Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Debating the Merits of Analogical Reasoning and CT Ops

I am a big fan of Daniel Drezner and really enjoy his blog. But, just for fun (and because I am bereft of ideas for my own blogging and possibly because I am jealous of people that blog proficiently and write serious academic stuff), I am going to take issue with something he wrote a week ago.

Drezner criticizes the administration’s decision-making over a targeting al-Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan who was wanted for his role in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and other attacks, along with serving as a link between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. The options, in order of least to most risky were an offshore strike by Tomahawk missile, a strike by attack helicopters, or a “snatch and grab” by Special Forces. The final option, while risky would have the huge pay-off of possibly bringing in a high-level al-Qaeda operative who would be a source of intelligence. However, the memory of “Black Hawk Down” weighed heavily on the decision-makers and State’s counter-terror coordinator said, “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”

Drezner writes:
Here's the thing though -- as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited. The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn't going to take place in a city but a remote desert road. It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu. In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage. Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993. In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed -- but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely.

Despite these differences, analogical reasoning triumphed. The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.
I am interested decision-making. The reality is that rarely are options carefully weighed for each issue, often decisions are made with all kinds of injudiciously included inputs. Basically, every time force is used, is a roll of the dice. Special Operations have lots of moving parts and lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. Undoubtedly, US Special Forces do everything they can reduce those risks, but there are always unknowns. The question is, when does the President choose to roll the dice?

To get OBL – roll the dice! But for a lower-level target, consider carefully if the risks are worth it. Finally, consider the overall context – in this Somalia. It isn’t that the situation is the same as 1993, but that if something does go wrong it could resonate both domestically and internationally – a shot in the arm to the bad guys. A similar operation in Afghanistan, for example, where US forces are constantly involved in an ongoing campaign might not resonate the same way.

This doesn’t detract from Drezner’s argument, but perhaps the flawed analogy still served a purpose in high-lighting bigger picture risks.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What

Yesterday I attended a book discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center on U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What, co-authored by Amb. Edward Marks and my old CTBlog colleague Michael Kraft.
To this TerrorWonk, who is obsessed with how organizations work (among many other things) this event was a real treat. The authors attempted to provide an overview of the different counter-terror functions of the U.S. government. This is not an easy task, and while their volume will be useful they readily admitted that this work is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the important challenges is understanding that lots of the government’s counter-terror capabilities are dual-use.

There are offices that are strictly devoted to counter-terror missions (such as the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. But there are many more offices that serve counter-terror functions while also serving other functions as well. The Treasury offices that enforce financial sanctions are very important for counter-terror also place sanctions on criminals and other malefactors. Special Forces have a major counter-terror mission, but the perform multiple other functions as well. The FBI is a leading domestic counter-terror agency, but it also fights regular crime (of which, unfortunately, there is no shortage.) Finally there are many more agencies that have a smaller counter-terror component. The NIH and first responder agencies are good examples, in that in the event of a terror attack they would have a role to play – but for the most part they have very different missions. Natural disasters and disease outbreaks are far more common then terror attacks. Of course, it is a natural law of bureaucracies to move to where the money is and when terrorism is a hot issue, agencies discover their relevance to it.

The 9/11 attacks highlighted failures of coordination both in operations and the intelligence community. But, the US government is an enormous, sprawling system and much coordination relies on the personal relationships at the Assistant Secretary level, of course the authors wryly observed that government officials can spend so much time coordinating that they never get to do their jobs.

During the Q&A I asked a question about one of my particular obsessions, the 1986 Vice Presidential Working Group on Terrorism where my two leading public policy interests collide! The authors confirmed what I had read, that the working group established a number of valuable policy recommendations, but that they had not been implemented- nor were they implemented in later terrorism commissions. They also spoke well of the vice president’s role overseeing the task force as important to keeping the project on track, providing political cover, and resolving difficult issues.

Organization charts, standard operating procedures, and nuts and bolts of legislation may not seem to be the most exciting aspect of counter-terrorism (as opposed to drone strikes and special forces) but it is essential. The ways in which government agencies respond to challenges is shaped by their institutional capabilities and the U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What is an essential guide to what those capabilities are.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will Israel Strike Iran? Thoughts in Politico's Arena

I've been writing a bit about Iran lately. Here is my response to yesterday's the Politico Arena question of the Day about the impact and meaning of SecDef Panetta's statement that Israel would attack Iran by June.
Ironically, Panetta's comments decrease the risk of military action. The threat of a strike is more effective a weapon then a strike itself. Very few actors in the world want Iran to have a nuclear weapon and at the same time very few want to see a military attack on Iran (including Israel, which has limited capabilities for carrying out such a strike) - it could unleash a contagion of violence across an already violence-prone region. At the very least it would lead to a spike in energy prices, which instantly makes billions poorer and fuels unrest in its own right.

But tolerating a nuclear Iran is also a very unpleasant possibility. Iranian politics are complex, but there are substantial radical constituencies that - even if they would not immediately use a nuclear weapon for eschatological reasons - would use it as cover for subversive activities throughout the region. Neighboring Pakistan has become an aggressive user of terrorism as a strategy and gets away with it because of its nuclear arsenal. Iran, sitting astride the energy rich Persian Gulf would be well-placed to make even more international havoc.

International sanctions are starting to bite, hard. But just as the sanctions bite, nations around the world have incentives to start easing them. The threat of an Israeli strike makes everyone nervous, and creates incentives to keep the pressure on Iran - which is difficult but beats the alternative.
I'll add a few additional points, having had a day to think about it. First, for a sense of what a nuclear Iran would look like, check out Pakistan.

The other point to consider is what the end game looks like. There are substantial constituencies that insist on regime change in Iran (internally, by overthrowing the mullahs - no one sensible is talking about invading.) But with the sanctions biting hard, the regime might very well be ready to come to the table. But if official US policy is still seen as pushing for regime change, then there is no incentive to come to the table and every incentive for the Iranian leaders to press on for nukes (the ultimate guarantor of regime survival.) Would Western powers be open to such a bargain - would the US come to terms with the Islamic Revolution if they dumped their nuclear program in a manner that is satisfactory to the US? The example of Libya, where the US ultimately sided with those who overthrew the regime, despite Qadhaffi's re-alignment and ending his WMD program is hardly encouraging - at least from the perspective of the leaders in Tehran.

Research at the Nixon & Reagan Libraries

For Presidents Day, I contributed a post to The Text Message, a blog of the National Archives, about my recent experience doing archival research. The original post is here.

As a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy I am researching the vice presidential role in national security affairs. While the vast majority of vice presidents played only a tiny role, this has changed dramatically in recent years. My particular area of interest is vice presidential influence – how and when does the vice president get to make policy? The relationship between the president and vice president is essential, as the vice president has no real independent authority.

On a recent family trip to LA, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit the archives at the Nixon and Reagan libraries.

Using the Archives
I know a great deal about vice presidents, but having never done archival research before, I put in calls to chat with the archivists and learn a little bit about what I was getting into. They were extremely helpful. There are extensive descriptions of the archival holdings online and the archivists urged me to identify what I was interested in, so that they could pull the boxes and have them waiting for me.

Picking what I wanted at the Nixon library was pretty easy. The vast majority of Nixon’s records are about his presidency. But I was interested in the Nixon vice presidency, so I identified a relatively small number of boxes relevant to my research.

The Reagan archives was a bit more of a challenge. Reagan was never the vice president and there were only a few boxes referring to his vice president George H. W. Bush. Fortunately – this is all still over the phone – Jennifer Mandel, my contact at the Reagan Library, came to my rescue.

First, she explained that if I wanted to see documents about Bush, I needed to visit his library. Then she gave me a short course on the nature of archival research. In essence, a researcher needs to come in with some fairly specific ideas of what they seek – otherwise they will simply wade through endless masses of paper. Since I am looking for instances in which vice presidents persuaded presidents to adopt policies, I needed to have a pretty good idea of what policies I was interested in and then start looking for the paper trail.

She was not discouraging me, only explaining the practicalities of my endeavor. It is further complicated because a great deal of modern interactions between the president and vice president are informal and not on paper.

However, I had previously written a paper about a working group on terrorism led by Vice President Bush (and studying terrorism is my day job, so I had an additional interest.) So we agreed that should be my focus.

A week later, at the archives, I settled down to actually do my research. It is most helpful to the archivists if the researcher has already submitted requests for particular boxes – but they will do their best to pull them in a timely manner. Facilitating public access to the documents is the critical mission for the archivists, and from what I saw they take it very seriously.

There was a form to fill out – no big deal – and some basic explanations. The archivist monitoring the research room must be able to see the researcher’s hands (documents have been tampered with and pilfered.) Also, documents should be handled carefully. In particular, the archivists need to do any staple removals. There are copy machines available, but through the miracle of technology, a celphone camera can serve as a scanner! There are plenty of smartphone apps that facilitate this – but a camera with just a few mega-pixels will provide a decent image.

Nixon as VP
At the Nixon Library, much of the correspondence was work-a-day material focusing on vice presidential appearances. Nixon is an interesting case, he played a more active role then previous vice presidents, serving as campaigner-in-chief so that Eisenhower could appear to be above the political fray. But this activity did not necessarily translate to influence for Nixon. Recent vice presidents have had offices in the White House. Nixon did not. Many letters from Eisenhower were requests for meetings. In more recent years, if the president wished to meet his vice president, he could just send an aide down the hall. But, at the same time, Nixon was not excluded from the process. He was a regular attendee at Cabinet and National Security Council meetings. In fact, during periods of illness, Eisenhower instructed Nixon to hold and chair these meetings in the President’s absence in order to reduce concerns about Eisenhower’s health and its impact on the functioning of the government.
There were also a number of letters in which Eisenhower warmly thanks Nixon for his efforts and contributions.
Still, it isn’t clear if this meant that Nixon had much influence. This particular memo seemed intriguing. I don’t know the back-story, but it looks like the kind of note a boss sends when he wants an issue dropped.
The picture that appears of Nixon’s vice presidency is that while he took on whatever tasks he was given ably, he was perhaps not in Eisenhower’s inner council of advisors.

VP Bush Combatting Terrorism
In contrast the documents for the George H. W. Bush Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism were voluminous and making sense of them is a real challenge. Still, there are interesting places where the internal bureaucratic machinations are exposed. One of the purposes of the Task Force was to help get the various government agencies concerned with terrorism working together. The hand-written notes attached to copies or on copies of the report give a real sense as to how that process worked.
Presidential Libraries
While visiting the archives, I had the added pleasure of at least a little time at the Presidential Libraries. They are both lovely. One of the highlights of the Reagan Library is Air Force One.
Reagan’s library is also located high in the hills overlooking Simi Valley. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
I was told that the sunsets there are spectacular, but I couldn’t stay. However, when I stepped outside of the Nixon Library the sun was setting. I stood for a time and contemplated the great question of Presidential studies: Is it the man, or is it the moment, or is it perhaps a bit of each?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Presidents Day & Andrew Jackson

Not long ago, Americans celebrated the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, an appropriate honor for two of the giant figures of this Republic. Now, we celebrate Presidents Day – by taking advantage of discounted cars and mattresses.

Still, Lincoln and Washington remain ubiquitous as the great American Presidents – but they have not always stood alone on their pedestals. Andrew Jackson has been lost to mists of history and political correctness. But for many generations he too was revered as a Presidential giant. FDR (another giant) travelled to Jackson’s home The Hermitage and met an old woman who had tended to Jackson as an old man. Afterwards, FDR wrote, “The more I learn about old Andy Jackson the more I love him.”

Truman, writes in his memoirs how his old friend, Eddie Jacobson recalled, “You have probably read every book there is on Andrew Jackson. I remember when we had the store that you were always reading books and pamphlets, and a lot of them were about Jackson. You put this statue in front of Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City when you built it.”

Far be it for this brief missive to attempt to resurrect Jackson’s reputation. Some of his recent anonymity is well deserved – particularly for his monstrous policies towards the Native Americans. But Jackson believed the United States was a special country and devoted his life to preserving the Union and democratic rule. His efforts were not as dramatic as those of Lincoln – but Jackson’s America was a newer and more fragile entity.

Jackson was president in a time of political and intellectual ferment, what Samuel Huntington in American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony calls a period of creedal passion when Americans seek to remake the country in accord to its treasured values of freedom, equality, limited government, and democracy. We may be entering such a phase again and we would be wise to follow Truman’s course and study the Old General.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Iranian Amb. on How to Engage Iran

Amb. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and now a researcher at Princeton, visited the University of Maryland and tried to explain how negotiations with Iran should proceed. His presentation can be viewed in two parts:

CISSM Forum - How to Engage with Iran - Part 1 | Public Policy, University of Maryland
CISSM Forum - How to Engage with Iran - Part 2 | Public Policy, University of Maryland

Here is are Ambassador Mousavian's prepared remarks.

My own impressions were first and foremost that Amb. Mousavian is an effective advocate. He argued that the problems are purely political, not technical and that Iran is the most sanctioned nation in the world. This, he argues is hypocritical since other nuclear states such as Pakistan and Israel have established strategic relations with the US and even North Korea is subject to less sanction then Iran. The Amb. argued that US (and Western) policy is 99% sticks with no carrots and has ignored Iranian overtures. The US keeps insisting on small steps, while the Iran wants a grand bargain that would cover a range of regional issues.

Perhaps Mousavian's most compelling point was describing the legacy of mistrust between the countries. American reasons for skepticism about Iranian intentions are well-known but Iran also has its reasons for skepticism about American intentions. The 1953 coup which brought the Shah to Iran remains a critical turning point in Iranian national consciousness. American support for Saddam during the Gulf War - and particularly the blind eye the US turned to Saddam's use of chemical weapons - is a tremendous sore point to the Iranians (and understandably so.) Further, the the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988 killing 290 people. Americans may view this as a regrettable accident, but Iranians this too is an open wound. To his credit, the Ambassador did not deny that Iran two has some unfortunate incidents in its past - but merely emphasized that comparing misdeeds is unproductive in resolving the current impasse. Understanding how the Iranians see the world and view themselves as victims is important (and this goes for studying basically every country in the world.)

That being said, I was frankly disappointed that the other attendees did not press the ambassador a bit harder, but rather took him at his word. I readily admit to not being an expert on the details of the nuclear fuel cycle and IAEA protocols (read some technically informed takes here and here) - but presumably some UMD figures are and it would have been nice to get a bit more specific. The Ambassador also put some of the blame on the chaotic American political system where different interests push and pull in different ways. No disagreement here - this is what I study - but, his claims that the Iranian system does not present similar challenges was also unquestioned, although I believe that individuals who actually have been involved in reaching out to Iran tell a very different story.

Further, although the Ambassador mentioned inflammatory Iranian rhetoric, he elided a critical point: the rhetoric exists because there are important constituencies and institutions that are committed to exporting the Islamic revolution. The other players in region (Saudis, Gulf States, and Egypt) have come to a defacto peace with Israel's nuclear capability. They have a strong sense of Israel's limited ambitions and red lines. These same players are extremely nervous about Iran's potential nuclear capability.

Two-Level Game
Mousavian himself is in exile. It is unclear exactly who he represents, but he is generally believed to be aligned with the Iranian faction that very much seeks a deal with the West and would like to see the sanctions lifted. What we are probably seeing is a classic two-level game in which domestic politics and international negotiations are pulling on one another. The US side of this is well-known, but the Iranian side is less clear. However, if factions that hope to reach an accommodation with the West on the nuclear issue and lift sanctions can bring home the credible hope of an agreement, domestic politics might shift their way (sanctions are crippling Iran's economy so that relaxing them would be a huge win.)

This is an understandable ambition, but the record of the reputed Iranian moderates is not a strong one.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Delhi & Tblisi Attacks: Analysis & Implications

The Israeli government has blamed Iran and Hezbollah for a pair of attacks on Israeli diplomats earlier today. There are plenty of reasons to believe this is the case. If so, there is good news and there is bad news.

Background The attacks included explosives planted on cars of Israeli diplomats in Tblisi, Georgia and New Delhi, India. The device in Tblisi was discovered and disabled, the device in New Delhi detonated and injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat. The attack occurred on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh.

The attacks could also be an effort to remind the world that sanctioning Iran and supporting the Syrian rebels will not come without a cost – this alliance still has the capability to deliver terror worldwide.

Interestingly, the attack method – quickly sticking a magnetic explosive to the car – is the method used to assassinate an Iranian scientist last month. However, in this case the target was less carefully chosen.

Hezbollah’s limitations The silver lining on this unfortunate event is that it is a further proof of Hezbollah’s loss of the ability to carry out long-range terror attacks. While it has been generally assumed the Hezbollah is one of the most capable terrorist groups this morning was its first successful operation outside of Lebanon since 1996. Hezbollah has certainly had the motivation to carry out major terror attacks, particularly to avenge the assassination of its operations chief, the arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. In the past I have argued that extensive international intelligence efforts against Hezbollah have taken a heavy toll, restricting their ability to carry out complex attacks abroad.

While this morning’s attack was a tragedy it is a far cry from the devastating attacks Hezbollah launched in Argentina or against the Khobar Towers (or its initial attacks against the US Embassy and Marine Barracks in Lebanon.) Hezbollah has also assassinated its enemies, but the targets were carefully chosen – this morning’s attacks were more akin to targets of opportunity.

It is of course possible that Hezbollah was merely holding its fire, that these were shots across the bow rather then full-fledged strikes. But the fact that a revenge attack for the Mughniyeh killing has only come four years does little to suggest that Hezbollah has maintained its once formidable international network. None of this is to suggest, that Hezbollah as been defanged. The efforts needed to keep Hezbollah international terror capabilities in check are essential - if they were not present the organization would probably be able to resume high-level attacks. India’s Vulnerability In the 1970s and 1980s many European countries allowed Middle Eastern terrorist groups freedom to operate with the understanding (or at least the belief) that they would not carryout attacks in the host country’s territory. This blind eye strategy did not work and France, in particular, became a battle-ground and target for various Middle Eastern extremists. India is not consciously turning a blind eye to terrorism. However, it’s security capacity is imperfect. While there are highly professional elements within India’s security services, day-to-day law enforcement leaves something to be desired. Spotty security limitations combined with long-borders and extensive international trade and travel, as well as a plethora of dissatisfied domestic communities make India a potential playground for terrorist groups. Further, with the advent of the Internet and cable news, attacks in India will attract cameras (as was seen in Mumbai in 2008) as readily as attacks anywhere else.

There is a potential opportunity here as well.

Mike Kraft, a former State Department official , has written extensively about capacity building for counter-terrorism. Strictly physical security is only the first level of this kind of effort. In Columbia, for example, the State Department helped train prosecutors how to collect evidence and build cases against terrorists. In Indonesia, training focused on creating a modern and effective system for monitoring financial transaction so that counter-terror sanctions could be implemented. Programs like this have lots of other benefits such as improving the justice system. Delivering financial aid to Indonesia after the tsunami was simplified by the reforms originally put in place for counter-terror purposes.

Large scale American and Israeli efforts to improve Indian internal security through professionalizing police forces and bringing information technology to the law enforcement community could yield enormous dividends for India beyond counter-terror and strengthen the already growing bonds between these allies.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

COIN: A Thought Experiment

Amongst military affairs wonks, debates about COIN continue. I don’t know enough to participate. But in the years since 9/11 every statement by any policy-maker or pundit ended with an exhortation to “win the war of ideas” but without any clue as to how it should be done. As the US found itself pulled into nation-building these same policy-makers and pundits talked about “winning hearts and minds” and embracing counter-insurgency. Thanks to brilliant folks like David Kilcullen and his eminently readable Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency lots of people thought they had a handle on what this meant and could toss around the lingo. But I was struck by a review of COIN literature by SAIS professor Eliot Cohen in which he wrote:
However, a senior official slinging COIN argot ("oil spot tactics," "combined action platoons" and the like) at meetings far from the fight is one thing. An infantry captain plunked down in the mountains of Nurestan, figuring out how to control rugged terrain with a few American platoons, a larger force of questionable Afghan soldiers and police, and a mistrustful, war-weary population is something very different. With counterinsurgency, as with all military matters, implementing doctrine proves much more difficult than discussing it….

In every such war, the counterinsurgents learn the need for local knowledge: language first, and from it, all they can discover about authority structures, grievances, customs and local politics. The broad principles melt away because, as one colonel told me in 2008 while flying over eastern Afghanistan, the counterinsurgent soon realizes that "it's a valley-by-valley war."

The kind of specific knowledge needed does not lend itself to treatises, much less bestsellers.

….Making COIN work in real time, therefore, requires the right kinds of practitioners, vast patience and local knowledge of a kind that is difficult to build up and easily perishable in large organizations.
Cohen’s review inspired a little thought experiment that helped place the challenge of COIN into terms that I (a regular suburban guy) could relate to.

I am involved with my synagogue, volunteering, sitting on committees etc. (In a reduced version of COIN, civil society too is awesome in theory but in practice means lots of going to meeting and scutwork.) My particular preferred flavor of Judaism is the Conservative movement. For fun, let us imagine that the Reform movement has decided to “takeover” the Conservative movement. To do so they dispatch extremely charming and hardworking individuals – missionaries – to get involved with a targeted synagogue and try to convert it.

This individual has lots of energy and charm and a modest budget. Enough to make substantial donations, but not enough to simply buy off the place (say paying off the mortgage or completely renovating the building.) The missionary has two years to accomplish the conversion.

The truth is, getting involved in a synagogue is not that hard. There are almost always committees that could use volunteers. Our missionary throws himself into this task with great energy, sets about identifying key sources of influence within the synagogue, befriending them and influencing them. Would the missionary succeed in two years? The answer would depend on innumerable variables, including the charm and talent of the missionary and the receptivity of the individuals approached and the institution as a whole (in general such organizations are conservative about change and prefer the status quo.)

It is safe to say that success would be possible, but not easy and require enormous efforts by the missionary. These efforts would include hours of committee meetings, envelope stuffing, small talk, and everything else that keep an organization going. It would be a full-time job, with no guarantee of success.

However, the theological and ritual gaps between Conservative and Reform Judaism are modest. Our missionary is working in a language and culture with which he (or she) has tremendous familiarity and there is no active opposition. Identifying and reaching key nodes of influence, perhaps the single most essential task, is relatively easy (it’s called networking.)

Imagine if the missionary had to operate in an unfamiliar language and culture that was actively and dramatically averse to his proposals, and there was an active opposition that was shooting at the missionary and murdering people who allied themselves with him.

That is what we are asking service people to do in Afghanistan and what they tried to do in Iraq. This is not to say that it is not a worthy mission, only that the task is extraordinarily difficult.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Biden on OBL Raid: Influence Denied?

In advising against the raid that successfully nabbed OBL, Biden may have given me a perfect case study of vice presidential influence. Or maybe not...

It is true that Biden advised against the raid and that the President did not take his advice and gave the “go” order. Some pundits have used this as an opportunity to argue (remind?) that Biden is always wrong. It isn’t clear if this interpretation is fair.

Reportedly, except for then DCI Panetta (who was strongly for) all of the other advisors were “51-49” on whether or not to do it. There were huge risks and huge benefits. Biden sees himself as a devil’s advocate or in-house truth teller who doesn’t have to curry favor. So he called it as he saw it. Reportedly Biden said, “We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.”

Those two things are not known – but the specificity of the advice suggests that Biden was trying to be useful. The fact that ultimately his advice was not taken, doesn’t mean he did not play a valuable role in the President’s decision-making process.

It is also worth noting, that the raid could easily have gone bad. If that had been the case, then Biden would have looked like a genius. But as a good vice president he would have had to keep quiet about it.

With Biden and Cheney the US has had two straight VPs who did not harbor presidential ambitions. Previous VPs did seek the presidency. While they were careful not to show any policy divisions between themselves and the president – they would also not have done what Biden just did. Biden admitted to being wrong and at odds with the President, but in a way that built up the President.

Just as Biden ran the opposition play in the Afghanistan strategy review – not necessarily to succeed but to ensure the pro-surge crowd didn’t run the table – Biden is making an interesting use of his role and his freedom from a political future.