international analysis and commentary

The ultimate bin Laden effect – and its limits


America breathed a sigh of relief at the news that US Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden. The announcement, relayed by President Barack Obama on the evening of May 1st, was followed by public displays of joy. Thousands of people gathered in front of the White House in Washington and at Ground Zero in New York, waving American flags and chanting “USA! USA!”

Such gut reaction revealed the mythical status bin Laden had achieved in the United States in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robison described pointedly the trauma bin Laden had inflicted on the American psyche. “He was a constant, if rarely acknowledged, presence in our lives,” he wrote. “He was there when we took off our shoes at the airport, there when we drove past the Pentagon, there when we saw a picture of the New York skyline.”

President Obama, who decided to proceed with the risky but successful helicopter raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was showered with praise from across the political spectrum, for what his counter-terrorism chief John Brennan called “one of the gustiest calls of any president in recent memory.”

For Democrats it was a triumph. Following Obama’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “This is the most significant victory in our fight against al Qaeda and terrorism.”

Republicans were also forthcoming. Among others, the Speaker of the House John Boehner thanked “the hard-working men and women of our Armed Forces and intelligence community.” He also commended “President Obama and his team, as well as President Bush, for all of their efforts to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”

The group of potential contenders for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination pitched in. Mitt Romney called it “a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere.” He sent his “congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the President.” Tim Pawlenty also congratulated “America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done.” Even Donald Trump, who had spent the last few weeks hammering the President on the issue of his long-form birth certificate (the White House released it on April 27th), declared, “I want to personally congratulate President Obama.”

Among the few exceptions to the love fest was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who said, “We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory,” but never mentioned Obama by name.

Officials from the Bush administration too appeared eager to congratulate the President and his national security team. Former President George W. Bush, who was informed of bin Laden’s death by Obama before he addressed the nation, said in a statement: “I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities… They have our everlasting gratitude.” Other Bush-era officials, while lauding Obama’s success, tried to take credit for the long prep work that led to the operation. In an interview on ABC, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reminded everyone that “President Bush said ‘We will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail’.” After all, according to the timeline provided to the current White House, the intelligence work that paved the way for the raid on bin Laden’s compound began in the mid-2000s, when George W. Bush was still Commander in Chief.

The role of Bush-era counterterrorism policies, especially the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” – for example waterboarding – which many have come to regard as torture, casts a dark shadow on the operation. Allegedly, some of the initial tips that led to the identification first of bin Laden’s couriers and then of the compound where he was hidden were obtained during the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a high-level al Qaeda operative. They were captured, respectively, in 2003 and 2005, and have been detained, at times, in the infamous CIA “black sites” or secret prisons, where they were subjected to “harsh questioning.”

Although it is impossible to determine what role, if any, tactics like waterboarding might have had on the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, some of the more prominent advocates of those “enhanced interrogation techniques” have now resurfaced to argue that they were right after all. “I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden’s ultimate capture,” said former Vice President Dick Cheney on Fox News. In a conference call set up by the American Enterprise Institute, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, agreed that the success of the operation “also rested heavily on some of those controversial policies,” including the creation of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. “All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue,” former Defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote on Facebook.

The truth is that, while the country appears, on the surface, united in celebrating the death of its nemesis Osama bin Laden, Americans continue to disagree on just about everything else, from what this means for President Obama and the 2012 presidential elections, to the future of the American military engagement in Afghanistan and the so-called “war on terror,” to how the US should treat its bilateral relationship with Pakistan going forward.  

Nobody has any doubts that this was an extraordinary victory for the President. It might even turn out to be the defining moment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Everybody, at the very least, assumes that he will enjoy a bump in the polls. A Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll from May 2nd shows a 9% increase in Obama’s overall approval rating compared to the previous month. At around 56%, it is the highest since 2009.

But just how long the President will be able to ride the bin Laden wave is hard to say. These numbers parallel what happened to George W. Bush following Saddam Hussein’s capture in Iraq in December 2003. According to Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican political and public affairs research firm, Bush’s bump lasted only seven weeks. Historically, similar feats by other US presidents prompted spikes in their approval ratings that ran an average of 22 weeks.

Commentators also debate the significance of bin Laden’s death for the nascent GOP 2012 field. Republicans will no longer be able to attack Obama’s foreign policy credentials and call him a “weak” leader. “This is probably a wake-up call that the stakes of this game are very serious,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told “If the byproduct of this is that we get a little more serious about what it takes to lead the country in the Oval Office, then that will be a really good thing.” Besides, many remain convinced that the 2012 elections will be decided almost exclusively by how Americans feel about the state of the economy. While a dazzling catch, Osama bin Laden will soon slide into the background.

Additionally, the raid that killed him in Pakistan is bound to reignite the debate over the so-called “war on terror” and the American engagement in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers, especially war-weary democrats, already hail this as a potent enough blow to al Qaeda that the US now has a freer hand in pulling out troops in a swift manner. “I think there’s going to be a lot of strong feelings on the part of most Democrats and many, I think many independents, and even some Republicans that the decision of the President to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan should be a robust reduction,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). “The potential of the Afghan army and police to take responsibility is greater now […] because the direction, the strength, the leadership of bin Laden and al Qaeda from that safe haven in Pakistan is severely weakened.”

For others, instead, the assassination of bin Laden reinforces the US mission in the region. “It’s important that we remain vigilant in our efforts to defeat terrorist enemies and protect the American people,” House Speaker John Boehner said.  “This makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important not less.”

A large chunk of this debate hinges on a conclusive yet unlikely appraisal of the real significance of bin Laden’s death. It remains unclear what practical leverage, if any, he maintained on al Qaeda’s operations and its affiliates worldwide, and how tight a relationship he entertained with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. He was, after all, hiding in the sprawling Abbottabad compound for at least the last five years.

Finally, the relationship between the US and Pakistan has come under increased scrutiny. The fact that the world’s number one fugitive was hiding in plain sight less than a mile away from the country’s most prestigious military academy, in a city that houses a large military base and is only 35 miles from the capital Islamabad, raises suspicions about the role of  Pakistan’s intelligence service (the ISI) in offering protection to bin Laden. “I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time,” Brennan said in a press conference. On the same day, another member of the administration chose instead to strike a more diplomatic tone. “Cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound in which he was hiding. Going forward, we are absolutely committed to continuing that cooperation,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

One can imagine that a lot of fine tuning will have to take place, within the Obama administration and in Congress, with regard to America’s foreign policy agenda. Military aid to Pakistan, for example – disbursed to the tune of $1 billion a year over the last ten years precisely with the goal of encouraging Islamabad’s collaboration in fighting global terrorism and finding bin Laden – may be brought up for review. As well as the overall “war on terror” strategy, which has been, so far, overly reliant on a huge display of military might and may have to be reconsidered after Osama bin Laden was killed in a small, covert operation that lasted 38 minutes and was carried out by an elite counter-terrorism unit of the Navy SEALs operating under the command of civilian agents of the CIA.

With bin Laden now gone, Americans certainly feel a huge burden lifted off their backs, and freer to explore new paths. There remains a keen awareness that their fight against terrorism is not over. President Obama acknowledged as much in his speech. “His [bin Laden’s] death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us,” he said. There also remain the many political differences that have increasingly divided America in recent years. The bipartisan love fest following bin Laden’s death lasted just a few hours, and whatever foreign policy debate ensues will likely be colored by the same partisan jockeying that Washington has recently been known for.