Stephen M. Walt

Did the United States murder bin Laden?

Did the United States murder bin Laden?

There’s some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration’s original story had been more complete from the start, I’m inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it’s not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.

Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don’t know. But I’m sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).

There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I’d prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.

The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it’s not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there’s certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely. 

Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.

I get all that, but I’m not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it’s possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that’s hardly a certainty. Mussolini’s place in the family crypt isn’t a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn’t become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.