James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda.
I was in the audience in Washington on Aug. 1, 2007, when candidate Barack Obama gave the speech in which he famously declared, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets [in Pakistan], and President Musharraf won't act, we will." I didn't consider that bit of bluster the headline; I was much more struck by his insistence that in the post-Sept. 11 world, "we are no longer protected by our own power." Shows what I know. The campaign aides I spoke with in the ensuing days were tremendously frustrated that the real message of the speech had been lost in a noisy debate over whether Obama was trying to swagger his way to the nomination.
Now, almost four years later, and long after Gen. Pervez Musharraf left office in Islamabad, Obama has made good on his pledge, sending a team of Navy SEALs across the border into Pakistan to take out the highest-value target of them all. And suddenly, for the first time since taking office, Obama has the hard glitter of the warrior — like George W. Bush in his "mission accomplished" moment, only without the bomber jacket and the hokum. It's a bizarre irony for a candidate who once said, "I want to go before the United Nations and say, 'America's back!'"
The great despair of Obama's foreign policy advisors in 2007 was how relentlessly he was pegged as the "soft" candidate. Obama opposed the war in Iraq, advocated nuclear nonproliferation, and cherished the U.N. — so he was soft. He was willing to talk to America's adversaries without preconditions and Hillary Clinton wasn't — so she was tough. The very terms reeked of the Cold War mentality that had shaped Hillary and her generation, and then lived on way past its sell-by date.
Obama's advisors said at the time that he understood American national security now depended less than it used to on military power and more on how America behaved, and was seen to behave, in the world. Ending torture was thus a matter not just of morality but security. At the same time, Obama had no compunction about killing terrorists, even on neutral soil. He wasn't harder or softer than Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush; he was something new in the world. "The difference between a revolutionary foreign policy and a conservative foreign policy is profound," as Sarah Sewall, a counterinsurgency expert at Harvard and a key foreign policy advisor, told me then.
Well, you'd have trouble seeing that just now, wouldn't you? The president has been revealed as Jack Bauer, trampling on the niceties of law in pursuit of justice — or as "Cool Hand Barack," as Maureen Dowd has christened him. He said he wouldn't quibble over international law when it came to America's security — and he didn't. Of course getting Osama bin Laden, by whatever means, was a deeply satisfying victory. But it's very strange to contemplate that the one promise Obama kept from that paradigm-setting speech was the one in which he offered to break the rules rather than to restore respect for them.
Okay, that's not quite fair. Candidate Obama promised to wind down the war in Iraq and ramp up the war in Afghanistan, and of course he has done both. But those decisions were scarcely transformational; a third-term Bush might well have done the same. Perhaps the most important promise he has been able to keep is to "turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action," as he said in the 2007 speech, by engaging adversaries as well as allies. He has ended torture, but he has not closed Guantanamo or stopped the odious practice known as rendition. A combination of the budget crisis and a recalcitrant Congress has prevented him from making good on his vows to double foreign aid by 2012 and from substantially increasing "the numbers and capabilities of our diplomats, development experts, and other civilians." He has moved much more timidly towards nuclear disarmament than he had said he would.
Of course, Obama has had a lousy run of luck — but now his luck has changed. The raid on bin Laden's lair has accomplished something beyond the disposing of Public Enemy No. 1: It has freed Obama from having to prove his toughness. He can advocate "soft" policies without being seen as soft. Having broken the rules with such eclat, he can now safely argue for the rules he believes in.
What does that mean in practice? I put the question to a senior White House official, who e-mailed back, "We are actively thinking about exactly that question but have not yet come to any conclusions." In a subsequent phone conversation, he speculated on the effect of the raid on other powers: "To the extent that people thought we were in decline or indecisive or preoccupied with internal matters, they'll have to revisit that." That's probably true, and it can't be bad to make China think twice about whether the United States is in decline — though the Chinese will probably draw their own conclusions about that from our deficit and growth rate. And in any case, spooking economic competitors hardly counts as fulfillment of Obama's transformational promise.
You can see why Obama's aides would be as perplexed as they are inspired by the opportunity presented by the killing of bin Laden. Obama still won't have the money to engage in large-scale nation building or dramatically improve public health in Africa. He still can't get a nuclear test-ban treaty through the Senate. Neither Hamas nor Israel will prove any more willing to make peace with one another than they were last week. Obama could use bin Laden's death as a pretext to accelerate the departure of troops from Afghanistan, as a great many critics of the war have suggested, but he seems to genuinely believe that U.S. forces must remain in Afghanistan over the next three years in order to prevent the Taliban from taking over and offering a new base of operations to a-Qaida and other jihadists. (Still, the president may be under increased pressure to use the strategic review this summer to leave Afghanistan faster than currently planned.)
But all of this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The whole hard-soft formulation rests on fear: fear that a remorseless enemy is taking our measure, and must not find us wanting. The Bush administration mercilessly exploited that national mood in the aftermath of Sept. 11 in order to underwrite its bellicose policies and demonize its critics. Obama understood that well; in that 2007 speech, he called for an end to "the color-coded politics of fear."
Those politics didn't end with Obama's election; look no further than the fear-mongers who shouted down the effort to try Guantanamo detainees in civil court. But even if bin Laden's death doesn't put an end to al-Qaida, let alone the larger jihadist threat, it does give Obama a chance to lift that suffocating mantle of fear. It gives him the chance to say that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat like other threats the United States has faced and will face, and that he will take the measures required to deal with it as he does with other threats — all without facing the damning charge of endangering the national security.
Maybe he can even give the very idea of "threat" a rest. Obama can remind the American people of the opportunities that lie before them. In retrospect, the Cairo speech of June 2009 offered a false dawn — but now the real dawn of Arab liberation, with all its attendant dangers and possible drawbacks, has arrived. The fear that the Arab street revered bin Laden has proved baseless; the targeted murder of a-Qaida's leader by American special forces acting in a Muslim country has barely provoked a peep. Obama can embrace the forces of change less hesitantly than he has, can push harder in stalemated countries like Yemen and Bahrain. He can look beyond the Middle East to talk about enhanced relations with the rising powers — especially the democratic powers — of Asia and Latin America. He can confront head-on the all-important issue of America's global competitiveness. He can talk about his old friend the U.N., and maybe even spare a helicopter or two for peacekeeping forces. Obama can, as he said in August 2007, "turn the page."