It's the old fable about the proud old oak tree and the reed. (That link is to Jean de la Fontaine's version, unfortunately in a rather prosy translation. Ah well.) The oak tree boasts about its strength, but when the big wind blows, it doesn't know how to bend and gets blown down. The flexible reed weathers the storm because it knows when it's time to allow the elements their power.
I was thinking about this last night as I watched the television report on the bin Laden raid and heard the inevitable comparisons between our two most recent presidents. The image of George W. Bush strutting on the deck of that aircraft carrier was a poignant contrast with Obama, taking a back seat, huddled on a folding chair in the situation room, letting go of control in a situation in which he knew he had none, and trusting to others to fulfill the orders he had given.
The qualms I have about that assassination come from the head and its moral judgments rather than the gut. The decision the president made could not have been an easy one for him. The stakes were enormous. Failure would have been disastrous, both from the geopolitical point of view and for his presidency. Those who wish to detract from his courage in making that decision raise the specter of Jimmy Carter's failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. They forget that he demonstrated the same courage in taking the risk; that he was not to blame to the disastrous outcome did not spare him from its consequences. Because the mission did not succeed, he was perceived as weak. In fact, the contrary was true: his decision proved him strong.
It was surely thanks to the meticulous planning and the patient execution that the bin Laden raid succeeded. Obama and his team had the luxury of time. No matter what your opinion of assassination as a political tool, you have to admire the cool determination and the extraordinary skill and courage of those involved in this operation, from the president to the military chiefs to those members of the Seal team who brought it to fruition. Each one, this television report made clear, had a specific function and responsibility. It was a remarkable collaborative effort.
Strength relies in good part on intelligence. The martial arts teach us that it can be useless, even dangerous, if used with brute force, without skill and timing. The opponent's strength is something to be understood and used against him. When I hear the president's domestic enemies attempt to label him as weak, their attacks ring hollow; they make themselves, instead, look impotent. If they mistake his resolve in the coming election, they do so at their peril. Let them boast, like that old oak tree, to their heart's content. This reed of a president understands about strength--and when and how to use it.