It Is Still the Economy, Stupid

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 3, 2011


Unquestionably, the killing of Osama bin Laden is a major accomplishment for President Barack Obama. His national security credentials have been strengthened and his multilateral foreign policy has been validated. The President who was awarded the Nobel Prize in his first year of office, primarily for rejecting the unilateralism approach championed by President Bush, accomplished as commander in chief the number one objective of the invasion of Afghanistan ordered by his predecessor shortly after September 11, 2001. However, that momentous and historic accomplishment will not make his re-election campaign in 2012 any easier.


The September 11 attacks ten years ago redefined American foreign policy and set in motion two costly military interventions. In invading Afghanistan, the U.S. sought reprisals for the terrorist attack. The war in Iraq has done considerable damage to American reputation worldwide. Human rights abuses in Iraq and the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo called into question the effectiveness of the U.S. military and political strategy under President Bush. Since taking office, President Obama has sought to redefine the U.S. strategy. Because Obama opposed the war in Iraq but considered the war in Afghanistan a just and necessary war, the death of bin Laden actually strengthens his multilateralist approach.  


President Obama’s approval will probably increase. However, just as Obama became president despite being perceived as softer on national security than his adversaries, in the Democratic primaries and in the national election, his chances of re-election depend primarily on the performance of the U.S. economy. The death of Bin Laden has improved morale in the U.S. Though it took the U.S. too long to capture Bin Laden “dead or alive,” Americans can finally bring closure to the open wounds left by September 11. As support for the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan will fall rapidly, Obama’s initial position against the war in Iraq will become more popular.


True, the threat of terrorism will not disappear. The fear that Al Qaeda might retaliate will remain high in the coming weeks. Though it seems implausible that the terrorist group has had a latent attack capacity to be unleashed only in case Osama Bin Laden was killed, the U.S. intelligence apparatus must remain vigilant to avoid a backlash of terrorist revenge attacks. Still, the U.S. is certainly better off—both strategically and emotionally—with Bin Laden dead. Be it justice served or simply pay-back time, the death of Bin Laden is one of the most significant military accomplishments in in recent American history.


Now that the debate over the fiscal deficit will dominate the political arena in Washington, Obama will be able to propose significant defense spending cuts. The terrorist threat has not gone away, but the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq was arguably doing more damage than good to the advancement of the war against terrorism. Obama can now credibly propose significant reductions in military presence in the area. That will have an immediate positive effect on the fiscal situation and will make it easier for Democrats and Republicans to compromise on a plan to balance the budget in the medium term.


Though strengthened by the killing of Bin Laden, Obama is by no means unbeatable in 2012. Republicans will be forced to abandon and pending illusions that a ‘we are tougher on national security’ strategy will help them recover the White House.  However, by focusing on employment and growth, Republicans can make gains on what has historically been the driving issue of American politics, job creation and salaries.


The death of Bin Laden simply confirms the fact that the 2012 election will be fought on the economic battlefield. Obama is now in a stronger position to take on any Republican contender. However, to win in 2012, the president needs to transform the death of Obama on a powerful boost to the American economy—via fiscal spending cuts in defense and an optimism windfall in domestic consumption. Otherwise, the fear of economic stagnation and high unemployment will weaken support for Obama next year.


For sure, the U.S. has committed many mistakes in its foreign policy over the years. Its involvement in overthrowing democratically elected governments in Latin America during the Cold War immediately comes to mind. However, killing Osama bin Laden is not a mistake. In fact, it is a rather outstanding foreign policy accomplishment.  It would have certainly been better to capture him alive and bring him to justice, but bringing him to justice by killing him is an acceptable second best.


The U.S. has sent a clear signal that terrorist attacks against its civilian population will not unpunished. Whatever it takes, the U.S. will bring those responsible for the attacks to justice (or will at least seek just reprisals). The fact that Osama Bin Laden was killed during his administration vindicates President Obama’s multilateral engagement strategy and his criticism of the Bush strategy as ill-directed and ineffective approach. For many reasons, Obama has many reasons to celebrate. Securing his re-election in 2012 is not, however, one of them.