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Michael Swartz / May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden Dead: What's Next?

A slew of news reports late last night confirmed Osama bin Laden has died. While original news reports stated bin Laden’s death occurred a few days ago, later remarks by President Obama detailed the operation as happening yesterday. Whichever version of events is true doesn’t truly matter since the end result is the same: America’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ is no more among the living.

But my personal take as a political observer on how this will affect our nation’s immediate future is complex.

First of all, I’m sure we’ll have a lift in our step for a few days as a nation prone to puffing out its chest in victory, but it’s doubtful we’re going to see a major foreign policy change right away. Osama bin Laden has long been more of a spiritual leader of al-Qaeda than a tactician – after all, for the most part their battle tactics have lately consisted of hit-and-run attacks on vulnerable targets done by subordinate organizations or even single attackers. Perhaps all that was part of a larger plan, but having a decentralized operation made bin Laden somewhat of an appendage.

Still, it will be a propaganda victory if nothing else, particularly for President Obama – he was fortunate enough to have this happen on his watch – and took as much credit as he could. Chances are he’ll see a 10 to 15 percentage point bump in his approval ratings. Some of my Facebook friends are already bemoaning a second term of Barack Obama thanks to this news.

But for those faint of heart, it may be worth considering that on March 4, 1991, in the wake of a successful campaign to liberate Kuwait by ousting Saddam Hussein and Iraq from that nation, President George H.W. Bush enjoyed a 90% approval rating, which was a record high at the time. (His son would eclipse that mark four weeks after the 9-11 attack, hitting 92 percent.) But what sank Bush’s re-election prospects was “the economy, stupid.” Meanwhile, who knows what could happen to gasoline prices, which are a prime barometer of Americans’ economic health – will they be stoked by fears of a Middle East attack as reprisal for bin Laden’s death?

The foreign policy ramifications could be severe as well. Now that the object of our angst has been eliminated, how quickly will the call go up from war-weary Americans to bring the troops home? With our job nearly completed in Iraq anyway, most may believe that wasting our soldiers’ lives fighting what may amount to be a rear-guard operation in Afghanistan isn’t worth the effort anymore – we have our eye for an eye now. That attitude may also spill over into Libya, which wasn’t thought to be that much of an al-Qaeda hotbed anyway. Meanwhile, the end may also be near for another object of American scorn as Muammar Gaddafi runs from NATO bombs like those which claimed his son.

If Gaddafi’s demise comes to pass, certainly President Obama will be able to claim another scalp as the accidental terrorism fighter. Yet, as I noted above, foreign policy success in the Middle East many months out from a re-election campaign does not success make. There’s a lot of hostile economic territory to negotiate before President Obama can even think about a second term, and making the wrong move in the wake of bin Laden’s passing may harm American interests in the long run.

Moreover, there’s also the prospect of renewed terrorism to consider. If one considers bin Laden to be but a figurehead leader of al-Qaeda thanks to his many years on the lam, certainly the organization – which was never really big on a leadership hierarchy anyway – may resurface under a new name and new leadership. If your cause is based on fervent belief and you see it as a struggle which won’t be completed in your grandchildrens’ lifetime – let alone the limited span of years you walk this earth – it doesn’t matter just who the titular leader really is. Splinter cells of terror groups come and go with leaders who are, by necessity, faceless. Osama bin Laden had the target placed on his back because he was, in essence, too good at what it was suggested he did.

The next leader of whatever terror group succeeds al-Qaeda in the service of radical Islam will likely not make the mistake of being easily identifiable because of the propaganda victory their enemies (which would be us) gain from the commander’s demise. After all, Islam’s supreme commander lived and died many centuries ago, and all his most radical followers seek to do is establish a later caliphate in his name. The soldiers in this army of faith are quite prepared to lay down their lives for that cause as Osama bin Laden did – but it’s likely we’ll never know them by name.

Like the late bin Laden, we’ll only know them by the dastardly deeds they do.

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