David Rothkopf

Winners, losers, and overlooked stories on the week Osama died

Let’s face it, putting this week’s events in historical perspective is a bit of a fool’s errand. I’ll leave it to you to figure out why they turned to me to help on that mission, one that has a dramatically lower likelihood of success than, say, flying under cover of darkness deep into the heart ...

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: A man holds up a scoreboard displaying Obama - one, Osama - nil, as thousands of people celebrate in the streets at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre, waving American flags and honking horns to celebrate the death of al Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011 in New York City. President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden during an address to the nation from the White House in Washington. The mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks was killed in an American military operation at a compound in Pakistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Let’s face it, putting this week’s events in historical perspective is a bit of a fool’s errand. I’ll leave it to you to figure out why they turned to me to help on that mission, one that has a dramatically lower likelihood of success than, say, flying under cover of darkness deep into the heart of the world’s fourth most populous nation, dispatching the world’s most elusive fugitive, and getting out ahead of a hornet’s nest of scrambling fighter jets.

Frankly, I’m still not even entirely sure I’m capable of putting the major events of the last century in perspective, much less those of last weekend. After all, Germany lost two world wars and today we are told it is Europe’s indispensable nation, more influential than ever. And most folks think we lost in Vietnam, but three and half decades later the Soviet Union is gone, communism is discredited, and Vietnam is both a vibrant economy and open to business with the United States — so whose vision of victory was realized?

Nonetheless, let’s try to put this week in perspective by highlighting a few winners, a few losers, and then a few stories that were overshadowed by this week’s headlines that may actually turn out to be more important.

The winners who have thus far emerged from the shootout at the Abbottabad corral include, in reverse order of the size of the win:

10. Sohaib Athar: The mild-mannered 33-year-old programmer who tweeted the news of the attack has enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and managed it with a wry sense of humor.

9. Anwar al-Awlaki: The New Mexico-born Merchant of Venom is among the front-runners to pick up the bin Laden mantel as the world’s most wanted terrorist along with Ayman Al-Zawahiri and a handful of others. The bad news for them, they just moved up on the U.S. counter-terrorism target list … which may be the most dangerous place in the world to find yourself.

8. India: The most Paki-skeptic of all places on earth is quietly … and not so quietly … reveling in all aspects of the raid: the damage to their historic enemy’s credibility, the apparent porousness of their likely adversary’s borders, and the general blow to Pakistan’s stature in the world.

7. War Dogs: Whether it was a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malginois who went along with the Navy SEAL team on the raid, the pooch is definitely not only the world’s top dog for a week, he or she has done a great service to combat canines everywhere. If you doubt it, see FP’s own Becky Frankel’s great photo essay on the subject.

6. Leon Panetta: The super-public servant greased the skids for his smooth ascendancy to the top job in the Pentagon by not only being the man overseeing the successful bin Laden mission but for reportedly being alone among cabinet members suggesting the president go for the plan he ultimately followed. He could have been the sacrificial lamb; instead he made himself a slam dunk (sorry, George Tenet) for bigger and better things.

5. The Shooter: We don’t know his name in keeping with the secrecy and the low-key code of the SEALs. But this is a guy who is one leak away from a book deal, a movie, the key to every city in America and to never having to buy himself a beer ever again. Oh, and there’s also that eternal gratitude of a nation thing on top of it all. 

4. SEAL Team Six: The elite of elites has placed themselves permanently in the history books with a feat that ranks up there with the raid on Entebbe and well beyond virtually all movie fiction. They have not only done credit to their brethren in the U.S. special forces community but may have done more than any senior officers to change the way the war on terror is fought going forward.

3. The Families of U.S. Service Men and Women in Afghanistan: They’re coming home sooner now. This was their mission too. You can hardly beat that … and because there are so many of you, that’s why you edge out those folks at the pointy end of the spear who completed the mission.

2. Barack Obama: His finest hour. Decisive. Cool. Able to both strike hard and do so with the kind of American values and restraint that elevated the mission and stands in stark contrast to the bombast and recklessness of some of his predecessors.

1. The Planet Earth: A day without bin Laden is a better day for everyone.


It is hard to imagine losers from an almost universal victory like the death of a mass murderer, but there were a few. They include:

5. Fringe Critics of the President: One big argument against Obama has fallen by the wayside. In fact, if you want another big winner, one possibility might be the American people. There is a chance that by marginalizing the nutcases and Tea Partiers further, this win for Obama will leave only the serious candidates like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Mitch Daniels in the Republican field. Who knows, we might even have a thoughtful, respectful, substantive debate in the 2012 elections. I know it’s difficult to imagine, but take a moment. Imagine.

4. Osama bin Laden: He’s dead. Otherwise he would be higher up the list. But dead men know no shame — especially those who apparently knew none in life, either.

3. Hamid Karzai: Say goodbye to all the nice men with fat checkbooks in all the desert camo outfits. U.S. officials may say what they might, but their departure from your country was accelerated substantially this week. Think that’s good news, Hamid? Patience, friend.

2. Pakistan: It’s hard to pick out who are the bigger losers — the military and intelligence low-level types who will be rounded up and punished for helping OBL, the higher level types who will be punished for letting the Americans in and out with nary a scratch or an alarm, the even higher level types who are likely to see the flows of cash they are skimming from American aid cut off, or the highest level types who have seen their credibility shattered and their hold on power put in jeopardy. Unfortunately, also threatened are the good people of Pakistan who don’t deserve more chaos or weaker leaders, many of whom were actually helping fight the war on terror and will now be compromised by their countrymen who were abetting enemies of civilization.

1. Mullah Omar, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Anwar Al-Awlaki: See above. You guys all moved up the list. Time to get your affairs in order, write good-bye notes, that kind of thing.

Finally, while this story dominated the news this week, to put it in perspective, consider that as we raided Abbottabad, at other locations in Pakistan, scientists and technicians were continuing to build up Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal even as the country’s political and military leaders saw their grip on power grow more tenuous.

While OBL was being gunned down, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda cells everywhere were planning new attacks.

While the story buzzed, the story that would otherwise have been the top story of the week — the deal between Hamas and Fatah brokered by the Egyptians — assured that after the Arab Spring may come an even more unsettling and dramatic Arab Autumn.

While bin Laden was the topic on everyone’s mind, unemployment went up, housing in the United States continued its double dip, Europe teetered, and inflation remained a serious issue in China, Brazil, and elsewhere.

In other words, to put this week’s momentous events in perspective, it’s worth noting that as is always the case, the next stunning headline was being written somewhere else, beyond our attention, possibly even beyond our imagining.

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