After bin Laden Celebrations, Then What?

Osama bin Laden is dead. Shot by one of the good guys in his mansion.

Obviously, that's not news to readers at this point, but it's so enjoyable to write and read, that hopefully the repetition is forgivable.

Also worth repeating: our gratitude and admiration for the heroic service of the U.S. Navy Seals, the sacrifice and dedication of the intelligence community and everyone else who helped send bin Laden on his way nine and half years after 9/11. This obviously includes President Obama, on whose watch and — according to his remarks — his direction Osama bin Laden finally got his just reward.

What this all means for the country and the war on terror is hard to fathom. When Saddam Hussein was finally captured, many hoped that it would spell the end of the Iraqi resistance. We had no such luck. The insurgency in Iraq grew uglier and fiercer. If, however, early speculation is right and he was more of the hands-on "terror mastermind" he always claimed he was, then perhaps his demise will further unravel his terrorist enterprise.

Living in 'plain sight'

Meanwhile, the news that bin Laden had been living in a custom made "mansion" in a prosperous region of Pakistan — near an airport, military installations, a golf course and a modern hospital — itself may be the most ominous detail to come out so far. Every chapter in the story of America's interaction with the Islamic world seems to close with a bit of foreshadowing about the next. And this time around we may look back on how bin Laden lived not in the mysterious borderlands of the tribal frontier but in "plain sight" in Pakistan proper as an ominous portent of our coming troubles with the nuclear-armed Islamic state. Already, many in the intelligence community argue that the unspoken reason why we must endure and prevail in Afghanistan is to prevent the further destabilization of Pakistan (of course, others argue that it is our presence in Afghanistan that is serving to destabilize Pakistan).

What this means for domestic politics in the short term is easier to glean. The celebrations at ground zero and elsewhere give a small indication of how much Americans craved some good news. And there's little doubt that the White House was more than happy to deliver it. How much of a "bump" in the polls the president will receive for all of this depends partly on the details yet to come and how successful he is at claiming credit for the success and whether he's willing to align himself with the atmosphere of national pride that erupted across the country. Obviously, the president is happy about the news, but one can easily see him playing it cool — leading from behind as it were — rather than adopting a too provocative or celebratory tone.

Obama's next moves

More difficult to gauge is how the president will proceed with the war on terror and in Afghanistan. It's not exactly a secret that the president would very much like to wind-down military operations (and he is hardly alone). It will surely be tempting to use the death of bin Laden as an opportunity to declare victory and withdraw from Afghanistan, in whole or in part. You can be sure that exactly such advice will be forthcoming from the antiwar base of his party.

Indeed, when all is said and done and the celebrations are over, the domestic debate will in all likelihood look exactly as it did before. Supporters of the war on terror will argue that this success proves we should press on while opponents will say it marks the right moment to call it all off. Similarly, the fact that the key intelligence was gathered via Guantanamo Bay will be trumpeted by Gitmo's supporters and dismissed by its critics. After 10 years of hammer and tongs political and policy battles, opinions are set in concrete.

Consider the intriguing irony that within days of belatedly putting to rest the "birther" nonsense by releasing his long-form birth certificate, the president of the United States also seems to have put to rest the even more pernicious "truther" theory, which held, among other things, that the U.S. government was "in" on 9/11 and that bin Laden was merely the patsy for a conspiracy so immense it bent all logic and reason into its orbit. Of course, just as some diehard "birthers" will never relinquish their vice-like grip on "the real story" so, too, will the "truthers" insist that the killing of bin Laden merely confirms that the U.S. needed him dead before he could reveal the "real story."

For the rest of us, however, a chapter of the real story has come to an end with the welcome news that one of the most reprehensible villains in American history was finally dispatched to his fiery reward by American warriors —who will always be the truest and noblest heroes of the tale.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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