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Obama storms out of national security shade
President no longer needs rival prop
Work continues at Ground Zero in New York on Monday. (AP)

San Francisco, May 2: The reward came before its reason. When President Barack Obama announced five days ago that his replacement for defence secretary Robert Gates, a high-profile Republican, would be the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, there were raised eyebrows in Washington over his surprise choice.

More than ever before, Obama needed Republican support to keep his administration functioning in the face of recent Opposition control of the House of Representatives and a loss of “filibuster-proof” majority for Democrats in the Senate.

Obama’s opponents had continued to lambast him in early preparations for his re-election bid next year for a weak foreign and security policy balance sheet in office.

Ejecting one of only two Republicans in his administration did not seem to be the wisest political move.

What was not known then was that the operation to kill or capture Osama bin Laden was about to be executed and that Obama, cautious by nature, was sure that the daring effort would not falter unlike under his two predecessors.

The President felt confident enough not to have to replace Republican Gates with another Republican.

In 2009, when Obama took office, he asked Gates to stay on because Republicans would have found it hard to complain about policies being carried out by a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.

Never again will Obama’s opponents be in a position to complain that he is weak on national security as the President sets up the machinery for his re-election.

Inexperience in foreign and defence matters dogged Obama throughout his 2008 election campaign; even Hillary Clinton, now his secretary of state, had released convincing campaign advertisements which pitted her as superior to Obama in this field when she was challenging him during their party primaries for presidential nomination.

It is now emerging that Panetta, as CIA director, was the lynchpin of the operation that killed Osama. His nomination as successor to Gates will now sail through the Senate where Republicans were conspiring to block his approval to make trouble for Obama.

Panetta is the kind of Democrat whom the Republicans hate. He was part of Bill Clinton’s inner circle and was the White House chief of staff during the Clinton presidency. Before that he was director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Besides, Panetta had begun his career as a Republican but switched parties in 1971 because he felt the Republicans were abandoning their own ideals. Republicans are unforgiving of apostates.

Obama has also decided that the successor to Panetta in the CIA will be General David Petraeus, who now commands the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and is also commander of the US forces there.

The operation that killed Osama was directly executed under the command of General Petraeus. He will be a hero to Americans at a time when they badly need heroes.

Moving Petraeus to Langley, the CIA headquarters, will help Obama immensely to counter any perception of failure either in Libya or elsewhere in the Arab world as the turmoil there makes it difficult for Obama to manoeuvre in a region that is crucial for the US security interests.

Jubilant Americans poured into the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York and the precincts of the White House even though it was late night on Sunday as news confirming Osama’s death spread across the country.

For the US, it was a sort of closure for a decade-long emotional wound and the reversal of a severe setback to national pride because the multi-billionaire-turned terrorist had successfully eluded the world’s most powerful military machine.

Here in San Francisco, only a couple of hours’ drive from the Congressional district which Panetta represented for 16 years, the mood was sombre. There was no gloating.

Californians acknowledged the start of a healing process in Osama’s death but also said it will not change what happened on September 11, a decade ago.

California is solid Obama country but the worry here is that any heightened approval for the President may quickly evaporate when the hard realities of a declining economy continues to bite the people as the euphoria over Osama’s death dies down.

In 1991, President George Herbert Walker Bush’s popularity soared after the Americans liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupation, but a year later he was out of office, defeated by a novice governor from the relatively inconsequential southern state of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

As airports and other sensitive installations across America went on high alert as a routine precaution, law enforcement officials worried that al Qaida’s response to Osama’s killing may not come immediately, but years later as the terrorist outfit is programmed to execute its operations.

Fully aware of these handicaps, Obama was magnanimous in one of his finest hours yet as President. “Tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” he said in the East Room of the White House shortly before midnight.

“I know that it has, at times, frayed,” Obama said in an obvious reference to the current American political climate. Sarah Palin, who represents the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, was proof of that fraying.

In postings on social networking sites, Palin refused to give any credit to Obama for the elimination of Osama. “Thank you, American men and women in uniform. You are America’s finest and we are all so proud. Thank you for fighting against terrorism.”

But two other Republicans, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, both likely challengers of Obama next year, congratulated him and praised the President’s execution of the operation in Abbottabad. Obama acted with political correctness and called his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to inform them of Osama’s death before announcing it at the White House.

Bush was the butt of ridicule as President for demanding that he wanted Osama “dead or alive” and other intemperate statements.

Bush said in a statement last night that: “I congratulated him (Obama) and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission.”

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