You saw the meme buzzing around the Net on Monday: Barack Obama, in dark sunglasses, smirking: "SORRY IT TOOK SO LONG TO GET YOU A COPY OF MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE," it read, in I Can Has Cheezburger all-caps. "I WAS TOO BUSY KILLING OSAMA BIN LADEN."
In real life, Obama's oh-shit announcement, confirming that bin Laden was shot dead by American forces Sunday, was laced with sound bites: "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda." "We must — and we will — remain vigilant." "We will be relentless in defense of our citizens." "Justice has been done."
In the months ahead, Obama will be wise to remember the meme — to adopt something of the Web joke's wit and swagger. Do it with humility, sure. But for the sake of the country's progressives, Obama needs to take credit where credit is due. It's not simply lucky timing that resulted in bin Laden being found on Obama's watch. It was a result of the president's specific, pragmatic focus.
The Bush administration ignored the threat from bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks. And within days of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Bush administration was at Camp David plotting how to get bin Laden by attacking . . . Saddam Hussein. So Bush didn't aggressively pursue bin Laden in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, which allowed the fucker to get away. Then in 2005, the Bush administration disbanded the CIA task force hunting bin Laden.
Bush never much bothered with Pakistan, even though alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's arrest there in March 2003 made it clear that, if the US was really interested in tracking down Al Qaeda and bin Laden, that's where we needed to look harder.
After winning the presidency, Obama restarted the CIA bin Laden task force, refocused our military on Afghanistan, including controversially adding 30,000 more troops there in 2009, and stepped up operations in Pakistan. There have been 236 US air strikes in Pakistan since 2004; roughly 80 percent of them since Obama became president, according to the conservative Long War Journal. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said to be the Taliban's top Afghan military commander, was captured in Pakistan in early 2010. Late last year, a drone attack in Pakistan killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, described as Al Qaeda's number-three leader and Afghan operations chief. And Sunday, we got bin Laden.
It's easy for bin Laden's death to feel anticlimactic. It's been a shitty decade since 9/11. Two crappy wars. Torture at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Attacks on civil liberties. A climate of fear. Katrina. The crash of the economy. The Gulf oil spill. Bin Laden's biggest success was simultaneously scaring the hell out of us and driving us batshit crazy. Many of us are just exhausted, disgusted, depressed. And the death of this mass-murdering asshole can feel like just one more body to toss on the pile.
But for a moment, picture the ticker-tape parades the Bush administration would have thrown if they'd got bin Laden. For all Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld's macho talk and torture, they couldn't get him. Obama did. (Mounting evidence suggests that torture failed to provide a key break in the case — the name of bin Laden's courier.)