|Obama wins politics of terror
By Sreeram Chaulia
United States President Barack Obama's strategy of
maximizing personal political mileage for his presidential
re-election campaign from the killing of Osama bin Laden has
sharpened the battlelines in the lead-up to the November
The Washington Post labeled the president a "campaigner in
chief", apart from commander-in-chief, on the eve of the
first anniversary of the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in
which the al-Qaeda chief was killed by US special forces.
The repeated political marketing about Obama as a tough nut
on national security issues and contrasts with Republican
challenger Mitt Romney's alleged indecisiveness have
reversed the tables, as the Republican camp was
traditionally seen as more assertive in war and
terrorism-related issues while the Democratic Party had a
That Obama was no pansy was clear from the very first days
after he took office. But he had a monumental task of
shrugging off the legacy of Democratic presidents who earned
a reputation for bungling on international crises. Romney
recently tried to tap into that vein by arguing that Obama
did nothing special by ordering the raid of the Navy Seals
on Bin Laden's hideout and that "even Jimmy Carter" would
have done the same as it was an easy opportunity to take out
America's public enemy number one.
President Carter's top-secret attempt to free US diplomats
from the hostage crisis in Iran in 1980 and president John F
Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961
have been peddled as glaring examples of Democratic
presidential failures in the security realm.
These are juxtaposed against Republican icon, president
Ronald Reagan, who was the poster boy for aggressive foreign
policy decision-making that did not hesitate to use force or
secure American interests by hook or by crook. Reagan's halo
as an iron-fisted leader was inherited by both president
George H W Bush (for teaching Iraq's Saddam Hussein a lesson
in the Gulf War) and president George W Bush (for
relentlessly pressing on with the "war on terror").
But Romney's tactic of placing Obama within the portals of a
Democratic presidential legacy of cowardliness does not hold
water because Obama has been an unusually savvy
decision-maker on national security concerns. Just as his
brand of politics while ascending to power in 2008 was a
rejection of the establishment line of the Democratic Party,
Obama's thinking and acumen on the al-Qaeda threat and on
war in general has been much more farsighted than any
Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s.
Contrary to Romney's caricature of the Abbottabad raid as a
simple home run, the chances of success in nabbing or
assassinating Bin Laden last May were actually "50-50" and
Obama grasped a historic opportunity with a degree of
optimism and hope. It was exemplary political leadership,
wherein the president's own military advisers were unsure
whether to go ahead and launch the Navy Seals when
intelligence was not absolutely certain that Bin Laden was
in the hideout. A civilian like Obama eventually took the
decision on his own, based on gut instinct and an inbuilt
Portraying Obama as a wimp on Iran, Syria, China or other
major preoccupations of American foreign policy is not
cutting much ice.
Rather, the popularity of a new television advertisement by
the Democratic Party's propaganda machine, which asks
whether Romney - had he been president of the US on May 1,
2011- could have mustered the courage and the conviction to
risk his career and US relations with Pakistan in order to
find Bin Laden, shows that perceptions of Obama as a
historic change agent are not confined to domestic US
He avoids war (or in the case of Afghanistan, tries to
de-escalate inherited wars) where it would be
counter-productive, but does not hesitate to use surgical
military action if there is a reasonable chance of success.
In terms of rationality (ie cost-benefit analysis), Obama is
proving a far better commander-in-chief than his Republican
Some observers have been critical of Obama's attempts to
crassly cash in on a collective American achievement such as
the assassination of Bin Laden to boost his political
fortunes when the economy is showing a "thumbs down".
Is Obama diverting the economically distressed American
electorate with macho fables of how Bin Laden and al-Qaeda's
core organization were effectively decimated under his
command? Is Obama's hyping of Bin Laden's assassination a
camouflaging of what is basically a strategic defeat for the
US in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
There is indeed a fair bit of political opportunism in
Obama's actions, which cannot be denied. But then, terrorism
itself is a dangerous form of politically motivated
violence. Keeping it out of electoral politics is impossible
and unrealistic to even ask for.
Take India, for example. Every time a major terrorist attack
shatters peace, a blame game ensues in the hotly contested
arena of in India's electoral politics.
The opposition slams the ruling party as inefficient or soft
on countering religious fundamentalists and their foreign
sponsors, and the roles get reversed when the opposition
occupies the treasury benches in parliament.
The independent Indian news media commentators then cry foul
and accuse all the parties of "politicizing terror" instead
of uniting to tackle the menace. Such calls for
de-politicizing terrorism and making counter-terrorism a
purely technical problem that has mechanical solutions are
misguided and also bereft of comparative insights about how
politics inevitably enters debates on terrorism around the
Whether for good or bad, French President Nicolas Sarkozy
and his challenger, the socialist candidate, Francois
Hollande, are politicizing terror by accusing each other of
failure to understand or tackle the Islamist threat since
the Toulouse massacre by the al-Qaeda-inspired Frenchman of
Algerian descent, Mohamed Merah. In Spain and Germany,
elections have been won or lost on issues of how adeptly an
incumbent regime has managed terrorist attacks or foreign
To wish away politics from the question of counter-terrorism
is purely wishful. What Obama is showing through his
grandstanding on the Bin Laden scalp is that there is a
relationship between citizens and the state based on the
understanding that governments protect their people.
The questions of national security, terrorism and war are so
integral to citizen's sense of safety that they cannot be
left to technocrats or military mavens. Besides the domestic
socio-economic welfare issues which dominate discourse on
citizen-state relations, national security too remains a
central public policy concern in an age where terrorism and
war beckon in every direction.
There have been instances in Western history where Prime
Ministers and Presidents like Winston Churchill in Britain,
Charles de Gaulle in France and George H W Bush in the US
lost elections or referendums despite winning wars and
heroically leading their countries in times of peril.
The arithmetic which they miscalculated was to expect that
under-performance in the domestic welfare state and
governance functions would be compensated for by superlative
antics in the international arena.
As a community organizer with a strong grassroots base,
Obama is not committing that error. He is aware of the deep
economic malaise in the US and is trying to recover lost
ground in the unemployment and wealth inequality domains.
Unlike a Sarkozy or a typical Indian politician, who might
be using the terrorism card to stave off defeat triggered by
domestic corruption or mismanagement, Obama's brand of
politics is conveying that politics is the art of delivering
results both on domestic and on foreign policy matters.
Obama's re-election in November is not a foregone
conclusion, but his smart politicization of
counter-terrorism (in spite of the overall fiasco for the US
in the war in Afghanistan) is more or less ensuring that the
revolution he has brought to the Democratic Party will
become rooted with four more years in the White House.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean of the
Jindal School of International Affairs and the first ever B
Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic
affairs think-tank, the Takshashila Institution. His most
recent book is International Organizations and Civilian
Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict
Zones (I B Tauris, London).
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and
All material on
this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form
without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 -
2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li
Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab
Kirikhan, Thailand 77110