While the death of Osama bin Laden represents the long overdue demise of one man, its impact on the long-term trajectory of American foreign policy is likely to be more profound: Along with bin Laden, so too dies the "global war on terrorism." This does not mean that there are no longer any terrorists who want to kill Americans and other Westerners. Neither does it mean that al-Qaida will simply disappear overnight. And another major attack could return the U.S. and its allies to a war footing.
But bin Laden's death does mean that the exaggerated role that terrorism has played in America's foreign policy discussions for the past 10 years can finally come to an end. Osama bin Laden, for better or worse, was the face of the terrorist threat to America. As long as he was at large, not only would the war on terrorism remain seemingly unfinished in the eyes of the American people, but the threat would remain viscerally real -- even though from all accounts his operational role in al-Qaida had diminished. With his death, the terrorism narrative that has held this country in its thrall for 10 terrible years has taken a rather significant and perhaps fatal hit.
Looking back, the nature of the threat from al-Qaida and terrorism in general has been dramatically overstated in the United States for years. It was presented to the American people as an existential threat to the country and its freedoms, and used to justify the disastrous war in Iraq. It led to an extraordinary increase in America's intelligence, military and homeland security budgets, and spurred the perpetration of illegal actions -- including torture -- against enemies, often real but sometimes mistaken. Indeed, the list of exaggerated responses to the attacks of Sept. 11, both inside and outside of government, is mind-bogglingly long. With the ill-advised escalation into Afghanistan to deal with this supposed threat in 2009-2010, the country's outsized focus and obsession on terrorism seemed to have no end in sight.