Pride of a Nation

By Gelb, Leslie H. | Newsweek, May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

Pride of a Nation


Gelb, Leslie H., Newsweek


Byline: Leslie H. Gelb

Obama's bin Laden strike brought the nation together. How the president should seize the day.

"So, what do you think?" The brief email from a key White House official greeted me Monday morning, along with Osama bin Laden's death notices. "It's the best I've felt about my country since 9/11," I responded. He shot back: "It's a whole new world."

He wasn't far off. Of course, the tremulous world hasn't changed. But the mood in America--and the confidence levels at the White House--have zoomed skyward. The skilled killing of bin Laden has united the nation behind Obama. It gives him the power to get hard things done. Just as 9/11 transformed an unpopular and divisive President George W. Bush and empowered him enormously, so 5/1 hands President Obama the rarest of chances to lead. Both great tragedies and stunning successes grant special powers--powers that can perish quickly if not wielded swiftly and confidently.

Bin Laden's dispatch was a triumph on several counts.

It is almost unanimously regarded as just. Bin Laden was a mass killer, a hero to very few. The feelings about his timely departure are unequivocal, especially here in America. What a rare unity of emotion that is. It's hard to remember a comparable moment, save for 9/11 itself.

Bin Laden's death is almost universally popular. Bush can begrudgingly limit his congratulations to the U.S. military. But even Tea Partiers praise the president for pulling the trigger. Obama now has virtually the whole nation behind him on this central issue.

The Arab and Muslim world, which had begun to take America less seriously after its troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, are reminded of what the U.S. is capable of--and are looking at America with new respect.

Americans view themselves with new respect, too. Bin Laden's death helps to lift the stigma of a country that can't shoot straight, that can't accomplish important and difficult things. From the Vietnam War, to the bungled rescue of American hostages in Iran, to a couple of hundred Marines getting blown up in Lebanon under Ronald Reagan, to the failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora in the early days of the Afghan war--our foreign-policy landscape has been littered with ineptitude. The key parts of an errant bureaucracy that usually foul up worked together in harmony: the intelligence community that nailed bin Laden's whereabouts, the special-operations command that did the planning, and the SEAL commandos and CIA operators who executed the mission with beauty and precision (save for the usual failure of a helicopter, as also happened during Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980). Over months, Obama and his team led the process, step by step, with smarts and courage. They restored American pride.

It's been so long since something so clearly good has happened. Once again, people have a sense of being a part of one country. It's like Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" message, which won Americans over with its simple optimism. The moment also affects Obama's political foes, increasing their willingness to compromise. The president was not simply crowing Sunday night when he said, "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al -Qaeda.

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