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NYTimes Editorial

May 3, 2011

May 2, 2011
The Long-Awaited News

The news that Osama bin Laden had been tracked and killed by American forces filled us, and all Americans, with a great sense of relief. But our reaction was strongly tinged with sadness. Nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the horror has not faded, nor has the knowledge of how profoundly our lives were changed.

Even as we now breathe a bit more easily, we must also remember that the fight against extremists is far from over. Al Qaeda may strike back, or other groups may try to assert their rising power. The reports of how Bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan was discovered and breached, the years of intelligence-gathering and the intensive planning for this raid, are all a reminder of just how hard this work is and how much vigilance and persistence matter.

Leadership matters enormously, and President Obama has shown that he is a strong and measured leader. His declaration on Sunday night that “justice has been done” was devoid of triumphalism. His vow that the country will “remain vigilant at home and abroad” was an important reminder that the danger has not passed. His affirmation that the “United States is not and never will be at war with Islam” sent an essential message to the Muslim world, where hopes for democracy are rising but old hatreds, and leaders who exploit them, are still powerful.

Mr. Obama rightly affirmed that this country will be “relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies” — but “true to the values that make us who we are.” Maintaining that balance is never easy, and this administration has strayed, but not as often or as damagingly as the Bush team did. Much will be made of the fact that the original tip came from detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There is no evidence that good intelligence like this was the result of secret detentions or abuse and torture. Everything suggests the opposite.

The full story has yet to be told, but a few things struck us from the early reporting. The president’s decision to order a raid on the compound — the only way to gather proof of Bin Laden’s death — rather than destroying it from the air, showed guts. The memory of President Jimmy Carter’s failed hostage rescue mission in Iran had to have been on the mind of everyone in the White House.

On Sunday night, Mr. Obama gave Pakistan faint praise for some unspecified cooperation, but the facts are damning: The most hunted man in the world was living in a $1 million compound, an hour’s drive from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and close to both a military training academy and a large military base.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was doing the diplomatic thing, we suppose, by talking about how the United States is committed to its partnership with Pakistan. We hope that she and the president are a lot tougher in private with Pakistani officials and doing some very hard thinking about how they will manage this relationship.

After this, how can anyone keep a straight face — or keep from screaming — when Pakistani officials claim they have no idea where the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar or dozens of other extremist leaders are hiding?

Mr. Obama made only passing mention of the war in Afghanistan, which was ordered to root out Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. After President George W. Bush turned his sights on Iraq, the effort faltered badly. President Obama’s “surge” is showing some progress. The Taliban have been pushed back from Kandahar, but they are not close to being defeated. Afghans are alienated and disgusted by the Karzai government’s corruption and incompetence.

Bin Laden’s death should be a warning to Taliban leaders and fighters that the United States is not giving up. The Obama administration should capitalize on that message of strength and seriously explore whether there is a political deal to be cut with the Taliban: one that doesn’t send Afghan women and girls back to the Dark Ages or reopen the country to Al Qaeda. But also one that helps bring a decade of American fighting closer to an end.

Bin Laden’s death is an extraordinary moment for Americans and all who have lost loved ones in horrifying, pointless acts of terrorism. As fresh as those wounds still are, though, we were struck by how irrelevant Bin Laden has become in the streets of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, where people are struggling for freedom.

Mr. Obama should use this moment to clearly state American support for all in the Muslim world who are yearning for peaceful, democratic change. Their victory will be the true defeat of Bin Laden.


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