early and often

Heilemann: What Comes Next After Osama

Before yesterday, the best day of Barack Obama’s presidency, from Barack Obama’s perspective — the day he himself viewed as his most satisfying and consequential — was March 21, 2010, when health-care reform passed the House of Representatives and effectively into law. Yet given the magnitude of what occurred last night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it is hard to imagine that May 1, 2011, won’t soon be giving that earlier date a run for its money in the president’s personal pantheon.

Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the emotional, psychological, and political impact of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands — or, rather, squarely in the gun sights of — a crack team of U.S. special forces. At least in the short run, that is. For now, we are reveling in a rare period of bi-partisan celebration of a deeply pined-for and too-long-denied objective; the catharsis is ecstatic, and justifiably so.

But the longer term implications of bin Laden’s demise, for foreign and domestic policy and politics, are a good deal less clear. There are what-comes-next questions aplenty. So herewith four of them that jump immediately to mind, with provisional stabs at some answers.

1. Is the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) over?

The Obama administration has, of course, conspicuously avoided this nomenclature from day one — even as the strategy and tactics it has adopted in confronting radical extremism targeted at America have been marked more by continuity with those of George W. Bush’s tenure than divergence from them. The end of OBL does not mean the end of the terrorist threat; even without its maximum potentate, Al Qaeda is still out there, breeding new leaders and gaining new strongholds (in Yemen, most notably), and may be incited by bin Laden’s death to attempt revenge attacks. What yesterday might provide, however, is a kind of closure, which could, with any luck, mark the beginning of the end of the post-9/11 mentality in which fear all too often warped our politics and culture.

2. How does the death of OBL affect America’s three hot wars?

Not much. In all three cases — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — the conflicts have, as Ezra Klein puts it, “a logic and momentum” all their own. And in the one most directly tied to the fight against terrorism, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today said unequivocally, “The president has a timetable to begin withdrawal of [troops] out of Afghanistan. He has indicated he’s going to stick with that.” In fact, the glow around Obama on national security matters created by yesterday’s successful mission is likely to make Republicans more reluctant to challenge Obama on his plan to begin that withdrawal in July, thus making it all the easier to execute.

3. Does OBL’s death guarantee Obama’s reelection?

Incredibly, some people are suggesting just that — which strikes me as simply nuts. No doubt Obama will receive a welcome and perhaps large uptick in his approval ratings. But the history of presidential polling bumps driven by triumphs in the realm of foreign policy is instructive here. George W. Bush’s numbers jumped seven points when Saddam Hussein was captured but then fell back to their all-time lows (to that point) just two months later. And Bush’s father saw his approval rating climb to a stratospheric 90 percent in the wake of the first Gulf War, only to fall 43 points in the next nine months, leading to his reelection loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.

Does killing OBL mean that Obama’s Republican challengers will find it hard to get much traction by assailing him for fecklessness on national security? You bet. But, given the current and potential Republican candidates, that was likely to be the case anyway. The 2012 election was always going to be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, and what’s happened in the past 24 hours has done nothing to change that. If a year from now, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track — as they do today — Obama will be extremely vulnerable, and OBL’s death will be all but forgotten as a salient voting issue.

4. What does Obama’s handling of the OBL mission tell us about him?

It reinforces and magnifies something we knew already: that he is a Vulcan. Really, just think about last week: In the space of a few days, he releases his long-form birth certification, reshuffles his national-security team, flies to Alabama to deal with the devastation wrought by a horrific series of tornadoes, and then stands up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and delivers a pitch-perfect comic monologue — all the while planning and ordering a high-risk, high-stakes military operation in near-total secrecy, and all without coming close to breaking a sweat. Whatever else you think about the guy, he is one cool (possibly inhuman) customer.

Heilemann: What Comes Next After Osama