Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden: a Post-Mortem, with a Note about Blowback

Unless you just landed from Mars, you know that Osama bin Laden was killed yesterday by a force of US Navy Seals who invaded his compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad (as the NY Times notes,  "home to a large Pakistani military base and a military academy of the Pakistani Army.").  The NYT's lead report is here, with other articles also at their site.  The WaPo site has a very long report here, as well as a front-page headline that reflects the sense of righteous retribution that many Americans seem to share today.

The reactions and assessments run the gamut, from triumphal to guardedly optimistic to almost dismissive.  (If you look more closely at my blog, you'll find listed on the right-hand side a bevy of articles I've shared via the RSS feeds I get via Google Reader.)  The NYT's Nicholas Kristof blogged that the killing of OBL was the single largest victory against al-Qaeda.  Harvard professor Stephen Walt (whose perspective on Middle East events and the "war on terror" - along with those of Time mag's Tony Karon and former CIA officer - and current analyst at the National Interest -  Paul Pillar - I always heed) notes that it gives the US a feel-good moment, but that even though "Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, . . . memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012."  And two other assessments at the Foreign Policy site (here and here) are among many that make the point that al-Qaeda is still out there, and that even with bin Laden out of the picture, the various local "franchises" of the chain that al-Qaeda has become are preparing mayhem, and may even derive inspiration from OBL's death.  They will also likely derive inspiration from the kind of "glad he's dead" T-shirts, etc., that have already begun to proliferate as well as the triumphal scenes (of excited teens and 20-somethings waving flags, shouting USA, USA, and singing the old stand-by taunt "Na na na na, hey eh eh, goood-bye") that ABC was broadcasting from in front of the White House last night.  An Israeli-American commentator at the Mondoweiss site who watched those celebrations from Tel Aviv noted:
I've heard too many Israelis justify the occupation of Palestinian territory with statements like, "They're animals, they celebrate when we're killed." I've heard the same rhetoric come from American mouths, "The Muslim world cheered after the 9/11 attacks."  Americans--many of whom consider their so-called War on Terror morally righteous--must ask themselves if the images of their celebrations really look so different than those that they condemn.  We must remember that a tremendous majority of the Arab and Muslim world did not revel in the horror of 9/11. The attacks were largely denounced--from Ramallah to Pakistan and almost everywhere in between. A death of a human being should never be celebrated--whether that person was an innocent or whether he or she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. Bloodshed, and rejoicing in it, only perpetuates the cycle of violence.
And I imagine that at every baseball game at every ballpark across America tonight, there will be more whooping and hollering and "USA"-ing - maybe with a Toby Keith song and fighter-jet flyover tossed in for more feel-goodedness - as people intone the national anthem.

My take, for what it's worth?  I'm glad to see him gone.  But I'm even happier that the brave people behind the Arab Spring in the Middle East are even now opening a much more promising avenue for change than what al-Qaeda has had on offer, as well as supplying an antidote of youthful idealism and peaceful protest for the poisonous (and false) image of Islam that OBL and his ilk thrust into our consciousness.  Bin Laden over the last few years was an almost pathetic figure - in hiding, ineffectual, trying to remain relevant even as he personally had been marginalized by the intensive manhunt that finally found and killed him.  His death may bring some closure for those who lost loved ones on 911, and for New Yorkers who hate him for the sense of insecurity he brought to them and their city.

But I suggest we keep a few things in mind:
  • He represented a hateful, nuclear option in a struggle that many God-fearing, moral, decent people in Muslim societies across the planet will continue to wage: the struggle for the recognition of their worth and basic human dignity in a world in which the military power, economic interests, and ideas of the West have called the shots in their politics and societies.
  • Even though he's dead, in some very important ways his followers can claim that he's winning, and that even in death he may yet succeed in one of the goals he set very early on.  As a mujahid against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, OBL came away with the belief that holy warriors had brought down a mighty power.  He clearly stated that by launching terror attacks against the US, he wanted to goad America into a costly war that would bleed it dry and eventually bring it down.  He probably expected that to happen via a US invasion of Afghanistan, where the US would be bogged down just as the Soviets had been.  It must have surpassed his wildest dreams when George W. Bush put the Afghanistan war on hold, took the US into a needless war in Iraq, and decided to pay for it by borrowing from China (even cutting taxes) and running the US debt to astronomical, potentially cataclysmic heights.  The US economy is now so dilapidated that Standard & Poor has warned the feds that the feds that the US's credit rating may be downgraded - something unthinkable only a few years ago.  Meanwhile, in the name of the "war on terror," since 2001 the US has demolished Iraq and Afghanistan, enraged countless Pakistanis with drone strikes (and now, a violation of their sovereignty by the Navy Seals who took out OBL), and acquiesced in Israel's devastation of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009.  My point?  Since launching the war on terror in 2001, the US has plunged itself into a perhaps inescapable, fatal  burden of debt, and has earned the hatred of probably millions more people worldwide than hated it before 11 Sept 2001.  Exactly what OBL hoped to accomplish.
  • Although I cannot mourn Bin Laden's death, I do mourn the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished in a war that was launched, in significant part, on the claim that he was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein, who was allegedly developing WMDS and was - or so Mr. Bush told us - more than willing to hand them off to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.  In the wake of 9-11, thousands of Americans enlisted in the military and girded themselves for war in Iraq in the belief that by killing Iraqi "hajjis," they were going to "get some" - specifically, "get some" payback for 9-11 and, in the process, defeat al-Qaeda.  Bush's war served only to drive more recruits into al-Qaeda's embrace, while tearing apart a country already brought low by more than 20 years of war and sanctions.  Seldom in the annals of history have a people been so undeservedly victimized.
  • By sending its military to conduct a violent operation on the soil of a supposed ally (Pakistan), the US may have put paid to any hopes of success in Afghanistan.  Even before yesterday's mission, years of drone attacks and other interference by the US had brought relations with Pakistan to their lowest point in at least a decade, and had brought levels of anti-US anger on the Pakistani street to fever pitch.  The US may now find it impossible to secure much-needed cooperation from the Pakistani government and military - and the Pakistani political leadership will likely face even more vehement opposition from Islamist groups within the country.

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