The mastermind of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is dead. This historic event happened exactly eight years after the day when George W. Bush made his famous "Mission Accomplished" speech, in which he prematurely declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. Aside from the relief and joy that the world is rid of its most wanted terrorist, one can't help but wonder if bin Laden's death means that the US war on Islamist extremism is drawing to a close.
The obvious answer is that, like Iraq in 2003, this fight is still far from over. As mentioned in his speech last night, President Obama knows that while Osama bin Laden's death is a great symbolic victory, American military and intelligence forces must maintain their vigilance. Even during this moment of celebration, the President must remain politically vigilant himself, for his career will no doubt be shaped by the timing and success of last night's news.
The successful hunt for Osama bin Laden appears to score great political points for President Obama, who announced his intention to run in 2012 less than a month ago. Reports suggested that the President had the opportunity to bomb the terrorist hideout four months ago, but Obama insisted the world would need more DNA proof to definitively understand that bin Laden was dead. As John Brennan, top White House counterterrorism advisor said, the delayed decision was "one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."
In the age of unmanned drone attacks and unreliable intelligence sharing from Pakistan, Obama's decision to use two dozen Navy SEALs without Pakistan's prior consent was certainly bold, and by all accounts, very successful. There were no American casualties and no complaints from the Pakistani government. Along with all the military intelligence and military personnel, the President deserves our praise as an effective commander-in-chief in this instance. But how long will his success last?
In 2003, President Bush used his strong-on-terror stance to win an election to a second term, despite growing anti-war sentiment in the public. Not so lucky, his father President George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid even with a military victory in the Persian Gulf War. So what did him in? Famous Clinton strategist James Carville had the answer. "It's the economy, stupid."
Although Mr. Obama's announcement of Osama bin Laden's death might produce a temporary bump in the polls, Carville's logic is even more relevant today than it was in 1991. Before bin Laden and before the newest birth certificate, the national press was ratcheting up debate about record budget deficits under the Obama Administration and Standard & Poors changed its outlook on US credit to negative. Last August, a planner of the May 1st strike inside Pakistan, Admiral Mike Mullen said "The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt." Even with Osama bin Laden's death, the Admiral is still correct. Obama has to convince his critics that he can shepherd the country through economic recovery and solve the fiscal crisis before he can count on another four years in office.
Though not strictly economic in nature, bin Laden's death might help the President make his case on the budget. Obama and the Democrats want to see cuts in military spending. With the legendary Al Qaeda head gone, the President can speed up the return of troops home from Iraq and argue for a drawdown in Afghanistan. Also, capturing bin Laden may help Obama sidestep some of the criticism he's been receiving about unnecessary military expenses in Libya. In addition, the success of the US special forces erases some of the doubts that exist in the international community about America's exceptionalsim and its ability to successfully bring terrorists to justice. Increased confidence in American foreign policy should lead to more international cooperation and reduce the financial burden on America in its role as the world's police force.
Unfortunately for Obama, the world's reaction doesn't always accommodate American interests, especially when it comes to our foreign military operations. In the past, high level terrorists like bin Laden's son Omar and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have indicated that Al Qaeda members have plans to unleash more deadly attacks if their leader was killed. US military and civilian law enforcement agencies are already on high alert. On Wall Street, Monday's reaction was also muted, partially due to fears of global instability. With oil prices still climbing and a slow recovery in the West, the last thing Obama's 2012 campaign needs is any additional threats to our economy.
Whether the political implications ultimately favor him or not, President Obama deserves to enter May enjoying a good, nonpartisan ending to the long struggle against Osama bin Laden. But respite from the difficult issues of April will be brief, and Obama must be wary of taking next year's presidential campaign for granted. The Republican field is still wide open and the attention span of America's 24/7 news cycle is short. More details, photos, audio, and video of Osama bin Laden's last days will fade away soon, but the economy question is sure to persist all summer long.
Though it received little news coverage amidst the bin Laden story, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced on Monday that he could delay default on the national debt and keep the economy afloat until August 2nd through a series of bookkeeping maneuvers. Geithner also plans to sell $156 billion of US debt in this quarter alone. These moves would monetize more US debt but would give Congress an extra week to hammer out an agreement on budget cuts and the debt ceiling. Whichever party can claim victory in the economic debate will have the best chance of winning the White House in 2012.
Here's what Geithner said just two weeks ago on NBC's Meet the Press in case you missed it: