The Hidden Danger of Hyping the bin Laden Kill

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Pete SOUZA / White House

President Barack Obama stands with members of the national security team at the conclusion of one in a series of meetings discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, his May 1, 2011.

The Obama White House’s relentless gloating over the killing of Osama bin Laden may or may not be exploitative (or “despicable,” as Arianna Huffington puts it). As a moral proposition it does seem that a little more credit sharing, with the countless military and intelligence personnel who conducted or contributed to the years-long hunt, might be in order. Politically, team Obama’s new ad on the subject strikes me as a brusque but brutally effective move, like when LeBron James lowers his head and stampedes to the hoop, determined to score or get fouled trying. Still, I can imagine at least one downside to the bin Laden hype.

What if al-Qaeda strikes again? Obama is now resting enormous political capital on the idea of a great victory against bin Laden’s terror network, one that I suspect many Americans consider tantamount to the organization’s defeat. (This is also a reason Obama can contemplate a U.S. exit from Afghanistan.) But should the U.S. suffer another attack–or even another failed attempt at an attack–traced back to the remnants bin Laden’s group, Obama could quickly lose his trump card. In a worst-case scenario, he could be accused of a premature declaration of Mission Accomplished.

Not that Obama has in any way let up the campaign against al-Qaeda, even after bin Laden’s death: American drones zapped three more militants in Pakistan over the weekend, and his administration has relaxed its rules regarding drone strikes to allow for the killing of more suspected evildoers than ever. In fact, Obama’s ever-expanding drone war is far more relevant to American security than the killing of one isolated terror leader, a man who may have spent more time chugging home-made Viagra than planning credible attacks against Americans. But that’s a more complicated and less viscerally satisfying story to tell (and one that draws fire from the left.) So Obama is relying on the simple human drama of his decision to order the raid against the world’s most notorious terrorist. Clearly, that’s a political plus–for now. The danger is whether bin Laden, through the hand of his successors, may yet strike back from beyond the grave–and tear the core of Obama’s national security narrative to shreds.