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.”
Obama continued, “Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”
Then, Obama concluded, “For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.”
But what is certain is that the crowds were cheering on Obama’s watch.
Republican claims that the president is soft on security, uncommitted to the war or terror, or simply too inclined toward diplomacy to “get the job done,” will ring hollower. (Although they will continue to make them, as evidenced by New York Congressman Peter King’s Sunday night attempt to claim that it was George W. Bush who deserved the real credit for Osama’s demise.)
Obama did not have to engage in the cowboy antics of the previous administration. He could simply announce “Justice has been done”—during an extraordinary late-night press conference where he avoided hyperbole yet made unmistakable appeals to national pride and the sense of unity that prevailed after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden and his Al Queda network prime targets of an ambitious “war on terror.”
As terrorism experts discussed “one of the great anti-terror initiatives” in recent American history—and thousands of young people swarming outside the White House waving American flags and chanting “USA! USA!” and crowds surrounded the Ground Zero site in New York—Obama restated themes that have been constants of his presidency. For instance, he declared that: “[We] must also reaffirm that the United States is not—and never will be—at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, Al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
This sort of talk may unsettle the most ardent neocons. But it will play well politically. Expect a poll boost for the president. Plenty of analysts—Democrats, to be sure, but nonpartisan players, as well, and perhaps even a few Republicans—will give the president credit for having accomplished what Bush did not.
Ultimately, in times of economic instability, foreign policy coups are less definitional than strategists imagine. The markets were surging Monday, and may continue to do so in the short term. But it would be silly to imagine that an era of good feeling about Obama ushered in at this point will continue unhindered through the November 2012 election. Remember that the presidential “hero” of the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush, traded 91 percent approval ratings in 1991 for defeat at the hands of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992
That said, the essential image of Obama as “presidential” has by most political measures gotten a boost. And his political team will not hesitate to play this moment out—perhaps in a more dignified manner than did George W. Bush’s political czar, Karl Rove, did for his boss in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but not with any less intent to capitalize on an opportunity to spin “national unity” and “good feeling” into political gold.
The bottom line is that Republican prospects for portraying the president as disengaged or dysfunctional when it comes to foreign policy is general—and the war on terror in particular—just took a hard hit
That’s not necessarily fair. But no one who is serious about presidential politics expects much in the way of fairness. As Karl Rove would tell you, it’s a fight for advantage. And, at precisely the point when his challengers are trying to get traction, Obama just scored a brand new stockpile of that precious commodity.
For links to The Nation’s complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, click here.