Osama bin Laden’s body had barely hit the water before people were predicting the impact his death would have on the war in Afghanistan, U.S. relations with the Islamic world and President Obama’s reelection campaign. The only problem with these immediate statements is that events are unlikely to work out the way anybody expects right now.
That has been the historic pattern. With events like this, unforeseen consequences have been the norm.
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When 53 Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, the most oft-heard prediction was that the humiliating spectacle would give a huge boost to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s drive to deny President Carter a second term. Instead, the country rallied around its commander in chief.
Carter’s approval ratings, as measured by Gallup, were barely at 30 percent before the hostage-taking. But in the three months afterward, those approval numbers soared to 54 percent in December, 57 percent in January, and 54 percent in February.
With the president following a Rose Garden strategy and supported by the public, Kennedy’s campaign stalled and crashed in Iowa. Even the failed “Desert One” rescue attempt on April 24, 1980, could not resuscitate his bid. Carter assumed responsibility for what he refused to admit was a failure and insisted, inexplicably, was “an incomplete success.” Again, the public rallied around him.
This time, though, it was a short-lived boost and his approval numbers were down to 31 percent by November. Republican Ronald Reagan later would be able to cite that rescue failure as an embarrassing example of what he called “the hollow military.” But very few of the “experts” at the time foresaw the political impact of Iran on Carter.
Nor were the experts close to the mark 23 years later when another president, George W. Bush, donned a green flight suit and a white helmet and jumped into the copilot’s seat of a Navy S-3B Viking jet. After a tailhook landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Bush stood under a now-famous “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, 2003.
Democrats were both angry and glum; Republicans were gleeful. The pictures of the commander in chief getting mobbed by cheering sailors and aviators were priceless. Everybody knew those pictures would be used in campaign ads the next year.
Well, they were. But not in the Republican ads like everybody thought. Instead, they were in Democratic ads as pointed reminders of executive hubris and political overreach by a president who had misread how difficult it would be to really end combat in Iraq.
Bush did get some immediate benefit from his declaration of victory—his approval rating hovered in the low 70s and high 60s for a couple of months. But by July, as measured by Gallup, it dropped into the 50s and by January he was in the 40s and in a real battle for a second term.
Political scientists Richard C. Eichenberg of Tufts University and Richard J. Stoll of Rice University studied the impact of the war on Bush’s popularity in 2004. They found a “steady and seemingly inexorable” decline from the moment of the “Mission Accomplished” speech—something nobody foresaw at the time. It was interrupted, they said, only by “a minor rally” when Saddam Hussein was captured.
What soured the public on Bush’s handling of the war was the rise in American casualties—and that is a lesson today for Obama. If voters believe the killing of Osama bin Laden means the war in Afghanistan is won and can be ended, their reaction to continued American deaths could be devastating for Obama.
In Iraq, they concluded, the continuing casualties after “Mission Accomplished” cost Bush’s approval rating at least 10 points. Ironically, they concluded their assessment with what they called “one prediction that requires little cautious qualification: should Osama bin Laden be killed or captured, it would surely guarantee the president’s re-election.”
Two elections later, Obama should wish that were true.
But one expert on the Mideast is warning against broad predictions today in assessing the impact of bin Laden’s death. “We need to be very cautious … in assuming it will now damage al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist networks, or that we can predict the political and strategic consequences,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, in a commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Strategically, Cordesman said, bin Laden’s death “might have been a decisive blow in 2001 or 2002” but “may have far less effect today” on al-Qaida’s ability to attack targets. He said nobody today can possibly know how the killing of bin Laden will play with potential terrorists or in Pakistan. “We need to be very careful about what bin Laden’s death will mean for relations with Pakistan and for the war in Afghanistan,” he said.
Far from helping Obama politically, the latest development could increase the pressure on him to get American troops out of Afghanistan. It will, said Cordesman, “raise new questions about whether the Afghan war can really put an end to al-Qaida and other terrorist sanctuaries and lead some of those who oppose the war to state that the U.S. and its allies should now withdraw.”
Cordesman said “it will take weeks and possibly months” to assess the strategic impact.
So that “Mission Accomplished” banner that Democrats would love to unfurl at the next Obama campaign event? Probably best to keep it in George Bush’s attic. Less than 48 hours after such an historic event is a little too early for declarations of victory.
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