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Democracy Strikes Back: A French View On America After Bin Laden

Opinion: The killing of Osama bin Laden marks a unique melding of American hard and soft power, and a boost (with legs) for President Obama

Article illustrative image Partner logo Obama's gets a boost (expert infantry)

PARIS - The death of Osama bin Laden allows the United States to redefine crucial relationships: with itself, and with the rest of the world. But it might also represent a turning point for the Arab-Islamic world. 

“Justice has been done.”  This succinct yet powerful statement was the best response Barack “Hussein” Obama could give to his detractors -- many of whom went as far as doubting he was even born in America -- and to opponents who questioned his determination to forcefully combat all of America’s enemies. Divided as the Americans may be, they cannot but feel proud, moved and united behind their commander-in-chief in this beginning of May 2011.

This wasn’t a case of America showing off its superior technology; it was neither drones nor missiles that ended the hunt for bin Laden. It was the audacity, courage and determination of its soldiers that made the difference in “avenging” the innocent victims of 9/11. The 2012 elections are only 18 months away. And though “a week is an eternity in politics,” as the former British Prime Minister of Britain Harold Macmillan said, President Obama’s chances of reelection are certainly strengthened by this event. His chances will be even stronger if he is able to announce that the United States, having “accomplished its mission,” is ready to leave Afghanistan, which is consuming a disproportionate chunk of its efforts and resources.

America might have entered a relative phase of decline, and its staggering debt places the nation in an undoubtedly uncomfortable situation of dependence on China. But it nonetheless still remains the only great “multi-dimensional” power. Neither China, nor India, nor Russia, and even less so the European Union, have the capacity or the will to undertake an operation like the one that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. “Democracy Strikes Back!” is how Hollywood might describe what took place in Pakistan.

“Hard power,” the power to compel, is indispensable, and “soft power,” the power to convince, is not sufficient by itself. This is an essential lesson for Europe, but does it come too late? 

Lawrence Wright wrote a few years back that while bin Laden had been marginalized, “inside the chrysalis of myth that he had spun about himself ” he had managed to become the representative of all Muslims who had been persecuted or humiliated.

In what has been perhaps prematurely labeled the “Arab Spring,” how will the Muslim world react to bin Laden’s death? Al-Qaeda’s influence was cut short by Arab revolutions, seemingly accelerating the coming of a post-Islamist world. In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, it is not Western democracies that are prevailing, but, one hopes, democratic ideals themselves: ideals that fight fundamentalists in full force.

There have been very few American flag burnings during the Arab revolutions in these past few months. How many will there be after the brutal death of bin Laden? What emotions will it stir in the Arab and Muslim world? With the hope for a reconciled world upon us, will al-Qaeda and its deceased leader be seen as a barbaric anachronism? Or will a sense of humiliation prevail, and lead to anti-Western words and deeds?  

Nothing has been settled for sure -- neither the fight against al-Qaeda and terrorism, nor regional stability in a Middle East expanded to include Pakistan and Afghanistan. But on a symbolic level, since yesterday there is a little more of Obama in America and a little more of America in the world.


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