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The killing of Osama bin Laden, a decade after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, is a major milestone. Even though bin Laden had limited direct operational control over Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, his continued presence had enormous symbolic power. He was a testament to the limits of American power and the grass roots appeal of a particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism married to extreme violence. Bin Laden’s death is not only a blow for Al Qaeda. It is a blow for those who took inspiration from him, and his continued ability to defy the United States. His demise at the hands of American soldiers will make him a martyr, but one whose appeal will be less in death than in life.

The successful American operation to kill bin Laden has five immediate positive effects for American foreign policy:

1. It proves that American intelligence and military agencies can conduct sensitive, sophisticated, long-term operations and achieve a stated goal.

2. It shows that American local knowledge and diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has indeed improved since earlier in the conflict.

3. It attests to the continued ability of the U.S. government to protect sensitive secrets, despite Wikileaks. This particular operation to kill bin Laden began in August 2010, according to the president. No one outside a very closed circle knew about it until tonight.

4. It deters others who might defy American power in similar circumstances. After this operation and the recent killing of Gaddafi’s son in Libya by NATO air strikes, violent dictators who confront American military power will have to take the threat to their lives more seriously.

5. It gives evidence, for the first time in recent memory, that a Democratic president can score a major foreign policy victory against a recalcitrant foe who defied a prior Republican administration. President Obama has earned national security credentials that eluded Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Johnson.

This might have been Obama’s “John F. Kennedy moment.” He has mounted a sophisticated and tough-minded stand against a defiant enemy. He has achieved a major symbolic victory that will pay big policy and political dividends.

If Osama bin Laden’s escape into the hills of Tora Bora in 2001 was George W. Bush’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, bin Laden’s death in Northern Pakistan in 2011 was Barack Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The less experienced Democratic president proved his mettle, placing his adversaries (at home and abroad) on the defensive. This was a big win for a country in need of renewed confidence and leadership.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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