The long road home
How Osama bin Laden's death, and life, have changed America
May 5th 2011 | from the print edition
WHAT America needs, Sarah Palin is fond of saying, is a commander-in-chief, not a professor-in-chief. Like many other Republican critics of Barack Obama, the former governor of Alaska ought to be eating her words. Indeed, after the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden, America has discovered that its commander-in-chief is one cool cat. The president issued the order for the attack on Friday April 29th and it was executed on the Sunday. In between, on the Saturday night, a relaxed Mr Obama gave a wisecracking speech at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. Flashing his toothsome smile, he poked fun not only at Donald Trump, the presidential wannabe who had questioned whether the president was a real American, but also at himself for his professorial ways and tanking poll numbers.
The joke now is on the critics of the president’s foreign policy. In one gloriously mistimed editorial, written just ahead and in ignorance of the raid on Abbottabad, Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, mocked Mr Obama for “leading from behind”. All the Republicans had to do, argued Mr Kristol, was to nominate “a real leader: a workhorse not a show horse; a steady hand not a flip-flopper; a profile in courage not in cleverness; a competent man or woman with strength and confidence in defence of liberty at home and abroad.”
Mr Obama can now claim to be such a man. It may have been mere luck that the CIA at last found its quarry on his watch. But his cool supervision of what followed, and his brave decision to send men in helicopters rather than bombs from afar, have made a nonsense of the much-repeated Republican refrain that he is soft on terrorism or—a favourite aspersion—“in over his head” on national security. As a result, his ratings have surged. A poll this week by the Pew Research Centre and the Washington Post found that 56% of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job, up from 47% in April. His ratings for dealing with the war in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism have improved dramatically—by 16 points and 14 points respectively since January. More than seven out of ten Americans say they feel relieved that Mr bin Laden is dead and six out of ten feel proud.
It is a sweet moment for the president. But the moment will pass. Had the raid happened 17 months hence, it might have been an “October surprise”, like Richard Nixon’s Vietnam peace breakthrough on the eve of the presidential election of 1972. As it is, both polling and precedent suggest that the killing of Mr bin Laden will turn out to have little impact on Mr Obama’s prospects for re-election in November 2012. Pew’s data show that 55% of Americans still disapprove of his handling of the economy. Precedent suggests that voters unhappy about the economy will dump successful war leaders. The first George Bush’s triumph in the first Gulf war did not win him a second term. British voters turfed out Winston Churchill two months after his victory against Hitler. And Mr Obama has not “won” the war against al-Qaeda. Killing Mr bin Laden has scotched the snake, not killed it.
For most Americans, the significance of Abbottabad is anyway not about its possible impact on electoral politics. Nor, apart from a handful of raucous gatherings when the news first broke, has there been much jingoism. There is natural pride in the performance of the armed forces, so different from the debacle of Jimmy Carter’s hostage-rescue mission in 1980 and Bill Clinton’s Black Hawk Down moment in Mogadishu in 1993. But the overall mood this week has been quiet satisfaction rather than boastfulness. By tracking down and killing the man who ordered the felling of the twin towers, America feels it has righted a wrong: “Justice has been done,” said Mr Obama. There is catharsis, too. A few of the relatives of the nearly 3,000 Americans killed on September 11th 2001 say they feel at least some sense of “closure”.
The damage he did
Nations, however, do not heal in the same way that people do. It will take much more than this to help America as a whole recover from the harm Mr bin Laden inflicted. That harm extends beyond the lives lost that day, or in the costly and bloody wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A full audit of the damage must include the deep change he wrought in America itself.
At home, a new generation is coming of age with little memory of the more open and trusting America of ten years ago. The new America keeps looking over its shoulder. It is permanently vigilant and relentlessly intrusive. Few people complain about the security-inspired hassles that have infected everyday activities, from boarding an airliner to applying for some required government document. Safety first is, understandably, the order of the day in a world in which killers hide bombs in their shoes and underpants. But the cumulative result of all these precautions is a wretched thing. A culture of suspicion, and its accompanying bureaucracy, take away trust in your fellow man. A less tolerant America, whose prosperity was built on openness to the world, has shut down its borders and locked out many of the skilled and eager immigrants whose help it could dearly use.
How much of this can be reversed? A lot depends on whether people and their politicians see the value in trying. Early excesses in the war on terrorism, such as waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and “extraordinary renditions”, have been stopped or rolled back. America’s strong Bill of Rights, respect for the law and tradition of liberty have helped to hold the goons and snoopers at bay. But fear, and the awful deeds that fear inspires, are hard to uproot. Americans are already quarrelling about whether it was waterboarding, now banned, that produced the tip that led the CIA to Abbottabad. With Mr bin Laden in his watery grave, a chapter may close. But the country he attacked faces a long road home to the more innocent place it was ten years ago.