On the July 31st a precision strike was ordered in order to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor on the top of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization once helmed by Osama bin Laden, responsible for several of the most devastating terrorist acts committed in the Western world in the last couple of decades. Allegedly having been killed by the R9X precision missile equipped with laser targeting and blades that open in the vicinity of the target, the only casualty reported was Zawahiri who was standing on the balcony of his house.
“Justice has been done”, said Joe Biden in the official announcement. Naturally, the memory of 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, among others are still very much alive in most of the American nation that should feel redemption and relief according to the President. Many argue that Biden has finally found something, able to be sold as a political win but as much as the killing of Zawahiri remains symbolic at best in view of counterterrorism, it is practically irrelevant in the eyes of his own voters as well. It should not be: Obama’s approval rating rallied to 52% (six point increase) after killing Bin Laden, the face of evil in the eyes of the American public. Though the six percent hike according to Gallup was only typical for such rally events.
Why will it still be invisible in November, come midterms? Republicans will most likely try to direct the attention to more spectacular and long-lasting issues. By that time, China will surely have made steps to retaliate for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan which will be a very good point. But if they stay in the ballpark of foreign policy and Afghanistan, there is always a possibility the GOP will bring back the abrupt and risky withdrawal, pushing the country back into the arms of the Taliban and putting American lives in danger at the airport and elsewhere.
Foreign policy is a very abstract construction to many though. It is distant and unrelatable, true high politics. But there are pretty conspicuous issues in everyday life as well which seem to stay with us until November. The re-emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and other public health issues (like the polio strains found in the sewage water in New York), inflation and the polarization of American society are all more urgent and down-to-earth than what had happened on another continent.
The last aspect of Zawahiri’s death not bringing anything for Joe Biden and his administration in the eyes of his voters is the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri was never thematized in the American public. If we think back, Osama bin Laden was practically made part of popular culture. Episodes of satirical animation series ‘South Park’ parodied him and video games made him – or someone modeled in his likeness – the main antagonist, films were made; most notably the Kathryn Bigelow directed ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, about the raid on Osama’s hideout and the documentary ‘Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?’ by Morgan Spurlock. Zawahiri was never a symbol in domestic politics.
Some justice has been indeed done but the bleak news are: the world is not substantially safer. Nor is Biden’s seat any more comfortable.