Bin Laden’s Demise: Death of a Salesman

W hile adjustments in the “fact pattern” of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces, and arguments over afterdeath issues such as whether or not to release photos, continue to be made, this much at least is clear from what happened on May 1st: the long war against terrorism has now become a little shorter. The terrorist attacks on 9/11, it’s important to remember, had revealed numerous weaknesses in American defenses. The very morning that tragedy struck, the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York, went on alert—to rehearse a Cold War exercise against the threat of Russian planes flying over the North Pole to bomb the United States. No effective opposition was mounted against al-Qaeda’s assault by America’s trillion-dollar defense establishment. Instead, it was left to passengers to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania before it could reach Washington, DC.

Al-Qaeda’s heinous attacks prompted President George W. Bush to establish the Homeland Security Department, in an effort to coordinate the bickering intelligence services, including the FBI and CIA, and launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Adaptation was demanded to the new kind of battlefield created by the war on terror. Now, a decade later, President Obama, in an audacious operation, finally presided over the tracking down and killing of bin Laden.

Just as the 9/11 attacks had a clarifying effect on American foreign policy, so the death of bin Laden recasts the battle over the war on terror itself. From the outset, 9/11 has functioned as a crossroads where rival assumptions about the meaning of the assertion of American power, relations with foreign allies and adversaries, and the mission of our government agencies and institutions meet and sometimes violently disagree. No event since the inception of the Cold War has had a more transformative effect on American policy, both domestic and foreign, than 9/11. Now that bin Laden is dead, some of the controversy is resolved and conclusions can perhaps begin to be drawn about the consequences and course of the war on terror.

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T he first such lesson is that George W. Bush had it right about the need to deal with terror in a military rather than law enforcement framework. Operation Geronimo was a success, not because of the role played by waterboarding and other aspects of “coercive interrogation,” as Bush’s supporters implausibly insisted directly after the event, but because of something more sweeping and profound—the methodical buildup and streamlining of the defense and intelligence establishment that lay behind these techniques. Obama’s venture was not in danger of replaying the chaos of the 1975 Mayaguez “incident” or of the helicopters crashing in the Iranian desert in the ill-fated 1980 effort to rescue American hostages in Tehran. This time, when a Black Hawk helicopter failed, a Chinook was right there as backup. Eschewing half-hearted measures, the military had the reserves and resources to pull off the operation, audacious as it was, successfully. Just as George H. W. Bush profited from the Reagan defense buildup when he went to war against Saddam Hussein, so Obama benefitted from the stronger and more versatile military he had inherited, one that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has emphasized must become more nimble and adept at tackling precisely the kinds of threats posed by al-Qaeda and the kind of challenges posed by the killing of its commander in chief.

The much-reviled CIA also deserves credit for its careful intelligence work, an effort whose thoroughness became clear in after-action reports of nearby safe houses and long-term surveillance. Had the operation failed, it would have been Obama’s Bay of Pigs and might well have effectively terminated his presidency. Instead, the CIA, which had been caught napping on 9/11 and playing internecine war games with the FBI over the disposition of intelligence gathered, went a long way toward redeeming its reputation. The invaluable trove of information that special forces succeeded in spiriting out of bin Laden’s former compound suggests that a number of other captures of leading al-Qaeda agents may be imminent, not to mention the exposure of their financial backers and logistical enablers in Pakistan and elsewhere.

A second lesson that can be drawn from this operation is that America is not ready to be put out to pasture as a great power, a formerly robust champion of democracy and freedom that has now entered its dotage lacking the will and muscularity to convert its impressive collection of war toys into real power. No arguments are now more fashionable than those that stipulate America’s decline, urge it to rely on soft power in the manner of other national enterprises that have become moribund and uncertain, and tell it to ingratiate itself with the world’s rogues rather than try to discipline or restrain them. A number of countries that have become puffed up with assumptions about America’s presumed impotence were doubtlessly chastened by Obama’s action. Iran noticed. So did China. And Pakistan, which has used it status as the leading “frenemy” of the US so cynically, noticed perhaps most of all.

Another lesson that might be extracted from the death of bin Laden is that Americans themselves have not become exhausted by the conflict against terrorists. The palpable expressions of joy at bin Laden’s demise indicate that he remained very much on everyone’s mind, as improbable as his capture or killing had come to seem, and that as much as allies might scold the expressions of happiness the night of the president’s announcement, and enemies rage over them, they were the legitimate feelings of vindication for staying a course that has been expensive in every sense of the word. This suggests that there is greater unanimity about the need to combat terrorism than the rancorous debates that have convulsed the nation’s capital might sometimes indicate. The bin Laden death further marginalizes the tiny contingent on the American left that has argued that the emphasis on combating terrorism was itself ill conceived and part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And it makes the “meaning” of 9/11 clearer than before. No one, apart from a small cluster of professional anti-Americans, such as Princeton professor Richard Falk, who also serves as the UN’s rapporteur on human rights, seriously claims that the United States was itself complicit in the terrorist attack or that this attack was condign punishment for American bellicosity abroad—that America, in other words, had it coming, as the late Susan Sontag admonished in an infamous New Yorker essay published shortly after the attacks.

But as the killing of bin Laden once again shows, that which is only marginal in America is close to mainstream in Western Europe. The archbishop of Canterbury pronounced himself “uncomfortable” with the death, and hundreds of Islamists shouted “USA, you will pay!” on the streets of London. Germany, which had previously abstained from voting for the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya, now saw political and media elites drub Chancellor Angela Merkel for having the temerity to announce that she thought bin Laden’s termination was a good thing. In chastising her, one German parliamentarian sententiously characterized her sentiment as “from the Middle Ages.” Coming especially from Germany—the 9/11 plot was hatched in Hamburg—such statements carried with them a particular sense of foreboding. It was not a rhetorical question to ask, given such statements, if today’s Germans would also view Hitler’s demise as no cause for joy. Nor was it idle, given this squeamish response, to wonder if Germany, and the new Europe whose symbol it now is, was not capitulating to a sort of moral cowardice in its finicky claims about international law having been violated by the killing of bin Laden. The idea that he should have been read his Miranda rights and transported to a cell in a high-security prison with visitation rights from lawyer-subordinates he did not enjoy even while on the run from American vengeance was a European retreat to the law-enforcement model for dealing with terrorism that has been so roundly rejected in the US. In transmuting expressions of relief at bin Laden’s death into a bogus philosophical conundrum, Western Europe revealed the gulf separating it from America, a gulf that was only papered over by expressions of relief over the election of Obama, who has now disappointed them by the sort of “cowboy” action they loathed in George W. Bush. Now Obama has become the dreaded Mr. Big who flexes American might around the globe.

If Germany was unwilling to extend its benison to America for having terminated the life of a wicked scion of a wealthy Saudi family, a would-be CEO of Terrorism Inc., then Pakistan looks worse, far worse. Our Pakistani friends, cosseted by Congress and successive administrations desperate to maintain some semblance of an alliance with this squalid and miserable country, have mulcted America, while hiding its greatest enemy in the shadow of their preeminent military training center. That elements within Pakistan, perhaps reaching to the highest levels of the government, would countenance such a risk of exposure is surely a telling index of their contempt for their putative benefactors. In this regard, the killing of bin Laden did the US a double favor. Whatever the obfuscations of policymakers that may emerge in the aftermath of this great event, it will no longer be possible for anyone to contend, or even pretend, that Pakistan is a friend of America’s, or to maintain that it is not implicated with the dark side in the war on terror.

P erhaps the most powerful lesson left behind by bin Laden’s death is that he never really had the hold on the Middle East that he pretended to enjoy. He was a desperado, a cult leader whose nimbus depended on the perception that he could stare down the new evil empire; that America, like the Soviet Union, was destined for the rubbish bin of history. In truth, as the home videos of the gray-bearded narcissist watching footage of himself reveal, he was a hollow man, a charlatan who desperately tried to become the dramaturge of the terrorist world. There was nothing especially compelling about him. Instead, it is fitting that he died, not in the mountains playing the role of a freedom fighter, but in the company of his wives and was dumped into the ocean.

Meanwhile, the Arab street, which he constantly beseeched to overthrow the authoritarian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere, has risen to champion what this nihilist poured contempt upon—democracy. Bin Laden was not the avatar of a new Arab world, but a relic of the past, droning on about the rise of a new caliphate.

As Europe bellyaches, Pakistan fumes duplicitously, and other foreign powers wonder if the death of bin Laden portends a more committed America, Obama, who is tougher than his detractors had imagined, has the opportunity to prosecute the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates to the finish. Victory over al-Qaeda? This is the final lesson of the death of bin Laden, paradoxical though it may seem: while the threat of terrorism may never go away, America can nonetheless continue to emerge victorious over its greatest terrorist adversaries.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.

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