|Obama's opponents consistently painted him as weak on national security, but the outpouring of US support for the anti-Osama mission gives the president a chance to implement other aspects of his broader agenda [AFP]
Five days after US Navy Seals shot and killed Osama bin Laden at his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, US President Barack Obama is enjoying a significant boost in public approval, as well as a transformation in his public image.
The question on most people's minds is what he will do with the new political capital he has gained.
On this, he is being given a great deal of gratuitous advice – from accelerating the timetable for the US withdrawal in Afghanistan that is scheduled to begin July 1, to pushing his own peace plan on Israel and the Palestinians, to pressing Republicans much harder on the necessity for tax increases to reduce the yawning budget deficit.
"The end of bin Laden has given Obama a rare chance for a new beginning," according to Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "It gives him the power to get hard things done."
"Just as 9/11 transformed an unpopular and divisive President George W. Bush and empowered him enormously, so 5/1 hands President Obama the rarest of chances to lead," Gelb wrote on the Daily Beast website.
Rallying around the leader
Polls taken since the operation have shown increases in his public- approval ratings to around 50 per cent – a strong reversal of a trend that had slowly dragged his poll percentages down to the mid-to-low 40s.
The well-respected Gallup organisation, which Thursday released a three-day-tracking poll, found a six per cent increase in the president's public-approval rating during the three days after the raid in what it called Obama's first "rally event" – a positive reaction to a major international or domestic crisis.
While that was extremely modest compared to the all-time record 35- per cent increase George W. Bush received in his ratings after the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the consensus among even right-wing commentators is that Obama has emerged as a more-formidable political force primarily because he has demolished, at one blow, the increasingly widely accepted notion that he is a cautious, even timid, politician who instinctively favours the safest political option and who sees his foreign-policy role as managing the inevitable decline of US power in the world.
"It is this last claim that took such a profound blow when Obama approved the operation against bin Laden and chose the riskiest option involving a face-to-face confrontation with American commandos – on the orders of the president of the United States," wrote EJ Dionne Jr, a political columnist at the Washington Post, this week.
A drone strike or bombing the compound from the air would not have put US personnel at risk or so deeply embarrassed, not to say humiliated, Pakistan's military whose cooperation is still regarded as essential in prosecuting the broader war against the Taliban and its allies.
Both would have been much safer options, particularly given the terrible memories of the "Desert One" operation almost exactly 31 years ago when President Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue US hostages in Tehran ended in disaster when a transport plane and a helicopter collided at a staging area outside the capital, aborting the mission.
Many political pros believe the debacle contributed importantly to Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in his re-election bid seven months later.
Not a few analysts this week noted the obvious irony that Obama's "rally event" was made possible by an operation that no doubt would have appealed most to his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"The Democrat who was elected as the anti-Bush has seen his popularity and perceptions of his competence soar for serving as the decisive, 'war on terror' commander-in-chief who oversaw a 'High Noon' like showdown between good and evil," wrote David Rothkopf, a national-security expert who blogs on foreignpolicy.com.
"The thoughtful, lawyerly, multilateralist did what had to be done, acting unilaterally, violating another nation's sovereignty, keeping an ally in the dark to preserve security, and gunning down a man without benefit of trial," he noted.
Indeed, right-wing hawks claimed hopefully that the operation marked further confirmation that, despite his campaign promises to reverse Bush policies in a host of areas, Obama has been forced to embrace his predecessor's "global-war-against-terror" paradigm.
"The most striking fact of Mr. Obama's prosecution of the war on terror is how much it resembles Mr. Bush's, to the consternation of America's anti-antiterror left," enthused the Wall Street Journal newspaper's neo-conservative editorial writers who went on to warn against any talk of negotiations with the Taliban or accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But, as noted by James Traub, also writing on foreignpolicy.com, Obama had pledged when he first launched his presidential campaign almost four years ago that he would not hesitate to strike unilaterally against "high-value terrorist targets" in Pakistan and that any changes - such as closing Guantanamo, ending renditions, and relying more on multilateral institutions -- he would make to Washington's counter-terrorist strategy would be designed above all to increase its effectiveness in protecting national security.
It was Obama, after all, who said at the outset that he didn't oppose war, only "a dumb war" as Bush was waging in Iraq at the time.
"The great despair of Obama's foreign policy advisors in 2007 was how relentlessly he was pegged as the 'soft' candidate," Traub, who is close to senior administration officials, wrote this week.
"The raid on bin Laden's lair has accomplished something beyond the disposing of Public Enemy No. 1: It has freed Obama from having to prove his toughness," he wrote. "He can advocate 'soft' policies without being seen as soft. Having broken the rules with such éclat, he can now safely argue for the rules he believes in."
Rothkopf agreed that the raid could mark a strategic "pivot point" for Obama. "[O]n the foreign policy front, Obama's most-Bush-like moment may be his last such moment… unless the moment and its headiness changes him as a president more than he or his allies might currently anticipate," he wrote.
"[T]his moment signals not just the death of bin Laden, but the death of American nation-building, counter-insurgency and wholesale investment in the forced transformation of the Middle East," Rothkopf predicted.
"[We] will view it as the beginning of an Obama-era shaped by an Obama will feel much freer to be his own man and who will make policies much less defensively. After all, who among his opponents will be able to call him diffident or uncomfortable with security concerns ever again?"
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.