Every so often an event happens that is so striking that you remember exactly where you were when you heard it. I woke up this morning to find out from the BBC that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by American forces in Pakistan. As the news spread out across the globe reactions tended to be mixed; from dancing in the streets in parts of the US, to anger amongst some in the Middle-East. I fully expect most people to react in a more measured fashion, if only for the fact that the importance of the event lies not in the death of a man but more in terms of what he symbolised.
I was halfway through writing this column before it struck me that it was faintly distasteful to be writing about the political impact of a man’s death so soon after it happened. However in the case of Osama Bin Laden there are huge ramifications that will continue to be felt for the next few years so I thought it was worth discussing.
The War on Terror
Whatever the death of Bin Laden represents, it probably doesn’t mean the end of the War on Terror. In the short-term we are already being warned about the possibility of revenge attacks, and embassies have been put on alert around the world. In the longer term however, the causes that motivated Bin Laden and others like him are still there and Al-Qaeda is still a potent terrorist force. They haven’t needed a leader for years as their structure allows individual groups to operate independently, making collecting information about them extremely difficult.
While they probably won’t be able to carry out something on the scale of September 11th again, I fully expect attempts at suicide bombings to continue for some time to come. On the plus side though the Muslim world has changed dramatically in just the last six months. The democratic revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere are possibly symbolic of Al-Qaeda becoming increasingly irrelevant in the 21st Century.
What the death of Bin Laden will do though, is to help the USA to psychologically draw a line under the past ten years and start to move on. Hopefully in real terms this will mean coalition forces leaving Iraq and Afghanistan sooner rather than later. It will also hopefully lead to an end to the use of torture as a mechanism for gathering intelligence.
America’s role in the world
In terms of foreign policy the USA tends to swing between isolationism and interventionism at a bewildering speed. After the Cold War the USA turned inwards for much of the 1990s until September the 11th shifted the world on its axis. After a decade of conflict with thousands dead and billions spent, the public mood seems to be turning again towards isolationism. This is reflected in the unpopularity of the current military adventure in Libya. The impact of an isolationist USA is hard to quantify but it will be interesting to see how Russia and China react if the worlds only superpower takes a step back.
Obama’s poll ratings and the 2012 election
In the short-term at least I fully expect Obama’s poll rating to increase dramatically. Many Americans will see the death of Bin Laden as the end result of ten long years of wars around the world (ignoring the fact that he was found hiding in Pakistan and not in Iraq or Afghanistan). Regardless of this Obama will get the credit as Commander-in-Chief. Obama has long been a much more hawkish President then many expected, making it difficult for Republicans to paint him as being soft on national security, the death of Bin Laden just reinforces his position in this policy area,. This was underlined this morning with the Republican leadership lining up to congratulate him. Whoever he ends up debating with next year for the Presidency, will find it almost impossible to bring up the issue of national security without Obama responding with how Bin Laden was killed on his watch.
The downside of this for Obama is that the next election will be fought on economic issues rather than national security, so I’m not sure how much good it will do him in the long run. Also it’s worth bearing in mind that George Bush Sr had amazing poll ratings after the first Gulf War. Just after the War his ratings were in the 90s yet he lost the Presidency just a few years later after a brief economic slump. If Obama wants to win next year he’ll need to refocus all on his energies on creating jobs and getting the economy working again.