Osama bin Laden is gone and we must now turn our attention to what U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will look like without its foremost terrorist. On the domestic front, President Barack Obama will likely gain major political capital for the coming 2012 elections, but he will also lose the ability to hinge much of the U.S. military interventions in the Middle East on the fact that he is hunting bin Laden or fighting an ever-lasting war on terrorism. America needs a new target to base its foreign policy on, much as it did for the last decade.
For the average voter and the mainstream media, bin Laden’s death is a frenzy of excitement and support. The political capital as a consequence of the event is certainly considerable. At last week's Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama joked that if he were too arrogant, one look at his polls would sober him right up. Well, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. On the eve of the 2012 presidential campaigns, the president has one-upped the competition with ‘concrete results’ on the war against global terrorism.
But there may be a downside to Obama’s boost in poll numbers – he is out of scarecrows. Bin Laden was a figure to hinge political capital against, a justification for the American military interventions in the Middle East. In each of the following examples, bin Laden’s name or that of Al-Qaeda came up to justify a foreign intervention. The former President George W. Bush initially alleged links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda to justify the U.S. Army’s intervention in Iraq, but eventually he admitted that these links did not exist in a White House speech. The same kind of connections turned the multi-national mission in Afghanistan from hunting terrorists to building a nation with disastrous results, such as the concentration of Afghan refugees on the western Pakistani border, high-profile prison escapes, and continuing drug issues. The drone attacks in western Pakistan target militants and their supply lines to curb the influence of militant movements, but the practice remains controversial and has questionable effectiveness. The point behind all of these examples is that bin Laden was implicated directly or indirectly in the public discourse for each case as the symbol of the global threat that international, stateless terrorism represents.
For what it can do, America needs a new bogeyman. Again, bin Laden was the most powerful symbol of terrorism during the first decade of the 21st century, and achieving the same psychological effect will not be easy. The discourse in the West immediately after his death is that the campaign against terrorism is far from over and that means that a new bogeyman is imperative, if the average voter is going to see any future interventions justified.
Washington’s role in Iraq is winding down as troop numbers dwindle and only supporting units are left as the Iraqis take the lead on the task of rebuilding their shattered country from the ground up. Conversely, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, also fundamentally supported by the U.S., is an unofficial disaster, a la the Soviet and British interventions. Terrorism is fast running out of steam as a reason for America’s presence in the Middle East.
So, here’s the homework for the propaganda machine in Washington: there’s a long list of volunteers to become Terrorist No. 1. First, he must look semi-delusional and insane. Two, a degree in the liberal arts is a must – every evil foreign rebel or terrorist as an enemy to American foreign policy has one (Mao, Castro and Osama). Previous CIA experience is optional, but preferred. Finally, a threatening message to the rest of the world about how it would pay in blood for all the pain it has caused country X or country Y is needed. Al-Qaeda might remain the moniker, but it might need an update too, it is getting a little overused. I just hope they don’t ask for CVs by way of an ad in the New York Times classifieds.
To conclude, Obama’s second term is not guaranteed, but it did get a timely leg-up to make that joke at the dinner go a little out of date. America’s perimeter of operations will inevitably become smaller and Washington must deal with this new reality, as the commitment to Iraq winds down and the deadline on Afghanistan is approaching. Fundamentally, we need a new scarecrow – and fast; the old one has become fish food at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. What a way to go.
Photo Credit: aviapics