The contrarian impulse runs deep among American foreign policy thinkers. Before President Obama could even reach the podium last night, I began to receive tweets trying to minimize the impact of the announcement we believed—but remained uncertain—the president was about to make. (“Bin Laden was never a particularly effective terrorist leader,” read one. Which begs the question, “who is an effective terrorist leader, if not bin Laden?”) Others tried to reduce the political impact of the moment by suggesting that it wasn’t as if Obama would win or lose a second term based on foreign policy. Republican attacks are coming over his stewardship of the economy and jobs, not chasing down America’s sworn enemies. (So, if it doesn’t refute a Republican talking point, it is of negligible value?) If somehow you had missed the deadly attacks of September 11 and most of the last ten years, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all much ado about nothing. It is as if it would have been better for Obama to announce a new job-creation program in Detroit than the elimination of the terrorist whose organization destroyed the Twin Towers.
Let’s go ahead and dispense with what bin Laden’s death did not accomplish. Long before Sunday’s raid, it had become accepted foreign policy wisdom to point out that the death of Osama bin Laden would not spell the end of Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was not operating as the head of central command from his mansion in Abbottabad. He had long delegated control of the international terrorist group, and its organization has moved to a more decentralized, franchising model than something hierarchical.
All true. But these facts, which no one is disputing, do not diminish what is clearly a victory. Capturing or killing bin Laden was the most obvious and justified reaction to the attacks of September 11; it was also the one thing left undone by President Bush and, depending on whose account you read, something that the previous administration utterly bungled. The only thing almost as obvious about yesterday’s news is that the political value of being the American president who brought bin Laden to justice is enormous.
If we must divine still deeper into the meaning of bin Laden’s death, there is another reason why this event is hugely important for the foreign policy of this president: A Democratic president opted against ridding the world of its most wanted terrorist by lobbing a missile from 30,000 feet above. He sent helicopters in on a daring raid with a clear mission and plan for exit. In one fell swoop, President Obama has done more to exorcise the demons of Democratic foreign policy error and mishap than anyone in the last three decades. This was not Operation Eagle Claw over Iran. This was not the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. This was not another Black Hawk Down.
After the first year of his presidency, it was popular to call Obama the new Jimmy Carter. He appeared far too cautious, dithering, and contemplative. Why did he not speak out more boldly—and more quickly—when Iranians came out into the streets? Why did it take 94 days for him to discuss the proper strategy for Afghanistan, only to be savaged by the right and the left for increasing troop levels while announcing a deadline for withdrawal? Obama’s foreign policy decisions will still be critiqued, and rightly so. But, had Sunday’s mission gone horribly wrong, “Carter” would have tripped off the lips of every pundit. That would have been an obvious political risk to anyone in the room when the president scrapped the idea of a surgical missile strike in favor of an assault led by Navy SEALS. The mission could have gone wrong, but it didn’t. It was judiciously planned. Obama’s helicopters flew straight, and, when they encountered unexpected adversity—one of the helicopters engines stalled—they had a contingency plan to see the mission through successfully. The desire of a president to move decisively, combined with the patience to see to the details: Who is going to call Obama the aloof, contemplative professor now? The comparison to Carter died in Pakistan along with bin Laden.
This won’t seem entirely fair to some. Obama may have requested and approved the plan, but it was a military operation. It was a handful of elite U.S. soldiers who made the difference in the moments that mattered most. Why should the broad, general critiques of Obama’s foreign policy change from one day to the next, based on a single successful operation? Fair. But, then again, did President Carter himself fly two helicopters into a sand storm. The narrative that Republican presidents were somehow tough, serious men of the world, while Democratic do-gooders were generally inattentive and easily duped was always specious. The Bush administration’s rush to Iraq should have ended this storyline, but it was not enough. Stories need heroes, and Democratic presidents needed to add to their win column. Bin Laden’s death, and the circumstances that led to it, are just such a victory.
Sunday was an important day for the United States. It was the high point of President Obama’s presidency. But it was also something else: A vital win for Democratic foreign policymakers, and the future presidents they will serve.
William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He is currently writing a book on authoritarian regimes.
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