Opinion writer May 2, 2011

With any luck, more than Osama bin Laden has been killed. So, too, has the doctrine that America has to work with allies or with other countries, especially in the Islamic world, to do what needs to be done. American forces went into Pakistan to get bin Laden and then took his body out of the country and buried it at sea. Bin Laden got dumped — and so, for the moment, did Barack Obama’s unstated doctrine that the United States should not act alone.

For almost 10 years now, a piece of me hungered for the head of bin Laden. I was in downtown Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed, first one tower and then the other — a tsunami of crushed building materials and, inevitably, of pulverized people hit me full in the face. I literally inhaled 9/11 and I immediately — and to my surprise — wanted revenge. I finally have it. But it is late in coming, no longer hot but tepid, a reminder that in the past something went awfully wrong. The killer should have been killed years ago.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Still, it has been done — to Obama’s credit and good luck. He seized the spotlight, as he did the moment, offering us a crescendo of the word “I” — “I directed” and “I was briefed” and “I met repeatedly” and “I determined.” But what he did not mention was that he decided to go it alone. Our nominal allies in the fight for Afghanistan, the unreliable and unpredictable Pakistanis, were kept in the dark. Their sovereignty was violated, they lost face, and the United States, as a consequence, lost some cover. It cannot be said that Osama was killed by another Muslim. A martyr has been made.

For too long now the Obama administration has shown a touching but sometimes counterproductive sensitivity for the sensitivities of the Muslim world. It has proceeded as if it was more important to be liked than feared and as if some differences were not fundamental but always a product of misunderstanding. This, though, is not the case. The United States can do little to mollify Islamists and others who seek the obliteration of Israel and the return of holy Jerusalem to the Muslim fold. It can do little with bigots who loathe America’s culture of tolerance — for all religions, for gays, for lesbians and, of course, for women.

We shall see if the killing of Osama signals the emergence of a new Obama. After all, it was being planned and rehearsed while elsewhere the president was dawdling in Libya, waiting for NATO approval, Arab League endorsement and U.N. authorization. Even then, he quickly flipped the hot potato to NATO, which is a sturdy acronym but a flaccid fighting force. For a while, NATO dithered and the United States withheld the maximally efficient A-10 aircraft, sending Moammar Gaddafi a mixed message: We want you out, but not all that much. He has decided to stay.

It pains me to say this, but on occasion Obama can really be the lefty caricatured by right-wingers. They took the measure of him right at the start (January 2009) when he joined a coven of conservative columnists for dinner at the home of George F. Will. It was as if Obama thought he could charm these guys, reason with them — that their antipathy toward him was based on some sort of misunderstanding or maybe something personal (see how charming I am) and not, as it was and remains, their ideology.

Obama attempted something similar with Iran. He wanted accommodation, less belligerence — as if the crackpot regime, fascist in all but name, might misunderstand us or we them. They know very well who we are, and we should know who they are. The same holds for Syria. Once again, we have been much too nice with a murderous regime, offering praise where none was warranted or earned. The regime of Bashar al-Assad was hardly persuaded by the compliments. It still kills with abandon.

A nation like the United States can sometimes be liked, sometimes feared and sometimes both. The choice ought to be ours — liked is nice, but not at the cost of our principles and values. When it came to killing bin Laden, Obama clearly chose to do what he had to do — what he ought to have done — whether or not Pakistan or anyone else liked it. The president has redeemed my vow of 9/11. He’s earned his bit of swagger — and bin Laden his bloody end.

cohenr@washpost.com