Does Obama Have Baraka ?

Baraka is a prized quality in the leaders of the world. The late King Hassan II of Morocco seemed to possess it, having survived two assassination attempts, in the latter of which his plane was raked by 107 bullets (though not of the armor-piercing variety), and yet the pilot, the chief of Morocco's Air Force, was able to land the plane in extremis.

In foreign policy, Barack Obama seems to be edging into this category alongside Hassan II. We all knew that the operation to take down Osama bin Laden, under the nose and the beard, as they say in French, of Pakistani authorities, at a place deep inside Pakistani territory, was an extremely risky one. We did not know, until the confidences of Joe Biden at a Democratic retreat at Cambridge, Maryland, last weekend, that the then-CIA Director, Leon Panetta, was the only one of Obama's advisers who proposed going ahead. The others advised waiting, including Biden himself, who suggested that more information was needed to prove that bin Laden was indeed living inside that compound in Abbottabad.

The operation of Abbottabad was much better coordinated between the military and the CIA than was the unfortunate attempt, thirty years earlier, to rescue the hostages held by the Iranian "students" at the American Embassy in Tehran, during the presidency of another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Although the two operations were very different, they resembled each other in some aspects. Both represented military interventions in countries with which the United States was not at war. Also, in both cases, it was the CIA's responsibility to acquire intelligence on the internal situation in the country and prepare the groundwork for the intervention. As for the military, it was their responsibility in each case to carry out the attack.

In the operation "Desert One," of April 1980, the CIA had to seek out the location of the hostages, as well as prepare the arrangements for the ultimate transfer of the intervention force to the Embassy itself. As for the former, the military did not fully trust the information provided by local agents of the CIA and insisted on sending a few Special Forces operatives to verify, if possible, the place(s) where the hostages were being held. In the case of the Abbottabad operation, the military depended completely on intelligence furnished by the CIA, including and especially the results of surveillance conducted by unilateral Pakistani agents from a safehouse across the road from the compound where bin Laden was staying. What was remarkable in this operation was that there were no leaks coming from these Pakistani sources. (The Pakistani authorities were not made aware of the operation, for reasons of security.)

Then there is the case of the intervention in Libya to overthrow Qadhafi. Though the military action was precipitated by France's hot-blooded president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the operation would have gone nowhere without American support, the rhetoric of "leading from behind" notwithstanding. It was not just a matter of American equipment -- refueling planes, drones, reconnaissance aircraft, etc. -- but the fact that the NATO headquarters from which the operation was directed, in Naples, was manned mostly by Americans.

There was a period during the long military stalemate when the unthinkable posed itself: that Qadhafi would remain in place and the rebels would fail. But the tide turned, and once again, baraka was on the West's, and Obama's, side.

(Baraka is a French slang word meaning luck and derives from the Arabic and Hebrew word for blessing. The President's first Swahili name derives from the same root).

Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984, a tenure that included the 444 days of the Iran hostage crisis. He is now an historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.