Forget trumping Trump with the long-form birth certificate, President Obama’s Sunday night announcement that he had ordered a successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden was a political coup that will yield him benefits for months, perhaps years, to come.
The president, who conservative critics continue to dismiss as somehow less capable or less committed to battling terrorism than his predecessor, George W. Bush, has done what Bush never could: announce that US forces under his command had found and killed the leader of Al Qaeda.
Military and foreign-policy analysts will devote immense amounts of time and energy to debates about the significance of “getting” Osama at a point when a small cadre of Al Qaeda operatives remains in the field. Wise voices of caution will be raised with regard to claims that the killing of Osama is a political “game-changer.”
Real questions remain regarding threats that may or may not continue; and about the undeclared wars on specific countries—Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular—that continue to be waged as part of some grand strategy that always seemed to have more to do with neocon fantasies than fighting terrorism in any practical sense. Obama has never done enough to distinguish between necessary initiatives to maintain national security and the wars of whim he inherited from Bush—and that he has, in the case of the Afghanistan imbroglio, foolishly extended.
It is unfortunate but true that the end of Osama may not be recognized as the proper point at which to end the broad war on terror initiated almost a decade ago by Bush and Dick Cheney. Reason and responsibility do not define our politics in an age of spin and self-service. Smart policies and sly politics do not always go hand in hand.
What is the practical prospect for Obama?
The political potency of an announcement of the sort that the president made Sunday night is hard to underestimate—especially for a president who must always on guard to counter GOP assaults on his character and competence.
The political teams of American presidents, especially American presidents seeking new terms, are quick to recognize the advantages accorded wartime commanders-in-chief—and that goes double for wartime commanders-in-chief who are claiming what appear to be tangible victories.
So it was that a confident, in-charge, strong and successful American president appeared Sunday night to detail the steps taken—with his active involvement from the beginning of his first term—to track down Osama bin Laden.
This was no George Bush “Mission Accomplished” juggernaut.
But the lack of bravado ought not be mistaken for a lack of political calculus.
Obama did not boast about getting his man “dead or alive.” Rather, he struck a tone that, while humble on the surface, was carefully constructed to emphasize his personal role in the mission.
“[Last] August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden,” the president explained. “It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”