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Killing bin Laden has added new luster to the image of Barack Obama and to the role of the U.S. as the leading world power

High on Barack Obama’s mind as he weighed options for going after bin Laden must have been the fate of his predecessor Jimmy Carter. Carter’s political career ended in September 1979 when a military effort to free American hostages in Iran failed miserably. When Ronald Reagan campaigned against Carter a year later, he had only to refer to the Iranian debacle to make his point: Carter was weak and incompetent.

Bill Clinton faced a similar choice in the Balkans. Before Dayton, he was being criticized for many of the same reasons now applied to both Carter and Obama. He had experienced a debacle in the 1994 mid-term elections. His health care proposal had been defeated and his economic strategy had yet to show success. Clinton’s hesitation to enter the Bosnian conflict was becoming increasingly untenable from both humanitarian and strategic points of view.

Clinton had the Carter precedent in mind when he finally convinced the UN to give up peacekeeping and join the war by launching airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs in September 1995. This was a major change in strategy, which is often ignored by historians who concentrate more on the negotiations themselves. It was hard to sell to NATO allies still wary of getting in deeper in Bosnia. Failure there could have ended any hope of peace and changed the course of post-cold war history. Instead the attacks convinced the Bosnia Serbs to end the three year blockade of Sarajevo and the road to negotiations was open.

Ironically, it was Hillary Clinton who attacked candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign for stating that if necessary he would send troops to Pakistan to find and capture bin Laden. She judged that after the Iraq disaster, the mood of the country would reject such ambitious adventures. She could not have been more mistaken.

Obama has seemed from the beginning of his administration to understand that it is especially important for a progressive leader such as himself who stresses peace to also be able to project strength. Countering a presumption of weakness was certainly one of the reasons for his agreeing to the Libya campaign for example. He has also not hesitated to use force in Afghanistan on a level even higher than that of George Bush.

But there is a difference between tough talk and a decision to risk everything on a single roll of the dice as the bin Laden mission was. There was little room for error. Rather than using fighter planes or even drones to destroy bin Laden’s hideout, Obama choose the risky method of sending in Navy commandos who were charged with finding bin Laden and bringing him back, dead or alive. In other words, to prove they had found him.

Given the terrain, the heavy security, and the uncertainty of virtually everything in Pakistan, the mission could have gone terribly wrong. Had it failed, Obama’s reputation and America’s global role would have been shattered. His political future would have been bleak indeed.

So in addition to enabling a rebirth of American pride, the bin Laden mission has given us some insights about the perplexing political leader, Barack Hussein Obama. It has also strengthened America’s role as the world’s indispensible power.

As President, Obama has not been the brilliant communicator we experienced when he was a candidate. He frustrates friends and opponents with his unwillingness to project the visions he articulated in 2008. His tendency to complicate rather than clarify issues has hurt him at home and muddied the American image overseas.

But a leader who is able to plan such a risky undertaking – and who is willing to risk his entire future on it – is a person of strength and determination who must be taken seriously. He has also made clear that the United States will take decisive action if necessary.

Dramatic events of this sort can often change the course of political debate. An America battered by economic problems, social unrest, and foreign conflicts will certainly draw strength from the killing of the only person ever to launch a major attack on American soil.

But the potentially most important implications will take longer to become clear. Whatever they say publicly, Republican strategists are certainly aware of the new situation this success has created for their chances in the 2012 election. Foreign policy has been denied them as an election issue.

The same holds true globally. Democratic activists in the Middle East will be encouraged not only by Obama’s words, but also by his demonstration of strength. Emerging powers such as China will recalculate their judgments on the ability of the United States and by implication, the West, to lead. Nothing is of course certain. Circumstances can change rapidly. But for the moment at least, we have gained a new appreciation of Barack Obama and of the global reputation of the United States. Neither is as weak as many had believed.


Ambassador John Kornblum is a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, an AICGS Trustee, and Senior Counselor at Noerr Stiefenhofer Lutz Rechtsanwälte.

A German version of this essay originally appeared in the May 6, 2011, edition of Handelsblatt, and in the May 6, 2011, AICGS Advisor.