Abroad, and possibly at home as well, the killing of Osama bin Laden offers President Obama the rarest of political gifts: the opportunity for a fresh start.
This week’s stunning raid doesn’t guarantee Obama reelection; judgments about his impact on the economy will have more influence there. Nor does the mission end the threat of Islamic radicalism.
But in both domestic and foreign arenas, the triumph could offer Obama chances to turn the page. Those options begin in Pakistan. The discovery that bin Laden was living so close to the heart of the military establishment there immediately makes it more difficult for Islamabad to sustain its double game of extending one hand to the U.S. while offering the other to radicals.
With many in Congress already clamoring to cut off aid, Pakistan’s troubled leadership faces the same sort of “with us or against us” choice that President Bush offered to then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf after the September 11 attacks. After the Abbottabad raid, Congress is less likely to sustain Pakistan’s $3 billion annual assistance budget unless its leaders move more unequivocally against the terrorist networks operating within its borders. “It is a question of whether Pakistan sees this as an opportunity—that this really creates an opportunity to strike a decisive blow” against the terrorists, said one senior administration official who asked for anonymity while discussing internal deliberations.
In Afghanistan, the links between the Taliban and al-Qaida have been among the most important barriers to negotiating an end to the ongoing insurgency. The Taliban movement appears at least somewhat divided between those committed to jihad and those more open to negotiating a truce with Hamid Karzai’s government that would reintegrate them into society. A senior national-security official said that bin Laden’s death should strengthen “those within that insurgency who believe there is a way to reconcile with the central government” and are willing to sever ties to al-Qaida—a prerequisite to any serious talks. Other significant hurdles remain, but new openings for a political solution are possible if that occurs.
In a broader sense, the raid underscores American tenacity and capability in a way that could reverberate through virtually all of our international relationships. “There is a currency and a strength in doing what you say you are going to do that the world notices,” the senior national-security official said. At the same time, bin Laden’s death could offer Obama a second try at reconciling with the Muslim world, following on the overture of his June 2009 Cairo speech. That effort has lost momentum, but bin Laden’s death could revive it. The Qaida chief’s fall underscores how thoroughly his vision of renewal-by-reversion (to a fundamentalist caliphate) has been eclipsed by the Arab Spring’s forward-looking vision of progress.
That approach is still colored by intense (and, in some cases, radicalized) religious devotion, but it also embraces notions of democracy, modernity, and personal expression anathema to al-Qaida’s conception of Muslim revival. The raid presents Obama with an opportunity to make a case to the Muslim world that bin Laden’s vision—a clash of civilizations—has perished with him.
Arab governments that more closely reflect the will of their people won’t agree with the United States on all questions. As the Egyptian deal that unifies Hamas with the Palestinian Authority demonstrates, such governments may even collide more often with America on specific issues. But after Obama’s conflicted and at times uncertain response to the Arab uprisings, bin Laden’s death offers him an ideal platform to argue to democratizing Middle Eastern nations that they are more likely to succeed by joining the global community than by withdrawing from it—let alone by waging war against it, as bin Laden preached.
The successful mission could also provide Obama political cover at home for such renewed outreach. Conservatives have argued that his attempts at reconciliation represent either a “tour of apology” (as Mitt Romney put it) or a refusal to recognize that the United States is “at war” with terrorists (Dick Cheney’s accusation). In fact, the killing of bin Laden underscores what should always have been obvious: There is no contradiction between vigorously pursuing terrorists and simultaneously rebooting relationships in the Muslim world.
All of these openings are fragile and fleeting. Some experts on the Middle East, such as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s shrewd Aaron David Miller, worry that, even with bin Laden gone, the democratizing trends in Arab countries will elevate “Islamist elements that don’t share our point of view.” Any broad outreach effort may fail without progress on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which now appears implausible. The Taliban may continue trying to wait out the withdrawal of American troops. Pakistan may continue to hedge its bets. A retaliatory terrorist attack could expose Obama to new charges of weakness on defense.
But risk always shadows the life of a president. Even with all those caveats, the bin Laden mission’s success has provided Obama with a much more elusive commodity: opportunity.
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This article appears in the May 7, 2011, edition of National Journal.