US Affairs: Obama-1, Osama-0

The decision to take out bin Laden deals a severe blow to the narrative of Obama as weak and without true guts..

May 6, 2011 16:20
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama at Ground Zero in NY

US President Barack Obama at Ground Zero in NY 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque )

WASHINGTON – One of the hundreds of Americans who spontaneously gathered in front of the White House Sunday as word leaked out that Osama bin Laden was dead held a sign that proclaimed: “Obama 1 – Osama 0.”

But US President Barack Obama’s numbers are better than that. According to multiple polls, his job approval ratings since ordering the raid on bin Laden’s hideout have surged from somewhere in the 40s to somewhere in the 50s.

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And it’s not only his job performance that’s seen improvement. The successful conclusion of a decade-long international manhunt in which the United States’ Enemy No. 1 was taken out in a firefight while no Americans were hurt – an operation Obama ordered despite having no confirmation that bin Laden was inside the Pakistani compound – has also helped reshape the president’s image.

The current Leader of the Free World has been criticized as weak, cautious and overly multilateral.

The decision to take out bin Laden – “one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory,” in the words of his chief counter-terrorism adviser – deals a severe blow to that narrative.

“Every president benefits from this kind of action when it’s successful,” Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution said Tuesday. “And Obama, this is a guy who’s ordered tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan. This is a guy who has ordered a military campaign against Libya. And now this. I think it’s not going to be easy to say that he’s just a professor who can’t pull the trigger.”

He concluded, “There’s no question that it begins [to] cut away at some of that Republican critique.”

That development will likely pay political dividends to Obama over the next few months and even as far in the future as the 2012 presidential election. But will it pay policy dividends for Obama in the Middle East as well – or at the very least, will he seek to mine it for such potential? Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said Sunday’s operations had lessons for the US effort to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

“President Obama’s order to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrates that this president is prepared to act unilaterally, aggressively and decisively when US core national security interests are on the line,” he said. “It suggests that if all peaceful measures are exhausted, and that Iran is close to the nuclear red line, this president may surprise everyone with bold and decisive action.”

And just having that type of action be a more conceivable scenario could affect the Iranian posture.

“The Iranian regime now should have a better understanding that when core American national security interests are at stake, all options are indeed on the table,” Dubowitz said.

Martin Indyk, also of the Brookings Institution, suggested such boldness could extend to the Arab- Israeli conflict.

“The killing of Osama bin Laden suddenly gives Obama a lot more credibility than he had before in the Middle East, both in the Arab world and with the Israelis,” Indyk told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Some influential people in the administration say that the opportunity of the president giving a ‘winds of change’ speech, in which he frames America’s approach to the ongoing Arab awakening and lays out his approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, may well be strengthened by the killing of bin Laden.”

After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that Obama would be addressing the change in the region and the peace process last month, Washington has been brimming with conjecture about how far the speech would go in detailing the American vision for a peace deal. However, as a debate raged within the administration, the surprise news of a Fatah-Hamas national unity deal introduced complications that might temper Obama’s course regardless of his new empowerment. Legally, among other reasons, the Obama administration could be constrained from working with or supporting a Palestinian government that includes a group branded a terrorist organization by the US.

“It helps him a bit,” said former State Department official Rob Danin of Obama’s post-bin Laden standing, “but the realities in the region have changed so much that he has so much less to work with.”

He explained that “the Hamas-Fatah agreement makes a weak hand even weaker,” and argued that the boost to Obama’s stature could even end up hurting him in the frustrating arena that is the Middle East.

“It shows that the US can do what it says. It’s an example of the US delivering on what it promises,” Danin noted of the bin Laden operation. But by Middle East logic, the display of American power could increase Arab skepticism about why the US hasn’t succeeded in forging a deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

“It will help push them away from saying he can’t do what he wants to do to... he really doesn’t want to,” according to Danin. “It immediately redounds to, ‘Why isn’t the US doing more?’”

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