“So, what do you think?” The brief email from a key White House official greeted me Monday morning, along with Osama bin Laden’s death notices. “It’s the best I’ve felt about my country since 9/11,” I responded. He shot back: “It’s a whole new world.”
He wasn’t far off. Of course, the tremulous world hasn’t changed. But the mood in America—and the confidence levels at the White House—have zoomed skyward. The skilled killing of bin Laden has united the nation behind Obama. 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. Both great tragedies and stunning successes grant special powers—powers that can perish quickly if not wielded swiftly and confidently.
Bin Laden’s dispatch was a triumph on several counts.
It is almost unanimously regarded as just. Bin Laden was a mass killer, a hero to very few. The feelings about his timely departure are unequivocal, especially here in America. What a rare unity of emotion that is. It’s hard to remember a comparable moment, save for 9/11 itself. Bin Laden’s death is almost universally popular. Bush can begrudgingly limit his congratulations to the U.S. military. But even Tea Partiers praise the president for pulling the trigger. Obama now has virtually the whole nation behind him on this central issue.
The Arab and Muslim world, which had begun to take America less seriously after its troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, are reminded of what the U.S. is capable of—and are looking at America with new respect.
Americans view themselves with new respect, too. Bin Laden’s death helps to lift the stigma of a country that can’t shoot straight, that can’t accomplish important and difficult things. From the Vietnam War, to the bungled rescue of American hostages in Iran, to a couple of hundred Marines getting blown up in Lebanon under Ronald Reagan, to the failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora in the early days of the Afghan war—our foreign-policy landscape has been littered with ineptitude. The key parts of an errant bureaucracy that usually foul up worked together in harmony: the intelligence community that nailed bin Laden’s whereabouts, the special-operations command that did the planning, and the SEAL commandos and CIA operators who executed the mission with beauty and precision (save for the usual failure of a helicopter, as also happened during Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980). Over months, Obama and his team led the process, step by step, with smarts and courage. They restored American pride.
Americans eager to be led by good sense don’t want him to mince words and make compromises again even before the fight begins. They want their president to battle with all the conviction of his political adversaries.
It’s been so long since something so clearly good has happened. Once again, people have a sense of being a part of one country. It’s like Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” message, which won Americans over with its simple optimism. The moment also affects Obama’s political foes, increasing their willingness to compromise. The president was not simply crowing Sunday night when he said, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al -Qaeda.” If Obama wills it, 5/1 could mean far more than that. The president now has to convince people that the bin Laden triumph represents the new Obama, a strong and decisive leader who is willing to go out on a limb for his nation. Americans must feel that the commando raid was not a one-off affair. After 9/11, Bush understood his opportunity only too well—to declare an all-embracing and undiscriminating “war on terror.” If Bush could drag the country into two terribly costly, long wars, all out of proportion to U.S. interests, Obama surely can prime the people to push their political representatives to make good and hard decisions now, both home and abroad.
To make the most of this moment, Obama should not try to do dozens of things. He’s got to focus his newfound power on two fronts: the federal budget and the Afghan war.
Obama has always had reason going for him on the budget, but he lacked the clout to sell his plan. He knows that the only way to bring deficits and the overall debt under control is both to cut spending and to increase taxes on the wealthy (at the least). It simply cannot be done just with spending reductions, especially if the cuts don’t include the Pentagon’s budget and social benefits. That’s elementary math, and Obama has the platform to explain that to a majority of Americans who are now listening to him. He can also explain to his new and sympathetic audience that the country must invest in its own future in schools, infrastructure, and energy—if it is to have jobs and a future. This would be Obama’s War for Common Sense.
The moment is also ripe to announce substantial reductions in U.S. troops in Afghanistan come Obama’s July deadline. The expectation is for modest trims to avoid a fight with Republicans. But the mansion where bin Laden was staying—located near military facilities in Pakistan—shows the fundamental contradiction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. As all are well aware, the U.S. can’t win in Afghanistan without the support of Pakistan. Events of recent days prove that Islamabad’s genuine support is impossible. Americans are now prepared to accept the truth and consequences of this fact—withdraw almost all U.S. combat forces before the current 2015 deadline.
The end of bin Laden has given Obama a rare chance for a new beginning. A majority of Americans are just confused, and are not so nearly as ridiculous in their thinking as right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats. They just need to hear a president tell them what they already sense the truth to be, the hard truth, with all the common sense that used to mark America, with all the can-do spirit and skill of Sunday’s commando operation. They are waiting for the man in the White House to tell them these things.
The old Obama won’t do. His natural tendency to conciliate, to try to make everyone happy, hasn’t marked him as a leader in the public’s eye. The majority of middle-of-the-road, pragmatic Americans eager to be led by good sense don’t want him to mince words and make compromises again even before the fight begins. They want their president to battle with all the conviction of his political adversaries. And Obama can do that now. Dropping bin Laden in the sea has put the wind at Obama’s back.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.