At about 11pm EST on Sunday Evening the White House announced that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks and the most wanted terrorist in the world is confirmed dead. CNN reports that Bin Laden and other members of his family were killed "by a US military asset" in a mansion in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
In the hours that followed "US military asset" became what the US has intimated is likely a covert strike team operating inside the borders of Pakistan. CIA or military, human or robotic, however, the central truth of the story remains thus - that a US miltary asset acting on US intelligence - has killed Osama Bin Laden. This is a watershed moment in US foreign policy and in the broader "War on Terror" and it has profound and far reaching consequences for the world, the United States, and the political future of President Barack Obama.
From a global standpoint, Bin Laden's presence, not only in Pakistan but in the country's capital city could significantly undermine the American relationship with Pakistan. The US Government has long complained that Pakistan has not done and is not doing enough to address militant Islamic fundamentalism within its borders, but a general disinterest in hunting down radicals in the mountains pales in comparison to the presence of the most wanted fugitive in American history, not only within Pakistan's capitol city, but apparently living in established comfort there.
Perhaps more significantly, Al Queda now stands nominally leaderless. What becomes of the world's premier terrorist organization will, to a great degree, determine what the legacy of this moment will be. Without its figurehead, Al Queda may continue on as it was before, splinter like the mythological hydra and multiply, or simply fade into obscurity? While numerous pundits and politicians have prognosticated a safer and more secure world after the death of Bin Laden, many of those same voices predicted that a world without the Soviet Union would likewise be safer and more secure. In many ways, Bin Laden's death trades the devil we know for the devil we don't. The character and nature of Al Queda will be determined in the years to come.
From an American standpoint, this is a watershed moment in the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden has been the boogyman, the living incarnation of terrorism and the terrorist threat in the mind of millions of Americans. Even in the last hours of Sunday night and stretching into the small hours of Monday morning a jubilant crowd is gathered outside of the White House to sing, chant, and revel in the victorious announcement.
But without Bin Laden, terrorism loses it's face. Without Bin Laden the much derided "war on an abstract noun" becomes that in symbolism and imagery as well as in hard political truth. In matters of war the American political system treats public approval as a scarce resource to be carefully shepherded and without Bin Laden to serve as a flashpoint of fear, public approval for the war on terror may well begin to flag.
From the political standpoint, Barack Obama has won - through what can only be described as a controversial and often unpopular covert intelligence war in Pakistan - an unimaginably significant foreign policy coup. Provided that Obama does not find himself on the wrong side of shifting public opinion on the War on Terror itself, the death of Osama Bin Laden gives the Obama Administration a foreign policy trophy which can likely sustain them through the 2012 election. Moreover, the death of Bin Laden will do a great deal to address the concerns of the anti-war movement and Obama's more liberal supporters who, up until this point, have objected to the Administration's covert operations in Pakistan, cementing their loyalty in 2012.
Of course, November 2012 is a very long way away and a scant six hours after the President's announcement the Monday news cycle began spin into full swing. While the story on every website and in every headline was "Obama announces Bin Laden is dead," the fight to control, frame, and characterize this transformative announcement is just beginning. The President spoke Sunday night as an apolitical figure but one clearly claiming credit for what his administration has done. In addressing the nation, Obama's language spoke volumes, stressing over and over again, not that Bin Laden was killed, but that the Obama administration took actions that killed Bin Laden. That linguistic choice - the active rather than passive voice - is the opening salvo in the next major message war in Washington as both Republicans and Democrats do their best to get a piece of the credit for Sunday night's announcement. Ultimately, however, the simple connection between the name "Obama" and the phrase "Bin Laden is Dead" will likely win out.
It is early yet, but when Rasmussen, Gallup, and the like release their tracking polls for Presidential approval I expect one thing will become crystal clear. May 1, 2011 is the day the 2012 election went from a theoretical dead heat to an uphill battle for the GOP.