No trophy mattered more to American public opinion. As the perpetrator of the most lethal terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Osama bin Laden was a national hate figure, viscerally loathed.
Last week, when Barack Obama released his birth certificate to silence those who had questioned his American identity, he explained that he did not normally respond to such nonsense because “you know, I've got other things to do.” Now we know that those “other things” included meticulous planning for an event that could well transform his presidency, reshaping both the way he is seen and the foreign policy he pursues.
That Mr. Obama was able to announce the death of Osama bin Laden so soon after he had crushed the absurd charge that he was a foreign (maybe Kenyan, maybe Indonesian, maybe both!) usurper of the White House felt oddly appropriate. For the success of the operation in Abbottabad makes Mr. Obama's rivals look small indeed, Lilliputians chasing wild fantasies while Gulliver deals with the things that matter. He has rendered even more laughable Donald Trump's declaration that “I feel proud of myself” for flushing out the proof of Mr. Obama's Hawaiian birth. The President has shown what a true achievement looks like.
For, like it or not, no trophy mattered more to American public opinion. As the perpetrator of the most lethal terrorist attack on U.S. soil, bin Laden was a national hate figure, viscerally loathed. That's why his death brought spontaneous midnight crowds to Times Square and Pennsylvania Avenue. One U.S. commentator described Sunday night (May 1) as feeling like VE Day. It will take a special kind of stupidity for Republicans to question Mr. Obama's patriotism now.
The killing in Pakistan will bury another criticism, rarely articulated explicitly: the suggestion that Mr. Obama was somehow insufficiently tough, insufficiently macho, to be commander-in-chief. It was there in the mockery of his taste for “arugula,” the descriptions of him as “professorial.” A former speechwriter for Mario Cuomo, the hardball ex-governor of New York, once told me: “There is a subtext of male violence that runs through American politics.” He reckoned male voters especially want to believe the President could take a guy out, that he is capable of aggression. This partly explains the rapturous response that greeted Mr. Obama's merciless slapdown of Trump during his stand-up at the White House correspondents' dinner on Saturday night. Americans need to know their President has steel. Crude though it may be, Mr. Obama just passed that test with flying colours of red, white and blue.
He did it, though, his own way. The tenor of his televised announcement was revealing. Yes, he was keen to take full credit: speaking of his own involvement and decision-making over several long months, lest anyone think this was the work of underlings or a drone that got lucky. But he avoided the crass cowboy talk that was a hallmark of the previous administration: the official statement of Saddam Hussein's capture began with the words “We got him.” Mr. Obama's style was, by contrast, measured and steady, recalling 9/11 and speaking movingly of the images of “that September day” that the world did not see, starting with “The empty seat at the dinner table.”
From now on, Mr. Obama will be viewed slightly differently at home and abroad, his coolness understood to be unflappable and poker-faced, rather than chilly and professorial. One former Foreign Minister who has seen the President up close believes that bin Laden's scalp will lead other world leaders to conclude that, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, “Obama may speak softly — but he carries a big stick.” Expect the comparisons with Jimmy Carter — whose own raid to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran famously failed — to dry up pretty quickly.
All this augurs well for Mr. Obama's re-election prospects in 2012, though 18 months is a long time in anybody's politics. If there should be another spectacular attack on a U.S. target, conducted to avenge bin Laden's death, then the euphoria will melt away. Besides, next year's campaign is likely to hinge on the economy rather than security. But, for now, the killing of the world's most wanted man presents the President with an important opportunity.
Mr. Obama's greatest non-domestic headache remains the war in Afghanistan. One well-informed source says that, until Sunday, Mr. Obama was “hemmed in,” especially by a military brass reluctant to walk away with anything that did not look like victory. The immediate argument in Washington centred on the number of troops scheduled for withdrawal starting July 1, the military speaking only of a “symbolic” figure, the White House wanting more.
In that dispute, Mr. Obama's hand is now strengthened, with public opinion likely to shift decisively his way. That's because, for a lot of Americans, the purpose of the U.S. war in Afghanistan remains inseparably linked to its initial cause: 9/11. Now that the arch-perpetrator of that crime has been removed, why, many will ask, do we need to stay? Mr. Obama could, however, do more than simply insist on greater numbers of U.S. troops coming home. He could use bin Laden's death to shift towards a full exit strategy, seeking what is surely the only credible solution: a peace settlement that holds both inside Afghanistan, necessarily including the Taliban, and outside, necessarily including Pakistan, whose own role in harbouring bin Laden — unwitting or not — will cause many Americans to wonder if that country is actually friend or foe in the war against al-Qaeda.
There are risks for Mr. Obama. If he does not act quickly, he could find public opinion gets ahead of him — as impatience over the decade-long Afghan war turns into impatience with the President for not winding it down.
For now, he has scored a valuable victory, one that lifts his own standing but also arrests the gloomy, declinist mood that has gripped some in his country, convinced that American power is on the slide. He has done in two years what his predecessor failed to do in eight. But Mr. Bush's “Mission Accomplished” banner should stay in the White House basement: the al-Qaeda remains, the war in Afghanistan is not over, and there is still so much more work to do. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011