Was Obama in charge—or not?

White House/Pete Souza

President Obama, Vice President Biden and the national security team monitoring the mission against Osama bin Laden from the White House Situation Room on May 1, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Who made the decision not to deploy forces into #Benghazi? If it was the president, how does he justify the call?

    Tweet This

  • Remember the photo the night bin Laden was taken out? There are none like that the night Amb Stevens was killed #Benghazi http://ow.ly/eQZS7

    Tweet This

  • There are no pictures of the president watching a live feed from the drone above #Benghazi the night Amb. Stevens was killed

    Tweet This


Much has been made of President Obama’s considerable use of the pronoun “I” on the night he announced to the nation the killing of Osama bin Laden. As Mark Bowden notes in his recently published account of the killing and the decision-making that led up to the operation, The Finish, the president was not shy about putting himself front and center when it came to the decision to proceed with the operation: “I directed Leon Panetta … I was briefed … I met repeatedly with my national security team … I determined … and authorized … Today at my direction.” 

While a bit over the top when it comes to the “me” factor, nevertheless, the president is indeed commander in chief and, under the Constitution, with its unitary executive, he is, as the text of that document asserts, the sole holder of “the executive power.” Unlike many of the state constitutions of the time, the national executive authority was not divided among various state office holders nor as under the Articles of Confederation—the country’s first federal constitution—was it in the hands of the national assembly. So, whether critics of the president liked his rhetoric or not, whether they felt it was unseemly or not, it wasn’t out of bounds from a constitutional perspective.

Now, the founders thought the “unitary executive” was necessary because it provided two distinct but complementary institutional qualities: decisiveness and responsibility. In times of emergency, one man could act more quickly than many and one man, whose decision it was to act, could be judged for that decision more clearly by Congress and the nation than a muddle of decision makers. One only has to remember the now iconic picture relayed around the nation and the world the next day of the president, surrounded by aides, the vice president and the secretary of state, intently watching the feed from an overhead drone in the White House situation room as the operation against bin Laden’s compound went down to understand the role the president plays in such matters.

Of course, that was then. 

There are no pictures of the president watching a live feed from the drone that was above Benghazi the night Ambassador Stevens was killed. There are no pictures of the president monitoring the hours-long assault on the American diplomatic compounds there or the resulting firefight between the Islamists militia and U.S. security guards, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both of whom were killed early in the morning of September 12.

What we do have are reports that U.S. commandos, gunships, and other specialized forces were moved into position to come to the Americans’ assistance. Now, putting aside the fact that such deployments do not normally occur without the highest level of consultation within an administration, what we don’t know is who made the ultimate decision not to deploy those forces into Benghazi. Did the president? If he did, what reasons can he give to justify the decision to keep from sending those forces in? It might even have been the right decision but we will not know that until we have a clearer picture of when he was informed, what he was told, how he stayed informed, and when and why he gave the order to stand down. 

But the very fact that the White House and the administration have been reluctant to provide this information (and, indeed, seem to be passing the buck on who did what and when) raises another possibility: that the president was not carrying out his responsibilities as commander in chief. Yet whether distracted by the upcoming election, calls to the Israeli prime minister, or prepping for a fundraiser the next day in Las Vegas, presidents don’t get to delegate that power, even to a secretary of defense. So, the night of September 11 comes down to this: was the president in charge—or not? The Constitution makes it clear, he must be.


Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Gary J.

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.