It’s been one year since Osama bin Laden was killed. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be as happy again to hear that someone was shot in the face.
Revenge, justice, call it what you will, but it felt good, like a hinge of history finally closing, a bookend to a decade spent with images in our minds of the twin towers imploding.
I was three blocks away in New York on 9/11, working as a speech writer at City Hall and spent the next three months writing eulogies. So yeah, this was personal. But the horror was personal to everyone with a heart and a head.
Now bin Laden himself is history, even if bin Laden-ism is not quite dead yet. There are still some who hate humanity and embrace Islamist totalitarianism via the cult of al-Qaeda. But their number is shrinking, steadily, one special ops strike at a time. For all the bluster of the Bush years, it is President Barack Obama who has presided most effectively over the dismantling of al-Qaeda. Forget the narratives about how Democrats are weak on national security; this pragmatic, progressive president has been relentless, launching more than 270 drone strikes against targets in Pakistan and Yemen, according to Bill Roggio of LongWarJournal.com.
One of these took out perhaps the second best known al-Qaeda figure, Anwar al-Awlaki. In total, more than 30 top al-Qaeda operatives have been dispatched during the Obama years. This has been done without “War on Terror” hype, but it ranks as one of his administration’s greatest successes.
Back in 2008, when Obama pledged “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority,” few took him seriously. What did this guy who had been a senator for only four years know about national security? He was the sole Democratic candidate who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and looked like a dove in a time of hawks, naively promising to negotiate with dictators ranging from Iran to North Korea.
But he has followed through on that forceful campaign commitment to crush al-Qaeda to such an extent that the Obama team now sees electoral strength in its foreign policy record. Indeed, a new Obama campaign advert asks whether Mitt Romney would have made the same decision to send in a special forces team to kill bin Laden.
Foreign policy has been an unexpected bright spot for the Obama administration, marking a return to a bipartisan tradition that recalls the first President Bush: modest but decisive, focused on multilateral action rather than unilateral force. As Obama made clear in his Nobel Prize address, he believes in the concept of a just war, driven by the moral imperative to stop humanitarian crises and genocide before they escalate and kill more people. Most striking is the fact that foreign policy has been one area where President Obama has consistently received the highest approval ratings from the American people. Health care reform and the deficit have proven divisive, but with a team featuring his one-time rival Hillary Clinton and the initial retention of Bush’s secretary of defence, Robert Gates, Obama was able to follow through on his campaign promises to bridge the partisanship of the “W” years.
The foreign wars that were so polarising during the last presidency have been wound down, to broad-based relief, at the same time that the fight against al-Qaeda was ramped up.
In the wake of the killing of bin Laden, it has been fascinating to see Republican confusion on foreign policy during the primaries. No candidates were rushing to endorse the interventionist Bush Doctrine – even conservatives are now touchy about defending the decision to invade Iraq.
Foreign policy mostly came up in the debates as an opportunity to criticise President Obama without offering alternative policies; therefore the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan is attacked but no candidate is actually proposing that we stay longer.
Romney’s foreign policy vision is still largely a work in progress beneath the bumper sticker slogans about not apologising for America on the world stage: a baseless charge that nonetheless resonates with the conservative base.
Narratives have a funny way of outlasting facts in our current polarised political environment, but there’s no way to spin the death of bin Laden as anything but a historic success. And so the killing of bin Laden might help us gain some closure as a nation on the once reflexive attempts to paint Democrats as congenitally weak in the war on terror. Instead the contrast is focused on differences of tactics and strategy, with the results evident for all to see.
It is, of course, possible that events could reignite these debates along old narrative fault lines, particularly if there is an Israeli strike on Iran before the elections or if the fallout from the Arab Spring continues to benefit intolerant Islamists. Terrorism is always one bad day away from being issue number one. But President Obama’s credibility on foreign policy stems from his success in taking the fight to al-Qaeda. It shakes up stubborn stereotypes in constructive ways, recalling forgotten wisdom once honoured in Washington: partisanship ought to end at the water’s edge.