This Op-Ed was published in Council on Foreign Relations blog on 02/05/2011
The spectacular news of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces could not have come at a better time. Al Qaida’s message that violence, terrorism, and extremism are the only answer for Arabs seeking dignity and hope is being rejected each day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and throughout the Arab lands. Al Qaida and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption. Bin Laden’s death weakens al Qaida and Salafi movements further by taking away their most powerful symbol.
It is therefore unfortunate that Mr. Obama seems to want more than that fair share the American people will naturally and rightly give him. His remarks last night were far too much laced with words like “I met repeatedly,” “at my direction,” and “I determined,” trying to take personal credit for the years of painstaking work by our intelligence community. Mr. Obama might have noted that this work began under President Bush, but as usual he did not. It was also a mistake for him to use this occasion to deliver unrelated comments about “the pursuit of prosperity for our people” and “the struggle for equality for all our citizens.” A shorter and more straightforward announcement would have been more appropriate for this occasion.
Once again here the White House appeared unable to get the messaging quite right, a failure magnified by the amateurish delay of more than an hour in Mr. Obama’s remarks. The White House told the nation at roughly 10 p.m. that the President would speak at 10.30. Had the President done so, he would have delivered fabulous and shocking news. By the time he actually spoke nearer to midnight his words were an anticlimax, for all the news had leaked. Whatever the cause of this delay—Mr. Obama editing the remarks for too long, or a belatedly discovered need to brief Congressional and world leaders—it suggested that the calm professionalism in the face of crisis shown here by our military and intelligence professionals has yet to be achieved in the White House.
Al Qaida may redouble efforts to commit acts of terror, but its prestige and power in the Arab world are on the decline. The Administration should turn back now to the cases of Libya and Syria above all, pushing further to end the vicious and violent regimes that rule those countries. As the republics of fear fall, al Qaida’s message will fall further into disrepute and the message of freedom that is now spreading in the Middle East will grow stronger.
An update: The following reaction to Bin Laden’s death is from Maajid Nawaz, director of the London-based anti-extremist think tank Quilliam and emphasizes the timing of the event in the context of the Arab Spring:
“Bin Laden’s death comes at a time when al-Qaeda is struggling to remain relevant. As events in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have also shown, the Arab world has moved on since al-Qaeda was founded in the 1980s. A clear majority of Muslims around the world have decisively rejected al-Qaeda’s vision; people’s real concerns are now about poverty, unemployment and a lack of government accountability; not about establishing a caliphate and fighting a worldwide jihad against the West. Bin Laden’s death – combined with the events of Arab Spring – offers a clear chance for Muslims throughout the world to move on from the era of al-Qaeda and to find ways to achieve dignity, prosperity and social justice without resorting to violence. It is a chance too for jihadist groups around the world to reconsider their aims and methods, and to consider how they can help Muslims around the world rather than attacking them.”