Obama's challenges in post-bin Laden world

By Han Dongping (
Updated: 2011-05-13 11:31
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The successful raid by American forces of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan will most likely boost President Obama's bid for re-election next year. Therefore, it does appear that the killing of bin Laden represents a personal victory for President Obama.

Several polls indicated his approval rating has jumped more than 10 points to reach a two-year high after the news of bin Laden's death. As would be expected, President Obama has tried to capitalize on the patriotic afterglow shared by the American people in the aftermath of bin Laden's death. His potential Republican challengers in next year's presidential race will find it more difficult to confront the robust incumbent.

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However, the removal of bin Laden from the picture does not necessarily eliminate the challenges that the US has faced in the Middle East and other parts of the world since Sept 11, 2001. The social economic conditions in the world that created bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have not been fundamentally changed because of the demise of bin Laden. The death of one bin Laden will most probably give rise to another bin Laden or even more bin Ladens.

America's economy will not improve simply because of bin Laden's death. The American economy has been suffering because American firms are relocating their manufacturing overseas, where the labor is cheaper, the tax burden is lower, and the environmental standards are more lax. Without any structural changes, the US will never be able to regain the economic superiority it had enjoyed before the current economic crisis.

The US government has been trying to pressure China to re-value its currency in order to solve the trade imbalance problem between China and the US. After bin Laden's death, Obama may feel that he has an upper hand to put pressure on China as far as the currency and economy are concerned. But in the short term, the re-valuation of the renminbi will not solve the structural problems in the American economy.

The Obama administration has been poised to capitalize on the recent social unrest occurring in the Middle East and North Africa by characterizing the social disturbances there as a move toward democracy. In truth, they are seeking opportunities to benefit from the situation by adding fuel to the fire. The US has done this many times in the past to its advantage. The events in the Middle East and in Libya are no different.

The challenges faced by the people in the Middle East are very complex. The chaos in the Middle East most likely will provide some unprecedented opportunities for Al-Qaeda and its allies. The Israeli-Palestinian divide is still one of the most important issues in the Middle East. Ironically, the US government's support of the protests and demonstrators in Egypt may ultimately backfire. Under the Mubarak government, the Egyptian people's anti-Israeli sentiments had been largely kept restrained. However, now with Mubarak removed, the country as a whole may move toward a more aggressive stance against Israel.

Bin Laden's death will not ease US involvement in Libya. The US response to Libya's armed rebellion was very hasty. The US and its NATO allies, armed with the UN resolution to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, bombed Libyan government forces, as well as some civilian targets, violating the UN resolution. The US and NATO claimed that their military operations in Libya were to prevent civilian casualties. But how could bombing prevent civilian casualties?

Despite constant reports of civilian deaths from NATO bombings of Libya's capital, including the death of Gadhafi's youngest son and grandsons, the US and NATO remain adamant that their bombings have not resulted in any civilian deaths. Even smart bombs can hit the wrong target at times. The US and other Western nations would have refrained from bombing if they were really committed to the prevention of more casualties in Libya. What the US and NATO are doing appeared more like international banditry.

Despite Obama's change of rhetoric from "Gadhafi must go" to "American government is not seeking regime change in Libya," the removal of Gadhafi from office remains the primary objective for the US and NATO. However, the US and NATO underestimate Gadhafi's will and ability to stay in power. As the US and NATO continue to escalate their efforts to support the rebel forces, outright civil war will break out in Libya, and those who will suffer the most and have the most to lose will ultimately be the Libyan people.

The US raid on bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan with a significant force without prior permission from its Pakistani allies represents a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. Such action will severely strain relations between the two countries. The US can ill afford to alienate its Pakistani allies any further. Without Pakistan's cooperation, the US will have an even harder time dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Therefore, it seems that even though Obama may have benefited from the killing of bin Laden personally, the US situation in the world will not necessarily improve in the near term.

Han Dongping is Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.