This week in Washington
Obviously the first week of May will go down in President Barack Obama’s memoirs as a huge success. He hit his critics who say he’s not decisive enough with a major decision – to raid the compound where Osama bin Laden was living and kill the Al Qaeda leader.
The t-shirts saying “Obama killed Osama” can now be bought on every other street corner in Washington DC. The president’s approval ratings are up by double digits, although that certainly won’t last, as the economy trumps every other success in the minds of Americans. And the unemployment rate inched up last month, even while the economy added jobs.
Obama has taken a five day long victory lap: he addressed the nation and received his highest TV viewership, he laid a wreath at Ground Zero where the Twin Towers stood until September 11, 2001. And he spoke to soldiers at Fort Campbell where the special operations team that conducted the raid in Abbottabad came from. He told them, “we’re making progress in our major goal, our central goal in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is disrupting and dismantling -- and we are going to ultimately defeat al-Qaeda. We have cut off their head and we will ultimately defeat them.”
The to-do list on Af/Pak relations for the administration has gotten longer, even though they’ve crossed off the #1 item – getting bin Laden. First, they’ve got to massage the relationship with Pakistan while placating members of Congress who are angry that $3 billion in aid goes to Pakistan every year and yet they say they didn’t know bin Laden was at the same address for five years. Second they have to begin the troop drawdown in Afghanistan later this year. Third, they have to rework their message to the US public and NATO allies on the future of the US commitment in the region.
The State Department says the message to the Taliban is the same, but the tone seems more of inevitability that now that Bin Laden is dead. On Wednesday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of editorial writers, “Perhaps now they will take seriously the work that we are doing on trying to have some reconciliation process that resolves the insurgency.”
As the administration revises its version of how the bin Laden operation went down, analysts are picking apart every frame of video and every photo. On the famous picture of the members of the Obama administration watching the raid take place thousands of kilometers from the Situation Room at the White House, Clinton was transfixed. When asked about her expression though, Clinton brushed off the idea that it might have been emotion, “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever."
The most amazing detail in all of this is that Washington usually leaks like a sieve, but this operation remained quiet. It was in the works for months and was authorized 48-hours before it went into action, but nobody outside the administration had a clue. Future administrations will look at how in a media obsessed world, President Obama’s team held it all in until they could say “we got him.”