A boost for Obama, a bust for Pakistan

Only in America would a president respond to the public celebrating over the killing of Osama bin Laden with the sports cliche he used: "We don't need to spike the football."

But millions of Americans who have their eyes glued on gridirons across the country on weekend television knew at once what he meant — that there was no need to cheer the event as if the home team had just scored the winning touchdown.

President Barack Obama uttered the advice in announcing that no photographs or video would be released of bin Laden's corpse, or its disposal into the Arabian Sea, to prove that he really was dead and gone. It was a prudent and sensible decision made by him without any public debate, providing a quick and clean disposition of what could have become a gruesome display of bad taste and bad judgment.

But the news-media world being what it is, especially in this era of all news, all the time on cable television and the Internet, nobody should be surprised if grisly photos of bin Laden's body do pop up on screens and online, or videos of the dramatic raid on his compound hidden in plain view in Pakistan.

Mr. Obama and/or his advisers, however, must have learned from the last time an American president, George W. Bush, "spiked the football." That was in 2003, when he flew onto the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in full pilot regalia before that banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." When it turned out not to be, the photo-op haunted him long afterward.

In the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein from a hole in the ground in Iraq, it was entirely understandable and proper that the American people and the world were shown photographs of the captured Iraqi dictator, and of his subsequent trial. But that was a far cry from flaunting a corpse for the edification of viewers around the globe.

The first public-opinion surveys on American reaction to bin Laden's demise have already given Mr. Obama a political payoff. According to the New York Times/CBS News Poll, his approval rate, gradually slipping before the successful raid, has climbed from 46 percent last month to 57 percent now.

In December 2003, when Saddam Hussein was captured, Bush's approval rate similarly climbed, from 50 percent to 58 percent, but it soon fell again as the war in Iraq dragged on. The same obviously could happen to Mr. Obama as the fight to cleanse Afghanistan of the renewed Taliban insurgency continues.

The Times/CBS poll also found, however, that support of his conduct of foreign policy has risen from a dismal 39 percent before the raid to just more than half of Americans surveyed in the aftermath of the killing of bin Laden. The president so far has stuck to his 2009 pledge — at the time of his surge of 30,000 troops into the country — that a withdrawal (of undisclosed dimensions) would begin in July. Whether he holds to that timetable likely will affect that support.

More important than tamping down public celebration over bin Laden's fate is how the administration's already troublesome relationship with Pakistan will weather the raid into that sovereign country. It was undertaken with neither advance notification nor permission of the regime in Islamabad.

The White House has justified the unilateral action in terms of self-defense against the continuing al-Qaida threat, and Mr. Obama long ago had warned Pakistan's leadership he would not hesitate to go after bin Laden if he were located within its borders. The very fact that Pakistani intelligence has denied knowledge of his hiding place, in retrospect so suspect as to seem almost obvious, has heightened the Obama administration's doubts and concerns about its South Asian ally.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has insisted defensively that "this is a failure of the whole world ... including the United States." But CIA Director Leon Panetta, in subsequent interviews, sounded incredulous about the regime's denial and its trustworthiness. In the raid's aftermath, healing this breach of confidence will be a first order of business for both the Obama administration and the Pakistani regime.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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