Monday, May 2, 2011

The world changer

What became colloquially known as the War on Terrorism began in the skies over lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. One phase of that war ended about 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on  May Day afternoon, at a compound in Abbottabad, a garrison town about 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan, where a small team of U.S. Special Forces conducting the most important black-ops mission of the decade engaged in a firefight with al-Qaida operatives, and shortly, the figurehead anathema of our time, Osama bin Laden, was dead.

Another phase of that war persists: the one that over the last nine years, seven months and twenty days has transformed our habits, our culture, our laws and our national psyche. But Sunday’s events effectively change everything for America’s global posture, its domestic politics and its national pride.

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“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” President Obama said about 11:40 p.m. on Sunday night, at a startling, powerful address from the East Room of the White House. “A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

"For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al-Qaida's leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al-Qaida.

"Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

The operation, the product of several national security briefings, apparently went off without a hitch. Besides bin Laden himself, one of his sons was also killed, as well as three al-Qaida operatives.

But for the president who ordered the assault, the location of its swift and successful conclusion also confirms what Obama has been saying for years: that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, were the proper spatial theaters for the war on terrorism, and that Pakistan was the most likely hiding place for bin Laden and his leadership. The news of the assault is a breathtaking vindication of that belief.

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Around this country, it was instant flashmob. Spontaneous crowds of celebrators formed in lower Manhattan, at or near Ground Zero. Fireworks went off in South Carolina. Spirited celebrations happened in Morgantown, W. Va. Cadets went nuts at West Point. And it was a zoo near the White House, at Lafayette Square, where tens of thousands of mostly young revelers partied and rallied for hours in a wild blend of the brio and spirits of V-E Day, spring break and a college football game.

That’s a distillation of the benefits that await the president. In the days and weeks to come — count on this — Obama will see a serious rise in his favorables in any opinion polling on presidential performance. That’ll probably be a short-term bump, and as such it’s more or less predictable.

More enduring, from a historical perspective, will be the sense that the successful execution of this plan burnishes the Obama presidency, repositions the president as a commander-in-chief whose stealth strategy, once seen as plodding and — what was the word thrown at him — nuanced, was exactly and surgically what was required; a president whose philosophy of sharply targeted military force has just been utterly validated.

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President Obama has achieved several things more or less at once: he retrieves Osama bin Laden from the realm of specter, the wraithlike presence of a terrorist residing somewhere between man and myth the longer he stayed at large. The unknown whereabouts of Osama the man for so many years reinforced his inspirational value to the al-Qaida brand. As time wore on, year after year, there was the bemused resignation that we’d find bin Laden at the same secret undisclosed location as Judge Crater and Jimmy Hoffa.

The announcement tonight of Bin Laden’s known fate brings him back to mortal territory. As of now, he’s another High Value Target who’s been acquired. Permanently.

The news of bin Laden’s death also effectively takes other peripheral issues off the table as talking points for Obama's political opponents. You won’t hear Donald Trump or the other birthers jabbering much about the presidential birth certificate this week. In a literal instant, sideshows like that — and their ringmasters — now matter less than they did before (if that’s possible).

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And you won’t hear Obama being lambasted for an inability to pivot, or for being “one step behind” events or “slow off the mark.” Consider how Obama has moved in four days — from making appearances in Alabama and Florida, two of the states hit in the latest wave of horrible weather; to working the crowd as comedian-in-chief at the White House Correspondents Dinner … and now this, a game-changing, world-changing military action, executed swiftly and decisively.

It’s been almost forgotten that the administration has done this before. In April 2009, little more than two years ago, Richard Phillips, the captain of the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, was kidnapped by four Somali pirates who held Phillips in one of the ship’s lifeboats. President Obama dispatched the USS Bainbridge to the Somali coast; a team of snipers assembled on the deck of the Bainbridge near the back of the lifeboat and, in an instant, fired and killed three of the pirates with simultaneous shots to the head. The fourth pirate was captured earlier.

What was clear then is even clearer now: This is a president whose baseline balance of patience, sang-froid and a talent for deliberate deliberations deliberately deliberated is grafted to an ability to embrace the underutilized military option, the sword instead of the bombardment, the exercise of military might refined to a kind of ninja surgery.

It worked in 2009. And it worked again on Sunday.

It’s no wonder the Republicans have spent much time dissembling and chin-pulling over who’ll really run against him in 2012. They’ll have few complaints about this with any substance. This weekend, Obama has proven to be exactly the multihyphenate phenom scholar-politician we elected president. The kind of deft multitasking Obama has performed in the last handful of days should make any presidential candidate think twice about being a presidential candidate.

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But more than anything else, this operation fulfills a campaign pledge to the families and friends of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001. This is a promise that candidate Obama made going back to at least Oct. 7, 2008. That was the night of the second presidential debate between he and Sen. John McCain, at the Mike Curb Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

That’s when the future American president said the United States “will take him out, we will kill bin Laden, we will crush al-Qaida; that has to be our biggest national security priority.”

And (cue the Sinatra classic) he did it his way, without the showdown bravado we’d gotten used to, but with a cool efficiency not so much borrowed from outlaws of the Wild West as it was taken from the playbook of Michael Corleone. Tonight the United States settled accounts with Osama bin Laden.

But this wasn’t American gangsterism; this was an extermination problem that everyone in the building agreed had to be dealt with. And it was. Osama bin Laden is over. No more playing whack-a-mole via YouTube. No more loathing the mastermind in absentia.

“Tonight,” the president of the United States said, “justice has been done.” To the thousands who died on 9/11, and the 47,000 Americans killed or wounded in wartime since then, this promise made is a promise kept.

Image credits: CNN home page 5/1/11: CNN. Osama bin Laden: al Jazeera via NBC. Obama-Osama scorecard: MSNBC. Richard Phillips: U.S. Navy photograph.

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