Are we at a hinge of history? When I heard the news about Osama bin Laden and saw the cathartic outpouring of pride in this country, my mind went back not just to Sept. 11, but to a couple of other dates that mark the course of global events, pregnant with promise or peril.
We won’t know for years the consequences of the killing of bin Laden for U.S. foreign policy; they might be transitory. But this feels like a turning point, if not for the world then at least for our sense of ourselves.
History’s arc must always include World War II. On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. By that time, Hitler had lost the war. It was another event, two years earlier, that seems more relevant now. In 1943, the U.S. was engaged in heavy combat in the Pacific. The 16 months since Pearl Harbor hadn’t gone as well as Americans had hoped. U.S. forces prevailed at the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal, but casualties were heavy. Japanese forces were largely intact and the leadership in Tokyo still expected to win.
The mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor was Isoroku Yamamoto, the Harvard-educated commander of the Japanese fleet. “Get Yamamoto” President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Navy Secretary Frank Knox. On April 18, 1943, a squadron of P-38s intercepted and shot down the plane carrying Yamamoto. The impact on morale in both the U.S. and Japan was immediate. Much heavy fighting lay ahead, but the psychological balance shifted with Yamamoto’s death. After that, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. won the war in the Pacific.
We can’t know for sure how bin Laden’s death will shape the war on al Qaeda; this kind of war won’t end with a surrender and a signing ceremony. But we just won a decisive battle.
A failed military operation had the opposite effect as Yamamoto’s demise. In late 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage. With the nation riveted and the government paralyzed, President Jimmy Carter ordered a mission by Delta Force commandos to free the hostages. But a sandstorm crippled two helicopters and, after the mission was aborted, a third chopper collided with a C-130 transport, killing eight U.S. servicemen on April 24, 1980.
After 444 days in captivity, the hostages were released, but the failed rescue became a symbol of American ineptitude and impotence.
Ronald Reagan helped restore some of the old bravado, but the record of the U.S. military didn’t improve much. The victories were relatively small and brought no great catharsis. Reagan’s triumph in Grenada, George H.W. Bush’s wins in Panama and Kuwait, and Bill Clinton’s successful bombing campaign in Serbia, while gratifying, hardly brought back that World War II sense of mastery over events.
It didn’t help that U.S. intelligence flunked almost every big test from the 1970s on, failing to predict everything from the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to the fall of communism. More recently, the CIA missed 9/11 and fell for bogus reports that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even the West’s great victory in the Cold War was too diffuse and drawn out to bring the celebrations in the streets we saw on the night of bin Laden’s death.
George W. Bush rallied the country after 9/11 but his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were long, painful slogs marred by intelligence failures, counter-productive chest-thumping (Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier was eight years ago to the day of bin Laden’s death), and the knowledge that we hadn’t brought the perpetrator of 9/11 to justice.
Getting a Win
Changing that sense of control over events required a big win like getting bin Laden. That demanded good intelligence and good planning but also good fortune. In the White House Situation Room on Sunday, Obama and his team had a heart-stopping moment when one of the helicopters landing in the raid malfunctioned. The specter of Delta Force surely came to mind to those in the room. But then the mission succeeded. It’s still too early to surmise whether Obama will be a great president, but we now can be confident that he isn’t Jimmy Carter.
The operation to kill bin Laden was handled with impressive competence, down to the shrewd decision to cleanse his body before burial at sea in deference to Muslim tradition. The same cultural sensitivity that hurts Obama with American Know Nothings will now help minimize blowback in the Arab world. Although events, especially in the economy, may yet derail Obama’s presidency, it will now be much harder for the right wing to disparage him as weak and soft on terrorism; some voters may even be convinced that he’s not a Muslim after all.
Should al Qaeda retaliate, Americans will rally around their president as they did after 9/11. Were bin Laden still at large, even a small attack on U.S. soil would have seemed more menacing and lapses in security would have been blamed on the president. The same goes for the withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July. Obama now has a freer hand to de-escalate without worrying about criticism from hardliners.
Beyond politics lie the intangibles of the American spirit. The killing of bin Laden won’t end the war on al Qaeda or let us keep our shoes on in the airport. The economy is still a rough place for millions, the deficit is rising and China is gaining on us. Partisan divisions will resurface. But we should see the veil of fear and bitterness that has afflicted us for the last decade begin to lift. The old can-do competence that beat the Depression and won World War II isn’t dead yet. Happier days may be here again.
(Jonathan Alter, author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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