Barack Obama has had a terrible summer. A key provision of his healthcare reform was ruled unconstitutional at the circuit court level. Unemployment remains high. Republican rivals are stealing the spotlight. Solutions in Syria and Yemen are elusive. The al-Maliki government in Iraq was unable to extend the U.S. troop presence. The economy is stagnant. Afghanistan policy is paralyzed while casualties mount. The national credit rating was downgraded. The debt ceiling crisis was resolved on terms so unfavorable to the President that comedian Stephen Colbert joked that Republicans even made him give up his 50th birthday. Even his legendary skills as an orator seem to have deserted him. This is hardly the resume Obama wants to present to the American people in 2012; if he isn’t re-elected, he certainly won’t enjoy reading this chapter of the histories.
However, in one area, Barack Obama has consistently excelled. His policies are a sensible, effective, and measured responses to the problem, and he faces little serious opposition. His successes have stolen headlines–indeed, one was so big that Americans poured into the streets to celebrate. Charitable historians will remember Obama as the counterterror president.
There are three key points on which Obama’s counterterror policy has succeeded. He has taken control of Afghanistan policy despite formidable opposition, he has killed Al Qaeda’s leader, and he has maintained the drone policy in the face of much screeching on his own side of the aisle.
Obama in the Situation Room, observing the operation would kill Osama bin Laden. (Image via Middle East Post)
As I discussed yesterday, bin Laden’s death has created a moment of plasticity in the US war on terrorism, which US President Obama may use to reconfigure America’s role in Afghanistan and relationship with Pakistan. There are many in Washington who think that Pakistan’s inconsistency in fighting terrorism is a sign they should not be considered an ally. The US did not inform the Pakistanis of the raid on bin Laden, and (again, as discussed in yesterday’s post) took steps to ensure they would not find out until the raid was already underway. This was a public reminder to all parties of the difficulties in the alliance.
American and Pakistani sailors at a 2010 ceremony handing over a US Navy ship. (US Navy photo)
The US was abuzz last night as news broke–slowly, and with swarming rumors–that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces. Spontaneous celebrations broke out all over the country as the news was confirmed. The killing of bin Laden is a national triumph for the United States, but it is also the end of a national embarrassment, for bin Laden’s ability to avoid the intense search efforts of the US and its allies for more than a decade added to his legend in radical circles while demoralizing the American public. As many have been quick to point out, bin Laden’s death is by no means the end of al Qaeda, for it has fragmented into a number of splinter and affiliate movements. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has likely been the most dangerous al Qaeda organization for several years now, as we have seen from the many recent plots that have been tied to Yemen. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a pseudo-affiliate, is also undergoing a period of prominence, with some of its personnel reportedly serving as mid-level commanders in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion. We have hardly seen the last of al Qaeda and its subsidiaries. However, we must not be too cynical–this is indeed a major symbolic victory. Terrorism relies on symbolism and representation to make its attacks meaningful and draw in new recruits. Bin Laden provided this symbolism. His death does not silence his story, but it removes some of its mystique.
Arab Americans rejoice on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, upon hearing news of bin Laden's death. (AP)