David Rothkopf

Sorting through the moral and ethical confusion surrounding the Osama mission

It is remarkable how much moral confusion and ethical contortionism can surround something as straightforward as the execution of a self-admitted mass murderer. But run anything through the political Play-doh Fun Factory of Washington and it comes out twisted as a pretzel. This is not a partisan statement. Both sides have plenty of intellectual dishonesty, ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It is remarkable how much moral confusion and ethical contortionism can surround something as straightforward as the execution of a self-admitted mass murderer. But run anything through the political Play-doh Fun Factory of Washington and it comes out twisted as a pretzel.

This is not a partisan statement. Both sides have plenty of intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy, and nonsense to account for.

On the right, you have the scramble to assert that the entire successful mission to dispatch Osama turned on information gained through aggressive interrogation methods. The argument is troubling on several levels. First, we know that "aggressive interrogation" is not only a codeword for torture, it is actually a synonym for it. The right is therefore once again staking out the pro-torture position, asserting that without them and their willingness to make the tough decision to compromise American values and U.S. and international law, this triumph wouldn’t have been possible.

On one level, they fail yet again to see that torture is never justified and that it not only debases the U.S. but actually plays into the hands of men like bin Laden, making their anti-U.S. case for them. The stark fact remains that even in a situation requiring certain moral compromises, if the only way to get bin Laden was by torturing his associates, we shouldn’t have done it.

But celebrating this shameful episode in our history like it was a badge of honor is not only morally bankrupt, it is stupid foreign policy. It will intimidate no one and alienate millions. Further, it negates or minimizes the role of the people who deserve the greatest celebration for this achievement and who, thus far, have received the least credit: the rank and file of the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities who pieced together the trail to bin Laden using countless sources, high-tech surveillance, old-fashioned shoe-leather and exceptional tenacity and skill. When there are so many successes to celebrate in this venture why embrace the one about which we should be most ashamed and which is likely to do us the most damage internationally?

Similarly, for all the administration’s "sensitivity" in carefully using and recording the Muslim rituals used in the burial of bin Laden, aren’t we just ever-so-slightly embarrassed at the hypocrisy of blowing a guy’s brains out and then observing ritual niceties? Clearly, the idea was to send a message to the Islamic world that we respect their rituals. But don’t we think the Islamic world at large is smart enough to see that this pious posturing — in the wake of war, torture, and the deaths of thousands upon thousands of collateral victims of our military operations — really is putting lipstick on a decidedly non-halal pig.

Another instance of twisted morality is that we apparently chose a course in the case of getting Osama that was designed to minimize civilian casualties but we don’t seem to object to blowing up the grandchildren of Muammar Qaddafi in an attack that was both clearly outside the guidelines of the U.N. resolution authorizing intervention in Libya and was just as clearly a deliberate attempt by NATO commanders to get Qaddafi. Qaddafi is another bad guy who deserves a swift and unceremonious departure from the planet, but the absurd denials from NATO that we had no idea we might be blowing up him or his family are roughly as convincing as those of the Pakistanis that they had no idea that Osama had been living for six years in a mansion in the middle of one of their most secure, closely monitored, military dominated communities.

Speaking of which, high on the list of hypocritical howlers associated with this incident are of course, the expressions of outrage from the likes of Pervez Musharraf that we had violated Pakistani sovereignty during the mission to get bin Laden. Since shortly after 2002, Indians have joked that bin Laden was hiding under Musharraf’s bed. Turned out, he was. Time to just fade away, General … and to do so quickly enough that no one double checks the origins of your personal wealth too closely or decides that they want to actually determine who among Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments were Osama’s enablers (not co-conspirators, necessarily, but those who chose to avert their eyes from that which was happening right under their noses.)

Can’t we just accept this for what it was — a successful operation that ended the life of a criminal whose arrival in Hell is long overdue? That it involved some moral ambiguity because, in the end, that is often what it takes to eliminate threats of this nature. But can’t we stop there and not celebrate or promote the elements of this that stain us? Can’t we not try to dress it up as something humane or to suggest that somehow we occupy some moral high ground when simultaneously elsewhere we are pursuing questionable policies?

In the same vein, can’t we celebrate the decisive action and political courage of the president without suggesting that somehow as the emphasis of many political commentators does that what happened in the Situation Room is the big story here — when the real story is of the years long effort of thousands of hidden heroes who have doggedly pursued one of the world’s worst bad guys without a hint of a political agenda? Can’t we suggest that this is a very good and even an elevating moment for Obama without somehow suggesting that he is now transformed, not the man he was, that prior critiques of him were all misplaced despite being based on his very real missteps? Just as a swallow does not a summer make, neither does a single triumph define the character of a president or a presidency … otherwise you might now be reading about how George H.W. Bush’s great victory in the Persian Gulf assured his re-election or how Lyndon Johnson’s unparalleled domestic triumphs defined forever his legacy.

Can’t we all just get a grip?

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf