BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's America

Archives for May 2011

A new home for Mardell's America

Mark Mardell | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 5 May 2011

Thanks for reading this: my blog is moving to a new home. The idea is to bring all my work and analysis together on one page: the blog, of course, but TV and radio pieces and [very soon] my tweets too. It's a great idea, and one the BBC is applying to most of the other editors and correspondents who blog.

I tend to use Twitter to link to either what I've written myself or to the work of colleagues, inside or outside the BBC. But that may change over time, as I see the virtue of live tweeting. The true worth of Twitter was shown on Sunday, when it gave us the first inkling that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Not all the speculation about the details was right but the one huge fact was.

The way I approach Twitter and news on the internet is very much driven by the way I consume it. The built TV bulletin is very far from going the way of the dodo but I want to be able to watch crafted reports online too. This new page should allow this and more.

The White House backtracks on Bin Laden

Mark Mardell | 06:51 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

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The White House has had to correct its facts about the killing of Bin Laden, and for some that has diminished the glow of success that has surrounded all those involved in the operation.

Bin Laden wasn't armed when he was shot. It raises suspicions that this was indeed a deliberate shoot-to-kill operation.

Here are the inaccuracies in the first version. The woman killed was not his wife. No woman was used as a human shield. And he was not armed.

The president's press secretary Jay Carney suggested this was the result of trying to provide a great deal of information in a great deal of haste.

I can largely accept that. There is no mileage in misleading people and then correcting yourself. But the president's assistant national security advisor John Brennan had used the facts he was giving out to add a moral message - this was the sort of man Bin Laden was, cowering behind his wife, using her as a shield. Nice narrative. Not true. In fact, according to Carney this unarmed woman tried to attack the heavily armed Navy Seal. In another circumstance that might even be described as brave.

Jay Carney said that Bin Laden didn't have to have a gun to be resisting. He said there was a great deal of resistance in general and a highly volatile fire fight. The latest version says Bin Laden's wife charged at the US commando and was shot in the leg, but not killed. The two brothers, the couriers and owners of the compound, and a woman were killed on the ground floor of the main building. This version doesn't mention Bin Laden's son, who also died.

By this count only three men, at the most, were armed. I do wonder how much fight they could put up against two helicopters' worth of Navy Seals.

Does any of this matter? Well, getting the fact right is always important. You can't make a judgment without them. We all make mistakes, and journalists hate doing so because it makes people trust us less. For those involved an operation like this, time must go past in a confused and noisy instant, and they aren't taking notes. Confusion is very understandable. But you start to wonder how much the facts are being massaged now, to gloss over the less appealing parts of the operation.

And of course there is the suspicion that the US never wanted to take Bin Laden alive. Here at least many see a trial as inconvenient, awkward - a chance for terrorists to grandstand. Look at all the fuss about the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In the confusion of a raid it's hard to see how the Seals could be sure that Bin Laden wasn't armed, didn't have his finger on the trigger of a bomb, wasn't about to pull a nasty surprise. If he had his hands in the air shouting "don't shoot" he might have lived, but anything short of that seems to have ensured his death.

I suspect there will be more worry about this in Britain and Europe than in the US. That doesn't mean we are right or wrong. It is a cultural difference. We are less comfortable about frontier justice, less forgiving about even police shooting people who turn out to be unarmed, perhaps less inculcated with the Dirty Harry message that arresting villains is for wimps, and real justice grows from the barrel of a gun. Many in America won't be in the slightest bit bothered that a mass murderer got what was coming to him swiftly, whether he was trying to kill anyone in that instant or not.

'Gutsy' Obama reaps rewards of 'getting' Osama

Mark Mardell | 14:34 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

obama_smile.jpgObama got Osama.

That's what some people chanted when the news of Osama Bin Laden's killing broke. But will it have any impact on the President Barack Obama's politics and popularity?

Mr Obama has gone out of his way to stress that "get Bin Laden" was his direct instruction and that the arch villain's death is, in part, his victory. White House officials are doing all they can to capitalise on what looks like a mood of nationwide elation.

Any president who "got" Bin Laden would benefit. Former President Bill Clinton's efforts were mocked by George W Bush. Then he failed too, losing Bin Laden in the caves along the border land, as US soldiers stood by.

But perhaps Mr Obama will benefit more than most. His style of decision making is to take time, to deliberate, to chew over every option. His critics call it dithering. There are now some excellent "tick tocks" as they are called here - blow by blow accounts of the decision making process. But you always have to remember all sources are in the circle, and liable to portray the president positively. It sounds as if Mr Obama gave this decision as much time and thought as all the others but away from the public gaze.

Not only did Mr Obama's security advisor John Brennan praise him, but Republicans have even called his decision "gutsy". He did not simply go for bombs or drones but rather a helicopter raid. One insider is quoted as saying that Black Hawk Down was mentioned a few times in the discussions. When that helicopter did go down, Mr Obama surely thought of Jimmy Carter and Iran.

So he's a risk taker, too. It also makes him look focused on what is truly in the US's national interest. You can argue Iraq wasn't, Libya wasn't, even Afghanistan no longer is. But getting the head of al-Qaeda clearly was a number one priority in the minds of many Americans, and Mr Obama decided it was his as well.

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Even habitual enemies, indeed even Rush Limbaugh, have praised him. At a reception for Republicans and Democrats last night, he got a standing ovation.

So the wind is behind him. Whence will he sail? At a White House dinner for members of Congress, he used Bin Laden's killing as a call for unity.

He said: "We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics."

From Bin Laden, he moved effortlessly to domestic public enemy number one, the deficit. "It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face," Mr Obama said.

On Thursday, Mr Obama will travel to New York City to remember those who died in Bin Laden's assault on America. I expect more talk of unity but perhaps some big foreign policy themes as well. There are those who think the halo of success makes it easier for the president to confront a military that wants July's Afghanistan wind-down to be small and fairly insignificant. Others, however, think the momentum runs the other way, and that it gives all the more reason to stay and finish the job.

So the killing sends waves that will wash against these shores and those of a wider world. Some are saying this moment assures Mr Obama's re-election. It assures no such thing.
Apart from the obvious point that there can be many other unexpected events that will have an impact, positive or negative, It just doesn't work like that. However huge this event snow seems, wait a couple of months. In the relentless frenzy of the 24-hour media cycle, it will probably be half forgotten by the the time of the election.

This far out, only events that mean change to people's lives on a day-to-day basis have that sort of game changing impact. But image is important. The president has burnished his in the eyes of many Americans and looks like a resolute commander-in-chief. He knows it, and intends to milk the moment for all it is worth.

'A good day for America'

Mark Mardell | 21:06 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

America has waited a long time, more than 10 years, for this moment of justice and revenge. President Barack Obama is making the most of it. He has said: "I think we can all agree, this is a good day for America. Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama Bin Laden."

The US has had agonised debates about the wars it has been involved in and its role on the world stage. The American reaction to Bin Laden's crimes, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War, have riven the nation. But most will see the killing of Bin Laden very simply, as an act without shades of ambiguity. The good guys shot the bad guy dead. Mr Obama is trying to use it to repeat one of his main messages: how the country should come together.

"Today we are reminded that as a nation there's nothing we can't do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans."

He praised the people who celebrated.

"We've seen that spirit, that patriotism in the crowds that have gathered here outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, and across the country, people holding candles, waving the flag, singing the national anthem, people proud to live in the United States of America."

But there is an interesting word of warning in a thoughtful article for NPR by Foreign Policy writer David Rothkopf. The author reflects: "Sept 11 was not Pearl Harbor. Al-Qaida was not and is not a historic enemy like World War II's Axis powers. Bin Laden is not Hitler."

It is a point worth making. Bin Laden could create terrible suffering and appalling disruption, but he could never actually have won. If World War II had gone a different way, Hitler or his henchmen could have ruled from Downing Street. There was never any danger of Bin Laden taking over the White House.

America has had its moment of justice. Maybe it is a moment of closure too.

Bin Laden's death: A cathartic moment for the US

Mark Mardell | 06:57 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

Man celebrates news of Bin Laden's death outside the White House

President Barack Obama is making it clear that the killing of Osama Bin Laden didn't occur by accident - and that it happened while he was in charge. He told former Presidents Bush and Clinton what he was about to announce before he made his televised White House statement. I am sure he resisted any suggestion that he had done what they had only talked about. Yet he made it clear that his administration had been determined.

The president said that on taking office he had told the CIA that the al-Qaeda chief's death or capture was to be the agency's top priority. Senior administration officials say that he chaired five meetings in March working out the plans for this attack. It's really not clear to me if the political leadership makes much difference to operations like this, but it is certainly the impression Mr Obama wants to linger.

The raid took 40 minutes. The intelligence operation took years. It started with the search for a courier, perhaps something of a misnomer for a senior aide to Bin Laden, one of the few men he trusted, according to prisoners who had been interrogated. Four years ago they uncovered his identity. The very high level of precautions the man took made them all the more suspicious. Two years ago they discovered the areas in which he operated. Last summer they identified the compound, in an affluent suburb of Islamabad. Eight times the size of similar homes in the area, it had 18ft-high walls topped with barbed wire and inner walls 7ft high. A large place, worth a million dollars, but with no phone, no internet access. The CIA believes it was purpose-built to hide Bin Laden.

The US didn't tell the Pakistanis about the compound or about the raid until it had happened. That may create some diplomatic friction.

But the mood in America is exultant. As Twitter proclaimed the death of Bin Laden, before the president spoke, crowds gathered outside the White House, waving the stars and stripes and chanting "USA, USA". This is not a country that does quiet satisfaction. This is a cathartic moment for the nation, a moment when America's military might, know how and sheer will power seem to have come together to produce a result.

At a time when there are so many doubts about America's role in the world, and so much economic gloom, there is something clear and plain about celebrating the "rubbing out" of a bad guy, an enemy. The president has been congratulated by even his opponents, and this success allows him to appear grimly resolute in pursuit of America's core interests.

Senior administration officials say Bin Laden's death is not just a symbol, it removes a charismatic and respected leader whom al-Qaeda cannot replace. The official suggests the organisation is on a downward path that will be difficult to reverse. The domestic implications for Mr Obama are in the opposite direction, but may be just as important.

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