunistic time before a presidential election? Body buried at sea quickly? Anybody?

  • Posted by J Bristol

    its too bad that you can’t see it for what it really is. President Obama used his resources wisely, he didn’t get side tracked, and he remained calm, and he was successful at being our Commander in Chief. And all within the first two years of his Presidency. He is a huge success on this matter and your attempt to dilute this victory is pathetic at best. But I’m not at all surprised at the feedback from the right as the right would rather see our country fail during Obama’s tenure rather than succeed.

  • Posted by Logan


    The number of instances he said “we” far outnumbered the number of instances he said “I.”

    So yeah, nice try.

    Also, Mary, Bin Laden was shot in the head. Navy SEALs don’t use pea-shooter 9mm weapons. Their guns are designed for maximum damage. Trust me, there’s nothing left of his head. They’re not going to keep that lying around as there’s no use for it once the DNA results are in. We weren’t going to have a body “viewing” like with Saddam.

  • Posted by bp

    Just as partisan hack Abrams is quick to deflect credit from the President, I am certain he would equally have spared Obama the blame should the mission have been a disastrous failure. Right.

  • Posted by John K.

    This is an absurdly tendentious post from Mr. Abrams. I’m sorry, President Obama’s statement was largely restrained. He offered props to President Bush, and was not flaunting _his_ accomplishment so much as the accomplishment of the attack force in Abbottabad, and the U.S. as a nation.

    Yes, he did say that he told Leon Panetta at CIA to make eliminating OBL from the field as a top priority. But frankly, given that VP Cheney stated OBL’s elimination was no longer of primary importance during his 2nd term, it seems reasonable for Obama to have clarified what he wanted the agency to prioritize.

    As for what Mr. Abrams alleges to be an “amateurish delay” for Pres. Obama’s remarks: why do I have a feeling Mr. Abrams would find fault whether the remarks were delivered earlier (so hasty!), later, or exactly when they were delivered? There was a leak– from Keith Urbahn, a former aide to Donald Rumfeld and Bush White House colleague of Mr. Abrams — and then it snowballed. Should the White House thus have hastily moved the announcement up 45 minutes or whatever? No.

    It’s risibly gratuitous to come up with a paltry, half-baked rationale for claiming this operation showed “professionalism” in the military and intel realms, but not in the executive branch. And coming within a day of the operation, rather unseemly.

  • Posted by RLAS

    President Obama does use “my” and “I” far too much in referring to what the executive branch does. Others have also pointed out that this time he used “we” inappropriately some times; that is, he took credit along with President Bush for some things that President Bush did by his use of “we.” And then he used “I” for thing for which he was the primary, though arguably not the only, agent.

  • Posted by Anand


    Watching you guys trip over yourselves trying not to give the POTUS any credit for this is reward in itself.

  • Posted by Tim

    It’s really hard to admit when a guy you hate does something right, but you should give it a try. This is called being a sore loser.

  • Posted by Paul Costello

    Oh, give me a break. What sour grapes.

  • Posted by Dale Turner

    Very well said. If not for George W. Bush allowing Bin Laden to walk out of Tora Bora, Obama would never have had the chance to take credit for ending his life.

  • Posted by TBogg

    Jeez, Elliott. Obviously this is good news for Israel which is your primary focus. Can’t you be happy for just one day?

  • Posted by Bruce Case

    What a sad excuse for an op-ed. Our President was talking about the execution of special op’s– which can only occur under the President’s command. His use of “I” was absolutely truthful and accurate. He put together a staff that was able to keep this a secret since August. President Obama handled this as well as any Commander-and-Cheif we have ever had, and he orchestrated our incredible military and our intelligence. He gets an A+ for the execution of the most important military victory over Al-Q since we’ve learned about this. I’m so glad that we have a President that could handle this opportunity and seize this for our soldiers, our country, and our free world.

  • Posted by Bruce Case

    And who gives flip about President Obama’s timing of announcing? How petty is that? He ok’s an operation that rids us of the mastermind of 9/11, and you complain that he made us wait an extra hour before announcing? What about the color of his tie, Elliott? Did he wear an appropriate color for the occasion? Find something legitimate to complain about, man.

  • Posted by Jock Perkins

    Seriously? this rant sounds like an exchange between my children arguing over who gets the credit for cleaning the bathroom. Are you an adult? Is it really that important that you make the specious argument that Obama is trying to take too much credit? Leave it where it is… and grow up a bit.

  • Posted by John

    Using this opportunity, a moment of deep solidarity for all Americans, to take another in a string of endless swipes at Obama, is an act of supreme smallness. Why don’t you take your own advice and keep the message short, something like “God Bless America”?

  • Posted by Mark

    Remember, GW said,
    “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care.
    It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”
    – G.W. Bush, 3/13/02

    “I am truly not that concerned about him.”
    – G.W. Bush, responding to a question about bin Laden’s whereabout­s.
    3/13/02 (The New American, 4/8/02)

    At least Obama did something about this maniac.

  • Posted by Patty

    Let’s face it. Obama can do nothing right…it was not enough to get bin Laden. Obama blew it by saying “I met” and delaying his press conference for an hour. What a failure.

  • Posted by J Bristol

    President Obama used his resources wisely, he didn’t get side tracked, and he remained calm, and he was successful at being our Commander in Chief. And all within the first two years of his Presidency. It doesn’t matter how many times he said “I” or “we”, his decision making was spot on and he came through for U.S.

  • Posted by Elisabeth

    I agree with Mary. The “burial” was far too quick and far to convenient.

  • Posted by Shania Lerna

    Why must this, an historic event, be yet another personal attack on the U.S. President, Barack Obama?

    For those of us relieved that the operation was successful (although taking Osama bin Laden alive would have been optimum) I find nothing amiss in your president’s account of the operation.

    Regardless of who is the U.S. president during this mission, the fortitude required to authorize it is acknowledged and respected, given that the outcome may have been tragic for the troops involved.

    Americans, and particularly Mr. Abrams in this instance, must rise above partisan prejudices and allow the ‘free’ world a win, regardless of who is your Commander in Chief.

    Slighting Mr. Obama at this time is, frankly, small minded, and sadly, the cross with which the rest of the world must bear.

    We expect, and deserve, more. If you are not proud of your president, how can you ask that we be? (While we may not all approve of Felipé Calderón, internationally, he is our president and we support him as he represents Mexico.)

    The U.S.A. achieved an important milestone in the fight against global terrorism, and regardless of whom is steering your ship, have the graciousness to give credit where credit is due.

    Now if you would only give the same attention and funding to our mutual drug war (a shame that your NRA has such influence over U.S. electioneering), we would be winning the war far closer to home, which is far more critical to U.S. and Mexican national security.

    However, that would require admission of U.S. profiteering and complicity in Mexico’s losing battle to stymie the voracious U.S. demand and the cross-border cartel trade needed to supply the multi-billion-dollar market for recreational drugs.


    Shania Lerna

  • Posted by Shania Lerna


    Re: ‘Arab Spring”… ad naseum

    The Arab World will evolve as it should.

    The less U.S interference (why is it always about ‘you’?) the better.

    Have you lived in Libya? Syria?

    Meddling, always meddling, while your own citizens suffer…

    Yet somehow you think you are collectively relevant.


  • Posted by Bruce Case

    President Obama used the word “I” because special operations requires direct orders from the President. Your op-ed is both petty and pointless. This President is responsible for nailing the Ace of Spades, and you’re complaining because he wasn’t in front of the monitor early enough last night. Were you a staffer to Pres. Bush, or were you a page? A very ignorant blog.

  • Posted by Bruce Case

    The reason President Obama did not mention that “the work” began with President Bush was because it didn’t begin with President Bush. President Bill Clinton went after OBL and many of his operatives. And I’m sure GHWB and RR did work in that area as well.

  • Posted by tom

    Elliott Abrams sir, who would you have blamed if this mission had been bungled?

  • Posted by Myron

    Perhaps the president is “the decider”. That’s why he said I a few times.

  • Posted by Tom Frykman

    Could Abrams get any more petty than this? Counting the number of times Obama said “I” or “me” or “my”? Taking issue with a short delay in the announcement?

    This kind of childishness is why I left the Republican Party. He’s the President. He’s in office, and you’re not. Get over it.

  • Posted by Jason

    Get over it Abrams. President Obama did what President Bush coulnd’t do – plain and simple. However, that is beyond the point. We should take this time to celebrate united as Americans. Yet, you use your platform to criticize and create division.

  • Posted by John Carreon

    President Obama deserve full credit for taking out OBL. Bush Jr deserves full credit for the epic failure to prevent 911, disastrous war in Iraq, phony excuse for WMD, and the botched up job in Tora Bora.

    Yeah, nice try.

  • Posted by Shassy

    This is beyond ridiculous. You are ignorant about the cause of the delay of the presidential address yet you still went along in speculating the reasons why.

    No wonder your kind as adviser to president Bush could not make any headway in finding OBL. You failed to advise president Bush about where to find OBL and shifted the focus from where the real theater of terror was. Does it not sound trivial to you about your criticism?

    If you want some credit to go to president Bush, you may want to listen to him in his own words. After that, you can re-write your piece:


  • Posted by Enzo

    As usual, those whom hate Bush cherry-pick his quotes and fail to understand the reason for them.

    What they omit is what Bush was doing behind the scenes – prodding the CIA every day for updates on the whereabouts of Bin Laden (watch the interview on NBC from last night with the General who was the head of the CIA at that time) – there is no question that it was THE top priority.

    Bush’s and Cheney’s remarks were to not give any satisfaction to al Queda that they were still a big thorn in the Administrations side.

  • Posted by David44

    Anyone inclined to take the right-wing “Obama over-uses 1st person” seriously should look at this, and even more at this. You know, read actual people who know about linguistic usage doing actual statistical analyses of the evidence, rather than have ill-informed commentators like Mr Abrams sounding off their prejudices.

  • Posted by David44

    The links seem to have been left out of my previous comment – they are




  • Posted by stubborntomato

    Since it’s apparently gotten to this point:

    1. “the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden” (Point: Americans)

    2. “Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” (Point: Military and Intelligence)

    3. “we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al-Qaida safe haven and support” (‘We’ in context of same paragraph as #2. Point: Military and Intelligence)

    4. “We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense” (See #3. Point: Military and Intelligence.)

    5. “we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al-Qaida terrorists” (See #4. Point: Military and Intelligence.)

    6. “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-Qaida.” (Point: President. Selfish!)

    7. “after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community” (Point: Military and Intelligence)

    8. “I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden” (Point: President)

    9. “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” (Point: Tie – President and Military and Intelligence)

    10. “I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice” (Point: President)

    11. “at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan” (Point: President.)

    12. “a small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability” (Point: Military and Intelligence, implied)

    13. “they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body” (Point: Military and Intelligence.)

    14. “I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam” (Wow. Point: President. But he also essentially awards a point to President Bush, and I’m pretty sure they cancel each other out. So I’ll just say Point: Neutral)

    15. “I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was” (Point: President)

    16. “it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding” (Point: Military and Intelligence.)

    17. “These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander in Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded” (Point: President. But, then again, he is taking responsibility for the loss of American lives…so I’ll cancel out that point.)

    18. “we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly” (Point: Military and Intelligence)

    19. “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” (Point: Military and Intelligence)

    Final tally:

    Americans: 1
    President Obama: 6
    Military and Intelligence Agencies: 11

  • Posted by Janice Zoradi

    The US has had a collective case of PTSD since 9/11, not necessarily with every citizen experiencing flashbacks and nightmares, but our nation was definitely traumatized by those events. What happened Sunday night was collective exhalation and relief that OBL was dead, that we are free of his specter over our country. It doesn’t bring anyone back or make terrorism less real, but it does promote healing. Mr. Abrams’ speculation, without any evidence whatsoever, on the delay in the announcement and how the President worded the announcement, shows his resistance to joining his countrymen in expressing undiluted gratitude to the military and the commander-in-chief, who authorized the mission. Is that really so hard to do, after all we’ve been through in the last decade? Guess so.

  • Posted by Bill H

    I have always believed in keeping things simple. So seeing the photos is of no real importance to me. What bothers me in the things being overlooked by the media in their focus of the photos being released. The concept that OBL had no guards at his home is really strange for the number one wanted man in the world. Having been in the military I do remember the rules of engagement and I find it troubling that the seal team opened fire killing not only OBL but his wife when they were not holding any fire arms or being shot at. In this case I think only one shot from a seal member would have brought down OBL without killing him or his wife. While I am glad he is gone has it really changed anything?

  • Posted by Steve

    Elliot makes good points but omits mention of the 9/11 family Obama turned his back on not stopping his CIA investigation of ” torture”! Investigate Pelosi that attended the “torture” of KSM and calls the CIA ” constant liars before Congress”. Impeach Obama and gang and yes, try to give me Bush if you dare….:)

  • Posted by Eunice Gongora

    goodpoints there. I did my own search on

  • Posted by Willard

    A little late, but better than never. Unfortunately, this will only create a vacuum of wanna bes. We’ll see.

  • Posted by Lorenza Tebay

    Hi. I needed to drop you a quick note to precise my thanks. I’ve been following your blog this post for a month or thus and have picked up a lot of good data plus enjoyed the manner you’ve got structured your site. I’m attempting to run my very own blog however I assume its too general and I want to focus additional on smaller topics.

  • Posted by road bike frames

    Hi that is a very fascinating view, It will give one food for thought, I am very delighted I came upon your blog, i was using Stumbleupon at the time, anyway i don’t need to drift on too much, but i would really like to mention that I can be back when I have a very little time to scan your blog more exhaustively, Once again thanks for the post and please do carry on the nice work,

  • Posted by alpinestars gloves

    You’re extremely a great blogger with really good analytical abilities!

  • Posted by Israel Investigations

    Admiring the hard work you put into your site and interesting insight you disclose here. It’s nice to come across a blog in a rare occasion that is not all the same outdated rehashed material. Wonderful job! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feed to my Bookmarks now. Imagine, I like your site so much that I am interested to advertise my own site http://www.emt.co.il on it. I will be glad if you contact me at: everythingrainbowhk (AT) gmail.com listing your quarterly banner rates. Thank you!

  • Posted by Kamilah Gwartney

    I’m impressed at how you have a good grasp of the matter. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your weblog? My Facebook blog site is in the very same niche as yours and my readers would certainly benefit from a lot of the information you provide on your site. Please let me know if this is not alright with you. Thank you!

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    No problem quoting, with credits and sourcing to the Council on Foreign Relations site.

  • Posted by Google

    First of all I would like to say wonderful blog!
    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to know how you center yourself and
    clear your head prior to writing. I’ve had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts
    out. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the
    first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    Sorry–wish I had a good answer. Usually when I do a blog entry the idea is pretty well formed in my head, drafted in a sense when driving or walking and then put down on paper.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required