Remember the moment President George Bush stood with a megaphone on the rubble of the World Trade Centre? An arm round the shoulders of a retired fire fighter, eyes moist with emotion, Bush struggled at first to make himself heard to the gathered throng of rescue workers. „We can‘t hear you George,“ someone said. „Well I hear you,“ the President shouted. „And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.“ Cue mammoth cheers. Say what you like about him - imbecile, cowboy, warmonger - but Bush grasped the power of symbolism.
Will anyone remember the day President Obama visited Ground Zero after the killing of Osama Bin Laden? No-body expected triumphalism from this softly-spoken, scholarly man, but his stumbling speech to NYC fire fighters contained nothing distinguished; the days after al-Qaeda leader‘s death no indelible summation of national mood.
Instead, his administration is fending off questions over the changing details of the Navy Seal operation, a lack of clarity officials blame on the „fog of war“. Sarah Palin‘s stock may be falling, but she will not be the only American to think Obama has „pussy-footed“ over the decision not to release the photo of Bin Laden‘s bloodied face. The hawkish right has also seized on the fact the President „slept on it“, waiting 16 hours to give the Navy Seals the go-ahead. And conspiracy theories - the fantastical stories of the never-convinced - continue to grow tentacles. Pundits in Washington are already puzzling over the anaemic state of the expected Obama poll bump. Although one showed an immediate nine point leap, a CNN survey later last week his approval at 52 per cent - up from just 1 point from polling before Bin Laden‘s death. A Daily Beast/ Newsweek poll demonstrated no improvement in his numbers: an approval rating of 48 per cent before and after the killing.
Predictions the ruthless dispatch of Public Enemy No.1 will hand Obama four more years appear hasty. Americans don‘t allow lasting ‚Warrior President‘ mythology to surround non-serving politicians (as opposed to actual soldiers like Ulysses S. Grant or Eisenhower). Bush Snr saw his approval ratings soar to 90 per cent after victory in the Gulf in 1991, but he was ejected from office in favour of charmer-in-chief Clinton a year later. According to Gallup, most Americans (89%) want the military to get most of the credit for Bin Laden‘s demise, followed by the CIA, (62%) then Obama (35%).
A slight short-term bounce aside, opinion about Barack Obama seems to have solidified in an increasingly shrill, polarized America. The election of 2012 will be won or lost on the basis of the President‘s economic message to the relatively small number of moderates, and the abilities of the Republican candidate to offer an alternative. The elimination of Bin Laden will certainly make it harder for Obama‘s opponent to attack him on national security, but Americans have been steadily less concerned with foreign policy questions for the past five years.
Internationally, the killing of Bin Laden promises more difficulties than advantages. The relationship with Pakistan and its Byzantine power structures becomes messier and murkier. Maintaining 100,000 troops in Afghanistan becomes more difficult to justify. Much of ‚Arab Street‘ appears to have more important things on its mind, but widespread suspicion toward US military action, however small and carefully crafted, has been re-awakened in the Muslim world. To hear so many people in Pakistan state flat disbelief in any explanation America has to offer regarding Bin Laden should disturb the White House, even if such distrust is not entirely unexpected.
The moment places new scrutiny on the Obama foreign policy: does he offer any more inspiring than cautious management of the mess his predecessor left behind? Even if he were able to do so, it might not matter much to a domestic audience in 2012. It‘ll be the economy, stupid, once again; Bin Laden nothing more a bad memory in the commotion over dollars and cents.
SIDEBAR: CONSPIRACY THEORIES BY BRENDAN O‘NEILL
You couldn‘t have asked for a better snapshot of the political jitteriness of the West than the epic tussle over what to do with Osama bin Laden‘s body.
On the one hand US officials wanted to get shot of it as quickly as possible, so that there could never be a shrine or a rallying point for possible future apocalyptic terrorists. So they dumped OBL at sea.
Yet on the other hand they feared that the absence of a body might fuel conspiracy theorists, all those computer-bound cranks and socially inadequate bloggers who would claim that bin Laden was actually still alive and possibly hidden in Roswell alongside that alien. So they considered releasing a photo of the body in a desperate bid to nip such nonsense in the bud.
However, they feared that publishing a pic of the body, with bullet-wounded head and bloodstained face, might rile radical Islamists and give rise to vengeful terrorism. So President Obama said no photo would be forthcoming.
And there you have it. In the great weighing-up of whom it is more acceptable to annoy - conspiracy- minded loners or wannabe holy warriors - the Obama administration opted to irritate the former and try to placate the latter.
Not releasing That Photo would have serious consequences, yes, giving rise to endless jibber jabber about OBL still being alive. But releasing That Photo might have an even more serious impact, possibly radicalising more warriors against the West.