As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics. We're like this for two reasons: a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.
Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed. Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world. Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great. Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else.
So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal:
1) Pakistan. You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy. This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests. As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it. So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country.
2) The United States just re-shaped the narrative. International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige. The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's. According to reports, Bin Laden used
his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives. Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power.
Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...
3) The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region. As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated. There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda.
It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it. They also have the American public on their side.
If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner.
4) Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had already whiffed badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late. That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support. It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist.
Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.
5) It's a social science bonanza!!! Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development. Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim. The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida." I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected.
Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.