The United States has been celebrating the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and much of the Western world has cheered in sympathy. But the deadly assault by US Special Forces on the al-Qaeda leader in his Pakistani hide-out wasn’t simply an act of revenge (although in some ways it was all the sweeter for having been longed for and plotted for a decade). It also shouldn’t be seen as a mere settling of accounts with a man responsible, in President Barack Obama’s words, for ‘the worst attack in American history.’
US Foreign Policy After Bin Laden
The reality is that bin Laden was feared and detested because he struck a blow at American self-esteem. With the devastating attacks of 9/11, he had dared to carry the war into the United States’ heartland, puncturing its view of itself as an exceptional nation, favoured above all others. His killing will therefore serve to wash clean that terrible moment of national humiliation. The feud is over. Dumped into the sea, his blood-stained carcass will provide food, if not for worms, then for fishes. Americans will have a sense of awakening from a nightmare. They will be able to renew their faith in their country’s greatness.
In the jungle of international power politics there’s no joy to match that of the demise of an iconic enemy. But although Americans will rejoice at his death will that be the end of the story? That remains to be seen.
There’s little doubt that Obama’s stature will be boosted by bin Laden’s demise. He will at last be seen by ordinary Americans as a strong and effective commander-in-chief dedicated to ensuring US security. His chance of re-election in 2012 will be enhanced. As a result, there will be much gnashing of teeth in the Republican camp.
Yet, in announcing the news to the United States and the world, Obama was careful not to gloat, as his predecessor George W Bush might well have done had the killing taken place under his watch. Instead, he was sobriety itself. No one is more acutely aware that the war against Islamic militancy can’t be won by military means alone.
The United States, Obama was careful to stress, isn’t at war with Islam. This is a sentiment he has already expressed a number of times, notably in his celebrated Cairo speech of June 2009. The problem, however, is that Obama is no longer believed. He has failed to match his words with actions. The great hopes he aroused at that time have given way to an equally immense disillusion. The promise of a new departure in US foreign policy has worn desperately thin.
Obama seems to be trapped between his personal convictions and the electoral necessities of US politics. Instead of acting resolutely in his first years in office to defuse Arab and Muslim anger at American policies, he has bowed to domestic pressures from the US Congress, from Bush-era neoconservatives whose influence still reaches deep inside the administration, from powerful pro-Israeli lobbies and their affiliated think tanks, and from an increasingly right-wing and Islamophobic American public. If anything, the United States under Obama has waged war more ferociously than ever against radical Islamic groups.