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What bin Laden’s death really means

What bin Laden’s death really means

It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can’t quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.

For starters, I think it’s important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda’s banner merely to avenge his death. 

In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.

Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.  

Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn’t the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we’d still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).

Furthermore, there’s a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect. 

Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim — as Obama did last night — that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That’s not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he’ll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.

But don’t count on it. For one thing, we’ve spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we’ll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.

Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn’t rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It’s the economy, stupid."