Monday, May 2, 2011

On Bin Laden's Death

The CIA/Special Forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday was one of those once-in-a-decade shocks to the global system that sweeps all other news aside and provokes genuine emotional reactions from people around the world. There is also a very real chance that Bin Laden's death will alter the course of geopolitical history in a way that no event since 9/11 itself has done. So, as you might expect, I've been thinking about it quite a bit, and when I think about something for long enough I eventually have to put my thoughts down on paper. Here's my take.

For Americans, the raid represented the first and possibly the last concrete, unambiguous victory in the Global War on Terror, a war that has been poorly defined and haphazardly conducted for nearly ten years now. In Abottabad, America finally achieved one of the major goals it set out to accomplish when it first invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The fact that the United States spent almost a decade pursuing bin Laden and, during that time, became mired in two wars of debatable utility and enormous cost only makes the news more welcome across the entire American political spectrum. For conservatives, Osama's death was a vindication of their expenditures of blood and treasure; for liberals, it was a sign that such misguided efforts will soon be winding down. Neither view is correct, but this doesn't change the reasons why President Obama's announcement was greeted with some mixture of relief, cloture, patriotism, and pride for a newfound national efficacy.

Yes, some of the celebratory displays were over-the-top. On a human level, expressing any jubilation at the death of another person is discomforting, no matter how long their list of earthly sins ran. For some people who are deeply connected to the victims of al-Qaeda attacks, the desire for retribution and the joy of cloture is eminently understandable. But for those who are removed from tragedy by either time or distance, I sincerely hope that the overt displays of patriotism (echoes of "America! F*** yeah!" abound on campus and online last night, despite the phrase's semi-ironic origins in Team America: World Police) and the metaphorical dancing on bin Laden's grave give way to some much-needed national introspection.

We need to reflect on the death of bin Laden, for the simple reason that his life significantly altered the course of our history. With his passing, we now have the chance to change things ourselves, and for the better this time. For the past ten years, American foreign policy has to varying degrees been defined in opposition to Islamic extremism. This posture served us well in dealing with the immediate questions posed by 9/11 ("How should we intervene to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan?") but failed to provide a coherent overall direction to American diplomacy. This was because opposition to terrorism, like opposition to communism during the Cold War, is an absolutist stance--its internal logic dictates that no transgression can be tolerated anywhere in the world. When the enemy was a certain political system that can be adopted by national governments, this was barely manageable; when it is transnational terrorist groups and the governments that harbor them, it quickly proved impossible. After the death of the man whose attacks sparked the Global War on Terror, the chance to redefine (or, more accurately, define) the United States' role in the world is an opportunity that President Obama should jump at.

Here's to hoping that role is governed by humility, pragmatism, and a firm sense of American ideals. Many people took bin Laden's death as a sign of reasserted American power--a daring helicopter raid conducted with extreme precision by the military's finest soldiers, all based on excellent intelligence collected from a range of sources. Indeed, the operation was all of these things, and in an ideal world this is how the U.S. security complex would function every day. But the Abottabad raid should not be viewed as a sign of American omnipotence; in fact, it indicates the exact opposite. It took ten years for a special task force at the world's best intelligence agency to track down the world's most wanted man, using information plucked from detainees who were captured in two war zones where his organization was active. The outcomes of those wars are still uncertain, and both have been prosecuted only at great cost to the country in blood and treasure. To me, these facts indicate that the world is extremely complex and that America can impose its will only through concerted, prolonged efforts that do not yield quick or easy rewards.

It is deceptive, then, to hold up the bin Laden assassination as an example of how the U.S. can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, wherever it wants, however it wants. It took far more than 79 Navy SEALs, a few helicopters, some good intelligence work, and one tiny violation of Pakistani sovereignty to kill Osama bin Laden. We should be proud of the fact that we finally got the job done, and hope that the removal of al-Qaeda's spiritual leader and founding father will shake the organization right down to its قاعدة--literally, Arabic for "foundation" or "base." But we must remember that catching him was much more expensive than we think. Once we factor in opportunity costs--what else America could have done with the financial and diplomatic capital we expended chasing him and his band of terrorists--it becomes obvious that foreign policy is a series of tradeoffs, not the constant application of limitless American might. When it comes to stopping the next generation of terrorists, we may do better to apply the ages-old proverb that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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