As defining moments go, it was huge. Barack Obama, the president that his foes still insist is weak on defense and foreign policy, has accomplished in one bold stroke what George Bush could not succeed in doing during eight years of bumbling.
Recall the weeks after the 9/11 attacks when U.S. special operations forces were closing in on Osama bin Laden in the desolate reaches of Tora Bora on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border only to have the White House lose focus, if not nerve. Long story short, instead of continuing to pursue the Al Qaeda leader and Taliban helpmates with the full brunt of combined Army, Marine Corps and Air Force ops, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika started a second war -- a wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, in effect giving Bin Laden and the Taliban a pass.
There certainly is a chance of retaliation for Bin Laden's death, while luck must be factored into the success of the surgical strike at the palatial hilltop compound in a Abbottabad suburb with a large garrison that is favored by retired military officers where he was living in plain sight. (Thanks a heap, Pakistan.) But Al Qaeda is considerably diminished at a time when a revolution that renounces the violence preached by the terrorist group is sweeping the Middle East, while the outpouring of emotion in New York City, Washington and across the U.S. was nothing short of extraordinary and a reminder that the 9/11 attacks remain seared in the national consciousness.
The mission itself was a routine one for the Navy SEALS except for the fact their target was, in military parlance, high value and the most loathed man in America. They had trained with a full-scale model of the compound built at Dam Neck, Virginia, their home base, and so they more than knew what they were doing when one of the SEALS put two rounds into Bin Laden's kisser.
Recall that in 2005, the CIA closed its Bin Laden Unit, an admission of the underlying weakness of the War on Terror strategy, while Bush himself allowed that Bin Laden was just now "a symbol," an extraordinary if unintentional acknowledgment of the impotence of an administration built on the sands of hubris and obfuscation.
Despite some earlier successes, Obama's critics have said that he does not understand what must be done to combat terrorism. "They are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required," remarked Vice President Cheney in March 2009, unaware that the new president was already focused on killing Bin Laden and was deeply involved in the process that led to his death. (In contrast, Cheney's statement today was gracious, while Bush praised Obama after he called him to tell him the news.)
Bin Laden's body wasn't even cold when the critics weighed in. Was Bin Laden really dead? (Where's the long-form death certificate?) In what is obviously a cover-up, he was buried at sea. (Never mind that this was in accordance with Islamic custom and a smart move to keep his grave from becoming a symbol.)
Some critics also have been quick to less praise Obama than to paper over the day's events by claiming that the intelligence that led to Bin Laden's death was developed on Bush's watch. That is correct, but only to a point because that intelligence was never acted on until good-old detective work last August confirmed the identity of a trusted Biden Laden courier who was said to live in the compound and an Al Qaeda operative was snatched off the streets of Abbottabad in February.
"Mission Accomplished" is the most enduring of the triumphalist symbols of an era where stage-crafted symbolism trumped leadership. Speaking of Trump, while Obama spoke he was hosting a cat fight between NeNe and Starr Jones on Celebrity Apprentice and making an "historic" decision to bring back LaToya Jackson. Then the show was knocked off the air by the man whom he claims to want to run against.
But the death of Osama bin Laden eight years to the day that Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared that the Iraq war was all but won is anything but a symbol. It is a mission accomplished, but not the mission accomplished. And it is a real thing in a new era where America has been gifted a real president who was an obscure Illinois state legislator on 9/11 but has now both answered and risen above his critics.