Exit Bin Laden

A great day. I was in West Virginia on Sunday night when we heard the news. Had I been in DC I would have joined the celebration outside the White House–not as a journalist, you understand, but as somebody who felt like cheering.

In the flood of articles about the raid, this piece by Marc Ambinder–The Secret Team That Killed Bin Laden–is something of a coup. It has far more on the unit that undertook the mission than anything else I’ve seen so far.

But what, in the end, does the killing of Bin Laden change? Less, I suspect, than some analysts are arguing.

The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost,” says Peter Beinart.

[W]e have more to be grateful for than this one villain’s demise. We must give thanks for something broader: The war on terror is over. I don’t mean that there is no threat of further jihadist attack. In the short term, the threat may even rise. I don’t mean that we should abandon all efforts at tracking terrorist cells. Of course not. But the war on terror was a way of seeing the world, explicitly modeled on World War II and the Cold War. It suggested that the struggle against “radical Islam” or “Islamofascism” or “Islamic terrorism” should be the overarching goal of American foreign policy, the prism through which we see the world.

I don’t think so. First, that “way of seeing the world” was never “explicitly modeled on World War II or the Cold War”. Rhetorically, to be sure, comparisons were drawn. Mindful of the risk of nuclear terrorism, many people did emphasise the gravity of the threat–I think they were right to, and still are–but those untroubled by the phrase “war on terror” never believed that this conflict could be conducted in the same way as World War II or the Cold War. How could they have believed that? The idea is absurd.

Second, as the fight against internationally networked terrorists (if you prefer that to “war on terror”) continued, ideas about tactics and strategy evolved. Thinking had already moved on since 2001. And Al Qaeda has faced a variety of setbacks before this. Significant though Osama’s death undoubtedly is, how much real leadership was he exercising at the end? Very little, I would guess. Though much contained, he remained an inspiration to his followers, and the myth of his invulnerability was part of that. Unfortunately, his death may not diminish the inspiration very much. He proved vulnerable, after all, but his followers revere martyrs.

All in all, this victory–sorry, I mean this success in bringing a mass murderer to justice–seems like a milestone in an ongoing struggle rather than a turning-point. The next big terrorist atrocity on US soil, if there is one, will instantly evaporate the idea that anything is over.

It will be interesting to see what the raid does for Obama’s wobbling popularity in the US. He plainly has an eye on claiming the credit. I was struck by the part of his address last night when he said that he had instructed the CIA to make capturing or killing Bin Laden its highest priority–implying that it had not been that already. But I’m unsure how thrilled Americans will be by the end of the week. The excitement may fade quite quickly. For now, though, the coup certainly stamps on the “leading from behind” meme. (See Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece, these reactions from Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer; and this follow-up.) In this case, the president sure wasn’t leading from behind. He wasn’t waiting for UN approval or fretting very much about international law, either. Obama went and got his man.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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