WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was a triumphant moment a year ago for the United States and President Barack Obama, but now the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing presents an election-year challenge for him and his Republican opponents.
Obama is expected to acknowledge the May 1 anniversary of the daring Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.
But he will not overdo it, a senior White House official said, reflecting perhaps the dangers of hyping an event that speaks for itself - and is still controversial, particularly among Pakistanis who saw the U.S. attack as a violation of their country’s sovereignty.
Republicans, specially presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, must decide if the occasion is an opportunity to attack Obama’s foreign policy record - or talk about something else.
National security has not been a major theme in a 2012 campaign dominated by economic worries, but that could change - at least temporarily - in the days ahead.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden will use a New York speech to contrast Obama’s foreign policy record with what the president’s partisans see as Romney’s inexperienced rhetoric. Biden will inevitably recall bin Laden’s demise and other successes against al Qaeda over the last three years.
In a hastily called speech from the White House on May 1, Obama said U.S. special forces had killed bin Laden in his compound near Islamabad. The United States had not informed the Pakistani government before launching the raid, which took place before dawn local time on May 2.
The killing of bin Laden, who was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, sent Americans into the street in late-night celebrations and revived the image of a country that would find its enemies - even if it took a decade.
For Obama, “this is a moment to be presidential and not worry so much about the campaign,” said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “The emphasis is that America will avenge itself, and we do take action when we are attacked. Not to be gloating, but to be strong.”
A senior White House official said that in addressing the anniversary, Obama “will give credit where credit is due,” in a nod to the work done by the administration of Republican President George W. Bush to track bin Laden down, as well as the U.S. forces who carried out the mission.
For Republicans anxious to defeat Obama in November, bin Laden’s killing has made it more difficult to attack him on foreign policy, traditionally a strong suit for the party. Obama has been even more aggressive than Bush in using unmanned drones to attack suspected militants in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Republican strategists say they have no intention of conceding the wider field of foreign policy to Obama, and they view him as vulnerable on a number of issues.
Romney has accused Obama of mishandling the stand-off with Iran over its nuclear program, trade issues with China, and the attempted reset of relations with Russia, where Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as president this year.
“Republicans still think foreign policy is really fertile ground to make the case against Obama,” said Michael Goldfarb, a former aide to Republican 2008 presidential nominee John McCain.
“I would not be surprised if they use killing of bin Laden and the anniversary to give credit where it is due ... but also use it as an opportunity to talk about all the places where there is still so much unfinished businesses, and where the president’s promises have fallen short,” Goldfarb said.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said she had no information to release about the candidate’s schedule for May 1.
Bin Laden’s killing in a compound just a few hours drive from Islamabad was a severe embarrassment to Pakistan, worsening relations with Washington and fanning anti-American sentiment in the country.
Analysts acknowledged the anniversary had an unavoidable resonance on the U.S. campaign trail, but cautioned that glorifying bin Laden’s killing may not serve American interests in Arab and Islamic countries.
“It’s a difficult minefield given Pakistani sensitivities and continued questions about al Qaeda’s Pakistani support network,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised Obama on counter-terrorism issues.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham