The White House has never seen a night quite like Sunday.
The president of the United States alerted the press he had an announcement not only for the nation but also for the world. He appeared gravely before a microphone announcing the death of a foreign leader and pronouncing it an act of justice. Outside the executive mansion, crowds cheered. In military installations and at airports, security was heightened. A great goal was achieved, but finality in the broader struggle remained elusive.
Osama bin Laden was the subject of the largest, longest and most important manhunt in the history of American national security. Kaiser Wilhelm II was an American opponent for one year, Hideki Tojo was the face of America’s Japanese enemy in World War II for three years, and Adolf Hitler was the personification of America’s war against Nazi Germany for four years. But for Americans, bin Laden’s languid eyes and iron resolve were for nearly a full decade the symbol of evil, and of the dangerous new era the nation entered the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Details have been dribbling out about the raid on a $1 million mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, surrounded by barbed wire but without Internet or even telephone connections — the bin Laden analogue of the Fuhrerbunker where Hitler died in 1945 or the hole at the Tikrit farmhouse where Saddam Hussein was found in 2003 — along with pictures of the bloody scene there at the end of a narrow dirt road 65 miles north of Islamabad.
The killing of bin Laden and his burial at sea may be the answer to many prayers and may eventually bring a safer world. But the death of the al-Qaida leader raises myriad questions and may raise the threat to Americans’ safety for the time being. Here are some of those questions:
— Is the death of bin Laden the 2011 equivalent of the death of Benito Mussolini or of Josef Stalin?
Mussolini’s death, followed by the hanging of his body upside down at a Milan gas station (you can view the grim spectacle on YouTube), was one of the final steps on the way to Axis defeat in World War II. But the death of Stalin, who perished slowly after a stroke in 1953, was only a historical marker on the long Cold War road. Stalin eventually was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who continued the Soviet struggle with the West, which would not end for another 36 years.
For all the talk of “closure” brought by the death of bin Laden, shot in the head by Navy SEALS, it neither closes the war on terrorism nor even the more narrow struggle against al-Qaida, which is one of many rogue extra-national groups that threaten the United States and its allies, particularly Israel. In fact, Washington cautioned Americans to increase rather than relax their vigilance.
— What are the many meanings of the death of bin Laden?
For starters, it is a symbol of American determination even in the face of failure and frustration. The bin Laden trail grew cold many times, but former President George W. Bush and Obama were committed to root him out.
The death of al-Qaida’s strategic and spiritual leader also signals that American human-intelligence efforts, derided if not ridiculed during the Iraq and Afghan wars, retain great strength and skill and that American military forces, who rehearsed the bin Laden raid twice, possess great flexibility and ingenuity.
Bin Laden’s demise also suggests that terrorist leaders cannot forever escape American capture or killing.
— Why did Obama make this moment his own?
The president announced the killing of the great American nemesis because it was the realization of what he described as “the most significant achievement to date” in the effort against terrorism. So important to the president was this operation in politically sensitive Pakistan that he personally authorized it.
The president also wanted to ensure that the death of bin Laden was handled discretely and without triumphalism. In this regard, the Obama announcement echoed President George H.W. Bush’s admonition that American officials not gloat in the face of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism in 1989.
— What are the dangers ahead?
The first is a retaliatory attack against U.S. companies, military installations or cultural icons at home or abroad. Foes of American policy or adherents to the bin Laden creed will be more motivated this week than they have been in years.
Then there is the American relationship with Pakistan. Ties between the two nations, early allies in the war on terror, are frayed and will be further endangered as a result of this U.S. military operation. Though the president cited Pakistani assistance in the raid, officials in Islamabad were not notified in advance of the operation and on Monday emphasized it was an American effort prosecuted by American troops traveling in American helicopters.
— Finally, what are the domestic political consequences 18 months before the American presidential election?
Certainly this success improves Obama’s profile as a warrior against terrorism, buttressed by former President George W. Bush’s remarks shortly after the announcement of bin Laden’s death. The killing of bin Laden deprives Obama’s rivals of criticism that his fecklessness permitted the nation’s most-wanted enemy to operate unimpaired for another four years.
But these sorts of national-security triumphs often do not translate into political success. George H.W. Bush presided over the fall of communism and the defeat of Iraq but was himself defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Winston Churchill presided over the Allied effort in World War II but was ousted from office after victory in Europe and before victory in the Pacific. Both leaders lost decisively.
So this week’s events enhance the president’s re-election prospects, but offer no assurance of his political survival.