Monday, May 02, 2011

On The Death of Osama Bin Laden

Heard it on the satellite radio on the way home from work last night that the Earth is short one terrorist leader, courtesy of Joint Special Operations Command, SEAL Team Six and some chopper pilots.

Some thoughts:

1. Am I "happy" about this? Not really. Satisfied would be a better description. A very bad person has been neutralized, one who would create disorder and chaos. The man who watched the 9/11 coverage and later claimed to be pleasantly surprised that the towers fell has met justice. About time, too. A box on a long list is checked, but as far as I am concerned, back to work. There's still Ayman Al Zawahiri, the physician-leader of Al Qaeda who is now the likely head. For strictly professional reasons I want that stain on my field of knowledge removed. There's a whole host of people in Yemen, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, that need a 5.56mm craniotomy. The list is long, and will grow until the ideology behind Al Qaeda is discarded by the Muslim community worldwide. This is an important step, but only a step.

2. The chanting and cheering outside the White House last night made me nauseated. First, it looked suspiciously like the same kind of victory lap the Gazans did after 9/11. The intent of creating goodwill or mollifying anger by treating the body of Osama Bin Laden with respect in keeping with Muslim tradition may not counterbalance the looped video of college kids signing our national anthem off-key and high-fiving each other over something they did not even do.

Second, all this celebration reminds me of bad football end zone dances, the kind that make you think the player had heard of the end zone but never dreamed he'd ever get there. We zapped a high-level terrorist, great job but in the scheme of things we put six landers on the moon forty years ago. The more we celebrate the more we raise the worth of Osama Bin Laden. I think it's reasonable for us to thankfully acknowledge a job well done by people whose names might be known 50 years from now, and move along. A memorial for those lost in 9/11 and in the fights against the kind of xenophobic religious extremism he represented might be more appropriate.

If you're in the military or if you're a NYC Firefighter, you get a pass -- these are your brothers and sisters that have died and been wounded and if you want to hoot and holler you have skin in the game. The GW and Georgetown students outside of the White House, eh, not so much. Congrats, the boogeyman of Osama Bin Laden who appeared when you were eight or ten is now gone. Attempt to comport yourself with some dignity. In case you don't remember we are Americans, we do the impossible immediately, the miraculous takes a bit longer. Save your excitement for things that matter. Save the "USA! USA!" chants for Olympic Gold Medals. We are professionals, this is not exceptional, it's what we DO.

3. Yes, Osama Bin Laden needed to die. He was a bad man, who did unspeakable things and planned worse, the hell he would have unleashed on us but for lack of resources is even worse than the things he is responsible for. A partial list includes the 1993 WTC attack, the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, the 1998 Embassy bombings, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Spanish train attacks in Madrid in 2002, the Bali bombing in 2002, the London Underground attacks in 2005 and a lot of the insurgent activity in Iraq that left tens of thousands dead. There are also a host of other individual attakcs, the Daniel Pearl beheading, the Nick Berg beheading, little things in the overall scheme but horrific and intended to terrify. He declared war on us once in 1996, again in 1998, and 13 years later he took two to the head and one to the chest, followed by a short trip to the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

Now maybe he didn't pull the trigger or draw the knife, but he was an inspiration for those who did. Osama Bin Laden was an inspirational figure for years in the extremist Arab world, and his continued defiance of the United States made him a Robin Hood-type folk hero among those Muslims predisposed to active jihad. His arguments were persuasive to them and those close to him displayed intense personal loyalty. It's important to note that he had a $50 million price on his head, and nobody turned him in. The people who believed in him never stopped believing in him, maybe just maybe his death will cause a reassessment of positions that Osama, being fish food, cannot argue away. As a symbol of defiance he had to go, because you can't tug on Superman's cape even if Superman might not want to be an American anymore.

4. The death of Bin Laden is not the end of the War on Terror. Being a cellular network, shooting the lead node in the network does not disable the network. The things Al Qaeda likes, much like The Joker in The Dark Knight, are cheap: gasoline, explosives, firearms. Having built the foundation (literally, Al Qaeda is Arabic for "The Base") Islamofascism is not something you can snuff out with even a dozen takedowns of high value targets. It is a philosophy, a worldview, and those are far harder to kill than even one influential figure with what may be governmental cover in a far off land. None of the signers of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence are still alive, but their ideas linger on.

A similar dynamic is present with Osama, the idea of Islamofascism is out and it's like a bell that can't be un-rung. What wins wars is not the death of soldiers or leaders but the defeat of an ideology. The Japanese spent the better part of thirty years spooling themselves up on ideas of racial superiority, subjugating the Chinese and raping Nanking for ten years before attacking Pearl Harbor. They attacked because their ideology said they could. Our ideology contended with theirs in men and material and their ideology was shown to be unsound. The story of Nazism is similar but shorter, only 12 years from national prominence to utter destruction. The ideology of Japanese militarism and Aryan supremacy did not survive a test of arms. The wars did not end because we killed everyone who believed in those philosophies, but because reality and those ideologies diverged so wildly that people abandoned the philosophies, and with the philosophies the justification and motivation for war.

The three basic lies that underpinned Osama Bin Laden's string of BS are:
a) The US appears strong but that strength cannot effectively be brought to bear.
b) The US military cannot stay in a conflict if it takes casualties.
c) Religious piety will provide an advantage over US forces.

All three of these assumptions have some basis in fact, in the view of Osama Bin Laden. The Russians in Afghanistan were far more vicious than the United States has been in Iraq or Afghanistan, and religious piety won the day there. The US stayed in Somalia until the Black Hawk Down incident, after taking casualties the US pulled out. The US did not respond effectively to successive attack cumulating in the 9/11 attack, despite its technological prowess. We have a tremendous nuclear force but have not used it in 60+ years, for example. Trillions of dollars in nuclear deterrence did not provent 19 hijackers with box cutters from killing almost 3000 Americans. Power that cannot be brought to bear.

All of these assumptions have been confronted and found wanting in the past decade. Especially in the crucible of Iraq, many wannabe Islamists from the Arab world at large have found much to their detriment and sudden violent death that US troops will stand and fight, and will do so effectively. Armed confrontations give way rather quickly to much safer IED-type attacks, both in Iraq where the battle was hot from the start, and later in Afghanistan once US power was fully brought to bear there. We took casualties in combat but have stayed, in Afghanistan for almost ten years and in Iraq for over seven. Part of the credit for this needs to go to George W. Bush, whose resolve in the face of the domestic criticism, vituperation and outright hatred that Osama Bin Laden assumed no President could withstand is a credit to the office. We stayed in place and changed the dynamic with the professionalism of our armed forces, and the obstinancy of a President.

Our open society's ability to adapt and innovate has exceeded that of Al Qaeda and associated groups. The technological innovations used to thwart IEDs and find, fix and destroy insurgent groups are truly amazing, and aggressive use of these plus our troops' skill and bravery have made significant strides in Afghanistan this year.

So, the ideology is being defeated but it is not defeated yet. Calls of "Mission Accomplished" and "Now bring the troops home!" are well-intentioned but run the risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of our victory. Al Qaeda has been embarrassed by their inability to dislodge us from Iraq, and now their titular head just got taken out with no fuss and no casualties on our side. This is not the time to pull back or leave breathing room for Al Qaeda's interpretation of the appropriate use of jihad. People will abandon philosophies that make them look stupid. Osama himself thought people would follow a "strong horse" (Al Qadea) rather than a "weak horse" (the United States). Who's weak horse now? I'm thinking it's the guy lying with the coral on the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

This needs time to play out, the Arab Spring is (funny enough) the kind of thing George W. Bush was waiting to see happen by shoving an island of democracy or near-democracy into the heart of the Middle East. It is a moment where the Arab world gets a chance to reassess itself, and it's possible that Islamofascism may be discarded like so many burqas after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. We need to stay in the game to see how it plays out.

5. Finally, credit to President Barack Obama for his handling of this issue. He campaigned with fierce moral urgency on the wrongness of renditions, Gitmo, enhanced interrogrations, the PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping. While it's possible that he believed absolutely none of what he said at the time in 2008 (he is a politician), once he was fully briefed into the situation a shockingly large number of Bush-era programs that he previously castigated were quietly continued. As quietly as possible, mind you, but continued nonetheless.

Up until now his Presidency has not been a particular success, in fact, it was beginning to feel like Jimmy Carter redux. Malaise, the beginnings of stagflation, high unemployment, high gas prices, national discontent. During the Iranian hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter tried to rescue the American hostages only to have the plan fall apart at an airfield south of Tehran called Desert One. Technical problems and an unfortunate loss of life resulted in a scrubbed mission and a snakebit President.

Barack Obama did not risk his life, but a failed mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden with loss of life of American servicemen would have done much to cement the idea of BHO as Jimmy Carter II. Despite the political risk, when he had a clear shot at Osama Bin Laden he took it, and he deserves credit for that. That's the kind of "3AM Phone Call" Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign ad was about, and this time he answered it. He has been criticized for being risk-averse, but he was not this time and deserves credit for taking a large political risk.

In announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden I found him appropriately reserved and he gave credit to the people who actually did the operation. No victory lap, no smiles, just a job done and justice served. I thought that was very Presidential. Doesn't mean I am a sudden convert to Obamacare, he needs to get serious about addressing the deficit, develop a real energy policy, stop bowing to foreign heads of state and get over himself a bit more, but this time he did well.

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