Fallows: Bin Laden Death Allows U.S. To Change Course

The new videos from Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound show an al-Qaida leader seriously concerned about his image. Host Guy Raz discusses those videos with James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. They also talk about whether the polling surge President Obama experienced after the killing can last through the next presidential election.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

RAZ: A gunfire echoed across the southern Afghan city of Kandahar today as the Taliban launched an assault on key government offices, a reminder that even with the death of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is far from over.

James Fallows of The Atlantic usually joins me at this point in the program on Saturday for a deeper look behind the stories we're following.

Jim, I haven't spoken to you since I took leave after the birth of my son, so it's good to be back with you.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Thank you, Guy. And congratulations to you and your family.

RAZ: Thanks so much. Let's start with the killing of bin Laden. As we heard from Rachel Martin earlier in the program, videos seized by those Navy SEALs show a bin Laden who is clearly very conscious of his image to an almost narcissistic point.

Mr. FALLOWS: And it is a way in which you could have inferred this from the great success of his martial images over the years. Back in the early days, there were these al-Qaida videos that came out with Osama bin Laden brandishing an AK-47 and on horseback and all the rest.

And so, I think the Pentagon, being very clearly conscious that this is a war of images as much as it is a war of ideas and bullets and all the rest, wanted to put out the most humiliating and demeaning possible shots that it could of bin Laden. We'll see what else might be there. But certainly, that's the purpose in letting these videos come out.

RAZ: And one wonders why they were kept at all. Jim, more details are coming out about his hands-on involvement in planning terror operations, part of this document collection that SEALs managed to seize. It was thought he was simply an inspirational figure. So I wonder, what's your take on the future of al-Qaida now that he has been killed and for the war the U.S. has waged against it and perhaps more importantly for the campaign in Afghanistan?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think it's very difficult to say, at least for me to say how exactly this is going to affect al-Qaida's capability in the months and years ahead because we'll just have to see that play out and how much the franchise nature of the threat has given them resiliency.

I think the opportunity it does present on the U.S. side is to do something that otherwise would have been quite difficult. Over these last, now almost 10 years, we've launched a number of efforts that by definition could never be fully concluded. We were never fully going to eliminate the threat of terrorism nor fully modernize Afghanistan or all the rest.

But this does create a moment of apparent or at least momentary success where the initial source of the threat has been eliminated to reconsider exactly how in the long run we can both protect ourselves against terror without distorting our nature as a constitutional republic and do what we need to do in Afghanistan without being there forever.

RAZ: Jim, how much of a turning point do you think this bin Laden episode will be for President Obama?

Mr. FALLOWS: I'm trying to find some way to avoid saying, only time will tell, because that's the real answer. And the most famous example here is, of course, the first President George Bush, who at this time in his presidency, you see him just untouchably popular after the first Gulf War.

Ronald Reagan, at about this time in his presidency, was nearing one of his real humiliations, which was the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. And he, of course, recovered after that. But something that is certain is how much of a gamble this was from his political point of view, apart from the geo-strategic measures of it.

All you have to do is to think back to President Jimmy Carter, for whom I once worked as a speechwriter, and how much of his presidency and historical record turned on the crucial failure of a helicopter during the aborted raid to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. I know that Jimmy Carter probably even until this day thinks that if there had been another helicopter or a better helicopter, he would have - the outcome would have been different and so would the next election.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. He joins us on this program most Saturdays.

Jim, thanks.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Guy.

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