Al Qaeda knows that the critical battle is for the younger generation that makes up the mass of the Arab and Muslim populations and fills the ranks of the unemployed. Hundreds of millions are justifiably angered by the oppressive and corrupt leaders of the region and despairing over their bleak economic future. And al Qaeda has worked hard to target the younger audience with a message of empowerment and machismo based on violent jihad. But the real appeal, as the Arab Spring has revealed, was not virgins in the next life but the promise of overthrowing antiquated regimes and being "men" again right here on earth. In addition to leaving out half of their potential audience, al Qaeda just couldn't deliver. The call to extremism and a war on the West felled buildings in far-off lands, but it failed to topple a single regime back home.
This is why when the Arab revolution began, it was led not by jihadists trained in al Qaeda-linked camps but by courageous young people using new technology to demand a better future. When it comes to delivering reform and ending corrupt regimes in the region, we can say the score on results is Facebook Revolutionaries 2, al Qaeda 0. The pitch made by bin Laden came to sound as out-of-touch as the regional oppressors he promised to overthrow. And with the revelations of this raid, what could seem less relevant to the courageous, economically-depressed, and forward looking men and women in the streets of Cairo or Damascus than some rich guy sitting in the suburbs of Islamabad without an Internet connection?
Even so, the battle for those under 40 remains at best a toss-up. To prescribe a path forward, it is worth looking at how the Obama Administration has managed to support the Arab Spring, despite operating in a region where our association is sometimes counter-productive. During my recent conversations in the region, young people often expressed a tentative faith that President Obama understood their plight, even if they remained skeptical of the U.S. as a whole. As when facing previous protests, the regimes' playbook is to blame any discontent on outside intervention. Obama's Cairo address, biography, and understated style -- coupled with deft diplomacy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- left these old arguments from dictators falling flat. With that excuse removed, the people of Egypt and Tunisia did the rest. The heroes of Tahrir Square wanted the president to move more decisively at first, but ultimately saw him as standing with the future, and standing with them.
Killing bin Laden is a massive operational victory but its lasting effect depends on a sustained strategy to render al Qaeda irrelevant, cutting the network off from new recruits and popular support. As we might say on Facebook, we need this generation to "Like" the United States, and maybe even "Friend" us over time. This struggle will not be as politically popular as killing America's Most Wanted Terrorist. It will require a major investment in the democratic transition in Egypt, which has already lost significant ground; redoubled efforts at a Middle East peace deal, whose prospects were both improved and deeply complicated by the recent reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions; and commercial engagement that provides the ultimate political currency -- jobs. And back here at home, the ongoing budget negotiations should not take the politically convenient but strategically foolish step of balancing the budget on the backs of an already anemic soft-power budget at the very time that we are handed a once-in-a-century opportunity to reshape one of the most strategically vital regions of the world.