David Rothkopf

Will Obama’s most Bush-like moment free the true Obama?

Like many significant events, the attack that killed Osama bin Laden looms larger than the simple facts of what occurred because of its resonances. Some are historical, signaling the closing of one chapter or the beginning of another. Some are emotional, providing closure, a sense of justice, a sense of triumph or even a redefined ...

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US President Barack Obama(L) accompanies former president George W. Bush to the presidential helicopter Marine One, to bid him farewell at the US Capitol, following the inaugural ceremony for Obama as 44th US president in Washington DC on January 20, 2009. Bush has departed Washington for his home in Texas. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Like many significant events, the attack that killed Osama bin Laden looms larger than the simple facts of what occurred because of its resonances. Some are historical, signaling the closing of one chapter or the beginning of another. Some are emotional, providing closure, a sense of justice, a sense of triumph or even a redefined sense of identity. Some are political, impacting views of our allies, our enemies or our leaders.

The bin Laden mission contains all these elements which is why, though the post-bin Laden world is in most important ways identical the world on the day before his death, this moment will seem a watershed for so many people.

The bin Laden mission has already altered (and strained) our relationship with one key ally, Pakistan; suggested a coming change in our relationship with another, Afghanistan; and impacted to varying degrees our standing among our allies and enemies. But, among the operation’s most interesting political dimensions are what it has revealed about the relationship between the American people and America’s leaders.

There is an undeniable irony in the fact that the greatest foreign policy triumph of the brief Obama presidency appears to be the one moment in which he became most fully the president George W. Bush always wanted to be. The Democrat who was elected as the anti-Bush has seen his popularity and perceptions of his competence soar for serving as the decisive, “war on terror” commander-in-chief who oversaw a “High Noon” like showdown between good and evil. The thoughtful, lawyerly, multilateralist did what had to be done, acting unilaterally, violating another nation’s sovereignty, keeping an ally in the dark to preserve security, and gunning down a man without benefit of trial.

There are however, important paradoxes within this paradox. It would be a mistake to conclude that Obama was merely being celebrated for getting in touch with his inner cowboy. While that was no doubt important for a great many Americans, for others the President was elevated by the event precisely by how-un-Bush-like his handling of it was. This is especially manifest in the sensitivity he showed with regard to Islamic burial rituals and his decision not to circulate images of the dead bin Laden. Tough but sensitive is precisely why Gary Cooper’s triumph in “High Noon” is so much more compelling than the raw John Wayne alternative of most westerns.

The Bush-Obama paradox manifests itself again when considering just what kind of a dividing line in history this might be. On the one hand, it is celebrated as the culminating moment to date in the War on Terror, the realization of the express initial mission undertaken in the moments after the 9/11 attacks. But this event should also be seen as what it probably is, a pivot point enabling the ultimate reversal of Bush’s heavy engagement in the Middle East. Obama has never seemed comfortable with America’s large-scale military involvement in the region, promising an exit even as he added troops in Afghanistan. He and key aides have sought a satisfactory exit for most of our troops and the ability to move to different models of international involvement: more multilateral, a greater emphasis on diplomacy, more positive engagement with the Muslim world in particular…and frankly, a search for more approaches that allow us to address growing critical needs at home. Thus, on the foreign policy front, Obama’s most-Bush-like moment may be his last such moment…unless the moment and its headiness changes him as a president more than he or his allies might currently anticipate.

My guess is that while the President and his team will continue to vigorously pursue counter-terror initiatives as they must, this moment signals not just the death of bin Laden, but the death of American nation-building, counter-insurgency and wholesale investment in the forced transformation of the Middle East. We will seek to identify and eliminate threats and we will seek to collaborate with the world at large at promoting reforms and moderate viewpoints. But in the end, we will see this moment as the end or the beginning of the end of the Bush years or what David Sanger has called “The Legacy” and we will view it as the beginning of an Obama-era shaped by an Obama who will feel much freer to be his own man and who will make policies much less defensively. After all, who among his opponents will be able to call him diffident or uncomfortable with security concerns ever again?

Finally, the ultimate paradox here is that this in the end is not just or even primarily an Obama triumph or a Bush triumph. It is actually much less a presidential triumph than you would know from watching or reading or listening to the media. While the camera focuses on the man in the Oval Office, in this, as in almost all matters, the power of presidents is limited. The credit for operational successes like this one belongs far more with the men and women who risked their lives in the streets of Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere searching for intelligence; with both the special forces that risked their lives carrying out the mission, and the others that have been advancing it around the world for a decade; with the true allies among the Pakistanis and Afghans and other nations who have assisted us even as some of their countrymen chose a different course; with our military families who waited behind and even with the bureaucrats; and with members of Congress and all the others who contributed time and effort over the last not two but three administrations to contributing the bits and pieces necessary to tracking down and eliminating this man.  

It is therefore utterly appropriate and even telling that such a collective effort is defined both by its Obama-ness and its Bush-ness, because as different as they are they are also in some key ways the same — parts of a complex, contradictory American whole that is the real author of such successes as well as our long-term policies, place and influence in the world.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf