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Obama’s Kennedy moment

GB Geo-Blog

Obama’s Kennedy moment

The killing of Osama bin Laden, a decade after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, is a major milestone. Even though bin Laden had limited direct operational control over Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, his continued presence had enormous symbolic power. He was a testament to the limits of American power and the grass roots appeal of a particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism married to extreme violence. Bin Laden’s death is not only a blow for Al Qaeda. It is a blow for those who took inspiration from him, and his continued ability to defy the United States. His demise at the hands of American soldiers will make him a martyr, but one whose appeal will be less in death than in life.

The successful American operation to kill bin Laden has five immediate positive effects for American foreign policy:

1. It proves that American intelligence and military agencies can conduct sensitive, sophisticated, long-term operations and achieve a stated goal.

2. It shows that American local knowledge and diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has indeed improved since earlier in the conflict.

3. It attests to the continued ability of the U.S. government to protect sensitive secrets, despite Wikileaks. This particular operation to kill bin Laden began in August 2010, according to the president. No one outside a very closed circle knew about it until tonight.

4. It deters others who might defy American power in similar circumstances. After this operation and the recent killing of Gaddafi’s son in Libya by NATO air strikes, violent dictators who confront American military power will have to take the threat to their lives more seriously.

5. It gives evidence, for the first time in recent memory, that a Democratic president can score a major foreign policy victory against a recalcitrant foe who defied a prior Republican administration. President Obama has earned national security credentials that eluded Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Johnson.

This might have been Obama’s “John F. Kennedy moment.” He has mounted a sophisticated and tough-minded stand against a defiant enemy. He has achieved a major symbolic victory that will pay big policy and political dividends.

If Osama bin Laden’s escape into the hills of Tora Bora in 2001 was George W. Bush’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, bin Laden’s death in Northern Pakistan in 2011 was Barack Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The less experienced Democratic president proved his mettle, placing his adversaries (at home and abroad) on the defensive. This was a big win for a country in need of renewed confidence and leadership.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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  1. Ryosuke Shibuya May 2, 2011

    The killing of Osama bin Laden shows that America has the capacity to kill those who do us harm. It also proves that in the age of global terrorism, America has developed resilient, compact, adaptable and yet razor-sharp military strategies that destroy terrorist network. Most importantly, the successful outcome of this historic event seems to revitalize the psyche of the American public as we witness in the streets of New York and Washington – exerting the sense of self-confidence and reasserting the American power in the age of uncertainty.

    From the policy perspective, what the death of Bin Laden provides is more foreign policy options in the Middle East moving forward. If the killing of Bin Laden vindicates the end of chapter one in war on terrorism, America now has both strategic and physiological advantage to direct the next chapter. With the wave of democratic movements in the region appearing not only to be contagious, but also surprisingly resilient, America must establish principled foreign policy to convince the people in the streets of Damascus or Cairo that America can, in fact, serve as their credible partner for a more democratic Middle East. Our special forces may be able to kill symbolic figures of terrorist groups, but the military power alone cannot win the hearts and minds of the people in the Middle East who have expressed deeply rooted suspicion of the intent of American foreign policy in the region. What is America’s strategy moving forward and how do we deal with such unprecedented uncertainties and unknown futures in the region? In this regard, America must take advantage of the gravitational force of killing Bin Laden now.

  2. Jeremi Suri May 2, 2011

    Well said, Ryosuke. The US must do a better job of combining military capabilities with diplomatic overtures to the participatory movements in the region. We have a great opportunity.

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