Every period defined by the actions of a head of state marks that national leader with some characteristic, some soubriquet that catches hold of the public imagination and builds what finally becomes that leader’s place-name in history. Osama bin Laden’s death seems to be that definitive instant for US President Barack Obama. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
The phone rings as it glows 03:00 on the bedside clock. A sleeping man picks up the receiver and says, “Hello? Yes, just a minute.” He turns to his left and explains, “Here, it’s for you Hillary. There’s a new crisis in the Middle East and they need you down in the Situation Room.” Back to the phone, he adds, “Yes, Madam President will be down in just a few minutes.”
That’s the scene that easily could have come from Hillary Clinton’s best-remembered campaign commercial, way back in 2008. The point of the campaign, of course, was to contrast her experience, her toughness, her understanding of “real politick” and the hard choices incumbent on someone who must deal with foreign policy – in contrast to what that young senator from Illinois, the one with virtually no real world experience, could bring to bear on the presidency, should he win instead.
Of course, that didn’t work out precisely as planned. As everyone knows, that callow young senator aced out the wily former first lady for the Democratic nomination for the presidency – and then convincingly beat another old hand, Arizona Senator John McCain, a genuine war hero and thoroughly experienced foreign policy hand, for the presidency.
Barack Obama expected his presidency would be a domestic, economic one, instead of a period of foreign adventures and expeditions. It would be a lot like the Clinton era, except that the economic crisis, now, was everything. He had finally won the presidency on that now-famous message of “change you can believe in” – in the midst of the near-meltdown of the US’s (and the world’s) financial structure and markets.
Obama had effectively campaigned on promises to disengage in Iraq, in Afghanistan and to turn more and more of the daily grind of global policing and global problem-solving over to multilateral or international structures. This would give America the space, time and capital to rebuild its national infrastructure to face future challenges from nations like China. Even in Africa, Obama would reassign the work to Africa’s new generation of more worldly, pragmatic leaders to rid the continent of its twin curses of the “big man” in Africa and perpetual underdevelopment.
The problem, of course, was that there was all this unfinished international business to deal with, left over from the Bush era, as well as the torments of the global financial morass. Besides the usual problems – prickly relations with Russia, tensions with China over trade and the growing military strength of the world’s next great power, the dangers of nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea, persistent and intractable trade deficits, illegal immigration and drugs seeping in from Mexico and Central America and the Israel/Palestine conundrum – the Bush administration had also left Obama that ruinously expensive ongoing US military adventure in Iraq and its awkward hot war in Afghanistan.
And if that was not enough, there was the progressive decay of public order in Pakistan, inextricably tied up with the extrication of US forces from Afghanistan. Behind all this, there was still the hangover of international terrorism.
So in Obama’s first two years as president, the more he struggled to follow through on the ideological thrust of his campaign promises, the more his Republican opponents accused him of traducing the notion of America as the essential nation, its exceptionalism or its status as the world’s only superpower.
In effect, his Republican opponents were edging to an accusation of Barack Obama as a closet anti-American. He was, after all, the first black president and a man with a Muslim foreigner for a father. He was already halfway to being one of those strange characters that hated America and lived in the liberal press and the Upper East Side of New York or Cambridge, Massachusetts. And they effectively charged he had become the nation’s pessimist-in-chief – a man perfectly prepared to hand over the essential right of Americans to run things, handing over that responsibility to those cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys and others of their ilk.
For Republicans, and especially that growing gaggle of Tea Party followers, this had helped define the secret to defeating Obama on domestic issues as well. He could be had, he was soft and he could be rolled if it was a real street brawl. If the Chinese could bully him over currency exchange rates and trade disputes, making him look like a bowing and fawning tourist in Beijing; if Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu could outfox him on West Bank settlements; well, then, the roadmap was equally clear as to how to beat back Obama’s leftwing domestic social agenda as well – Obamacare and all the rest of those hateful plans. And this had the double advantage of setting him up for a defeat in the 2010 congressional elections – and then on to a catastrophe for him two years later in 2012.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s criticism was right after all, the Democrats had begun to worry, first in private and then, increasingly, in public as well. Maybe he still needed some seasoning, and, until he matured sufficiently, the grownups should be in charge of things that mattered, or so people like Dick Cheney smouldered. For Republicans, then, Obama may have come from Chicago, the city of big shoulders, but he sure didn’t act like one of Al Capone’s boys. There didn’t seem to be anything about Obama that radiated the message: “This is business!” The polls seemed to point to the same thing: a majority of people still liked him but, increasingly, they didn’t agree with his policies. As a result, November 2010 came and he and his party took their “shellacking”, as a chastened Barack Obama put it.
But along the way two things happened. One was a slow, uncertain, halting, but increasingly real recovery in the economy. Jobless numbers are beginning to ebb and unemployment insurance claims have begun to drop as well. A growing number of economic indicators now point to a potential curve of recovery that will stretch on into 2012. If that should happen, it’s great timing – although as petrol prices break through the psychological barrier of $4/gallon just as the American summer travel season begins will certainly not help an incumbent president.
But the second thing was – at first – less directly tied to the US electorate. Under pressure from events as well as from the views of key players like vice president Joe Biden, the late Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke and others in the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, the Obama administration has come to see Pakistan – more than Afghanistan – as the core issue for stability in South Asia. The thought of a collapsing, nuclear-armed Pakistan with ethnic tensions and extremist factions was a much bigger problem than the instability of the warring tribes in the mountains of Afghanistan. And, as it became increasingly probable that Osama bin Laden was almost certainly not in some remote Afghan mountain fastness, but rather in some Pakistani hideaway, the focus of American attention shifted southwards away from Kabul.
And then, at the beginning of May, Barack Obama’s administration caught a real break. Maybe its big break. The president gave the go-ahead for a Navy Seal raid on a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that US agents had been watching for months. Obama apparently decided not to use the easier option of a cruise missile or drone attack on the compound, instead going for the riskier, but more certain option of a manned attack instead. No pain, no gain.
And, indeed, in that house had been the first prize trophy of al Qaeda’s founder/leader, Osama bin Laden, the big enchilada, as Richard Nixon might have called him. While the man himself was killed during the raid, the Seals captured a treasure trove of computer files and other documentation, as well as that cache of pornography to while away the long hours until that long-awaited, universal victory arrived. Americans tend to favour closure on things – and this raid was the mother of all closures.
Even if the president, other high officials, media commentators and the entire chattering class have taken great pains to insist this was not the end of the campaign against terror, it just as certainly has been the birth of the new Barack Obama. Instead of Multilateralism Man, here is a leader who takes a gamble when necessary and who, above all, has luck about him. And you can already see the effect of this on Republicans. They may now be poised to reprise a version of their 1996 presidential campaign in which a long-time party stalwart, Robert Dole, gained the nomination after waiting patiently in line for a decade, but who then was swamped in the general election. A Republican Party that is about to decide if someone like Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney or Ron Paul will represent their future is a political party that knows its task is to get ready for 2016.
Nevertheless, Osama bin Laden’s demise is unlikely to stop non-state terror campaigns – the contagion has reached deep into the globe, even as the Arab Spring has given the Middle East an opportunity to move beyond the old stalemate of autocratic, sclerotic regimes and royal houses. But Bin Laden’s death has liberated Barack Obama from his seeming limitations. Unlike the legendary Greek titan, Prometheus, who was chained to his mountaintop to be tormented by an eagle, Obama has been unbound and freed to become the man of action. When that phone rang at 03:00, Obama answered it, issued his orders – and that was that.
Of course, Obama still has to do battle with a quarrelsome host of Republican congressmen and women who will try to torment him over the federal budget, the debt ceiling, the cost of foreign aid to unsympathetic regimes, healthcare reform, cap and trade environmental legislation, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reform, new infrastructure investment, the TARP, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Obama’s ties to Wall Street and all the rest. But they can no longer accuse him of “leading from behind” and waiting forever until those old surrender monkeys finally come on board. (Of course, since the French have been the ones actually leading the charge in Libya, the Republicans may have to find a new bunch of foreigners to disparage.)
The price of petrol could rise to $5 a gallon and then all bets are off, all over again. Or another terror attack could happen as an act of revenge for Bin Laden’s death. Or the Middle East could spiral downward into more violence or some of the region’s nations could even implode into disorder, rather than edge towards democracy. George Bush Senior after all had a 90% popularity rating after the first Gulf War and he ended up a one-term president because he couldn’t get an effective handle on economic issues.
But one thing is certain, Obama will forever – or at least through the next election cycle – be linked with the taking out of Bin Laden as the Evil Ming to America’s Buck Rogers. And that, in turn, gives Barack Obama the street cred necessary for him to attempt at least some of what he had hoped to achieve – way back in those misty years before he actually became president and had that “Audacity of Hope”. DM
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Photo: White House photostream.
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