The Sydney Morning Herald
By Geoffrey Garrett
No one knows for sure what Osama bin Laden did from his Pakistani hideout and whether al-Qaeda is an emasculated shell or a new hydra-headed threat. What we do know is that bin Laden is dead. His real power in recent years may be uncertain, but the political and policy fallout from his killing is likely to be immense.
Bin Laden's death will underscore three big trends: Barack Obama's doctrine of raising the threshold for US military intervention; his path to re-election in 2012 based on getting out of George Bush's wars and refocusing the US on the big challenges at home; and refocusing the battle with radical Islam away from chasing and fighting terrorists and towards more conventional, if exceedingly complicated, diplomacy with Arab governments.
Bin Laden's death thus signifies nothing less than the end of the 9/11 decade, just four months short of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the US. After 10 years of war with Islamist terrorism, the next decade will likely be dominated by very different challenges for the US and the West: China's rise and rise, and the hangover from the global financial crisis.
The Obama doctrine that has emerged in the past 2½ years is to undo as quickly as prudently possible US involvement in foreign wars, not only in Iraq - the wrong war from the beginning for Obama - but also in Afghanistan, which he embraced as the right war when under fire about his national-security credentials in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Obama's striking unwillingness to take the lead in the fight against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, despite the regime's potential to derail the freedom march of the Arab Spring, shows just how high the national-interest hurdle to American boots on the ground has become.
Obama versus Osama makes stronger the political foundations for the Obama doctrine. George W. Bush was always ready to play the ongoing al-Qaeda threat card to justify staying the course in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Obama can play his bin Laden card for the polar opposite purpose, to justify ending both of Bush's wars.
Bin Laden's death does not make Obama's re-election next year inevitable, and his immediate post-bin Laden spike in the opinion polls is likely to be short-lived. But Obama and his opponents know he can play his bin Laden card whenever it is needed, to silence the radical right's populist whispering campaign that Obama is a closet Muslim as well as to blunt more high-minded Republican critiques that he is weak on foreign policy.
Obama can snuff out both attacks on his national security strategy with a matter-of-fact "I did what Bush couldn't; I got bin Laden", playing so well in a country sick and tired of a decade at war. In turn, taking foreign policy off the agenda means the 2012 campaign will be fought on the big domestic issues of the economy and the budget, and Obama seems increasingly to be on the right side of both. Unemployment was bound to lag well behind the rebound in economic growth and the sharemarket. But while the US jobless rate is still high, the smart money is on steady, if not stellar, improvement over the next 18 months.
Americans are worried about debt and deficits. But the Tea Party has pushed the Republicans too far to the right in their calls for radical cuts to the US welfare state. This has allowed Obama to win points for defending the status quo and deflecting charges that he is a reckless spendthrift among Americans uncharacteristically anxious about their personal futures.
Just because bin Laden's death raises the bar on US military intervention and refocuses American politics on domestic issues doesn't mean that the US-led West's foreign-policy worries are over. But as important as these challenges remain in geopolitical terms, they will likely recede from the front lines of politics, back into hand-wringing among policy wonks.
The bizarre optics of Pakistan-US relations surrounding the mission to get bin Laden highlight the perils of the post-bin Laden world. Pakistan did not know where Osama was, or it was complicit in hiding him. The US's actions speak louder than any words could, with insufficient trust even to inform the Pakistani leadership of the mission until the US helicopters had exited the country with the body. The problem of Pakistan is diabolical; the US cannot trust Pakistan, but it cannot afford to abandon it, let alone come to blows with this very large, nuclear-armed, Muslim country occupying a critical piece of global real estate. Combining a mix of carrot-and-stick diplomacy with hopes for domestically led political change - with no great chance that either will succeed - seems the only way forward.
The same seems true for the US's other big, ongoing, state-based headache in the Muslim world, Iran, although it does not as yet have the nuclear-carnage capacity of Pakistan.
For 10 years the US has groped around for the right strategies to take on shadowy figures, amorphous opponents and unconventional weapons of the weak. Now the sharp edge of US foreign policy can be pointed at more conventional and readily identifiable foes, powerful nation-states led by repressive governments with worrying objectives.
The US's challenges in the Arab world remain daunting. But they are a long way from the war on terrorism of the 9/11 decade. Bin Laden's death will give Obama the clear air he needs to focus on it, and the epitaphs may not be due until 2016.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.