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Hail to the Chief?

 The Big Issue in Scotland 16 May 2019

Barack Obama had his Ground Zero moment after hunting Bin Laden but the President’s speech, seen by many as soft, is already raising criticism. At the same time, conspiracy theories regarding Bin Laden’s death are stronger than ever. (1643 Words) - By Adam Forrest


BI scotland_hail to the chief

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House Photo: REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza

Remember the moment President George Bush stood with a megaphone on the rubble of the World Trade Centre? An arm round the shoulders of a retired fire fighter, eyes moist with emotion, Bush struggled at first to make himself heard to the gathered throng of rescue workers. "We can't hear you George," someone said. "Well I hear you," the President shouted. "And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Cue mammoth cheers. Say what you like about him - imbecile, cowboy, warmonger - but Bush grasped the power of symbolism.

Will anyone remember the day President Obama visited Ground Zero after the killing of Osama Bin Laden? No-body expected triumphalism from this softly-spoken, scholarly man, but his stumbling speech to NYC fire fighters contained nothing distinguished; the days after al-Qaeda leader's death no indelible summation of national mood.

Instead, his administration is fending off questions over the changing details of the Navy Seal operation, a lack of clarity officials blame on the "fog of war". Sarah Palin's stock may be falling, but she will not be the only American to think Obama has "pussy-footed" over the decision not to release the photo of Bin Laden's bloodied face. The hawkish right has also seized on the fact the President "slept on it", waiting 16 hours to give the Navy Seals the go-ahead. And conspiracy theories - the fantastical stories of the never-convinced - continue to grow tentacles.

Pundits in Washington are already puzzling over the anaemic state of the expected Obama poll bump. Although one showed an immediate nine point leap, a CNN survey later last week his approval at 52 per cent - up from just 1 point from polling before Bin Laden's death. A Daily Beast/Newsweek poll demonstrated no improvement in his numbers: an approval rating of 48 per cent before and after the killing.

Predictions the ruthless dispatch of Public Enemy No.1 will hand Obama four more years appear hasty. Americans don't allow lasting 'Warrior President' mythology to surround non-serving politicians (as opposed to actual soldiers like Ulysses S. Grant or Eisenhower). Bush Snr saw his approval ratings soar to 90 per cent after victory in the Gulf in 1991, but he was ejected from office in favour of charmer-in-chief Clinton a year later. According to Gallup, most Americans (89%) want the military to get most of the credit for Bin Laden's demise, followed by the CIA, (62%) then Obama (35%).

A slight short-term bounce aside, opinion about Barack Obama seems to have solidified in an increasingly shrill, polarized America. The election of 2012 will be won or lost on the basis of the President's economic message to the relatively small number of moderates, and the abilities of the Republican candidate to offer an alternative. The elimination of Bin Laden will certainly make it harder for Obama's opponent to attack him on national security, but Americans have been steadily less concerned with foreign policy questions for the past five years.

Internationally, the killing of Bin Laden promises more difficulties than advantages. The relationship with Pakistan and its Byzantine power structures becomes messier and murkier. Maintaining 100,000 troops in Afghanistan becomes more difficult to justify. Much of 'Arab Street' appears to have more important things on its mind, but widespread suspicion toward US military action, however small and carefully crafted, has been re-awakened in the Muslim world. To hear so many people in Pakistan state flat disbelief in any explanation America has to offer regarding Bin Laden should disturb the White House, even if such distrust is not entirely unexpected.

The moment places new scrutiny on the Obama foreign policy: does he offer any more inspiring than cautious management of the mess his predecessor left behind? Even if he were able to do so, it might not matter much to a domestic audience in 2012. It'll be the economy, stupid, once again; Bin Laden nothing more a bad memory in the commotion over dollars and cents.




SIDEBAR: Conspiracy theories

By Brendan O'Neill

You couldn't have asked for a better snapshot of the political jitteriness of the West than the epic tussle over what to do with Osama bin Laden's body.

On the one hand US officials wanted to get shot of it as quickly as possible, so that there could never be a shrine or a rallying point for possible future apocalyptic terrorists. So they dumped OBL at sea.

Yet on the other hand they feared that the absence of a body might fuel conspiracy theorists, all those computer-bound cranks and socially inadequate bloggers who would claim that bin Laden was actually still alive and possibly hidden in Roswell alongside that alien. So they considered releasing a photo of the body in a desperate bid to nip such nonsense in the bud.

However, they feared that publishing a pic of the body, with bullet-wounded head and bloodstained face, might rile radical Islamists and give rise to vengeful terrorism. So President Obama said no photo would be forthcoming.

And there you have it. In the great weighing-up of whom it is more acceptable to annoy - conspiracy-minded loners or wannabe holy warriors - the Obama administration opted to irritate the former and try to placate the latter.

Not releasing That Photo would have serious consequences, yes, giving rise to endless jibber jabber about OBL still being alive. But releasing That Photo might have an even more serious impact, possibly radicalising more warriors against the West.

It is a striking insight into the fear-fuelled machinations of modern Western governments that even when they successfully take out someone as reviled as bin Laden, still they tie themselves in knots over how to present their actions to the public, fearing doubt and ignorance from their own people and bloody reprisals from Johnny Foreigner.

And so it is not surprising that their keen anticipation of conspiratorial rumours - the almost instantaneous headlines telling us there would be an "explosion of conspiracy theories" - became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because what the torturous post-OBL debate reveals is that conspiracy theories do not simply spring from the caliginous minds of men in anoraks who should try to get girlfriends. They are also unwittingly nurtured by the political mainstream itself, by the inability of our rulers to provide a coherent political narrative - and more importantly some *meaning* - to key world events.

Such moral incoherence can act almost as an invitation to conspiracy theorists to come and pick at the official story, like the intellectual equivalent of vultures around a decaying body politic.

Already, as prophesised, the OBL conspiracy theorists are in full swing. Some claim he is in American custody, others that he has been bought off by the US and sent to live in a nice pile on the condition that he never speaks publicly or wags his finger at the world again.

Long-standing conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, 9/11 "truther" and friend of Charlie Sheen, have said that the photo of Obama and others watching the raid on bin Laden's compound is "obviously staged".

Some have tried to present the modern-day propensity to believe BS as a peculiarly foreign thing. One journalist tells us that "the Islamic world is amazingly receptive to conspiracy theories".

Yet from the Princess Diana murder nonsense to the belief that weapons inspector David Kelly was bumped off by Tony Blair, it is clear that very respectable people with white faces also buy into the conspiratorial outlook.

The Diana conspiracy theories are indulged by Middle England, being frequently rehashed in their bibles the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, while the David Kelly conspiracy theories remain the preserve of the more well-to-do classes, including broadsheet journalists, esteemed doctors and even politicians.

Today, it is not only the uneducated who weave crazy stories to try to explain unexpected or major events - so does the so-called intellectual elite. Indeed, one of the most striking features of our age is the almost constant questioning of official truths. Often, the very fact that they are presented to us as "official" - as a top-down explanation of events - seems to make them instantly dodgy.

A widespread and rather unhealthy anti-political cynicism, where figures of authority are now frequently viewed as grubby, self-serving liars or charlatans, has led to a situation where the phrase "official version of events" is automatically seen as a marker for something suspect - a cover-up, perhaps, or an exercise in myth-making.

And this culture of cynicism, upon which conspiracy theorising so joyously feasts, was nurtured not by rednecks in America or OBL supporters in the Islamic world, but rather by today's fashionable, metropolitan opinion-forming elite, who often affect an attitude of profound distrust and disdain for anyone in a traditional position of power.

It's too simple to blame an army of Twittering doubters for the undermining of the concept of Truth today and for the rise of all sorts of "counterknowledge" and "alternative histories".

Because in truth, it's the thoroughly mainstream fashion for a kind of teenage cynicism towards anyone in authority, coupled with the political classes' inability to explain their beliefs and their actions in any profound way, which gives a green light to doubters and cranks.

Why wouldn't there be conspiracy theories about OBL's death, when the Obama administration and its supporters were so panicked and confused and defensive in their attempt to explain how it happened and why?

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