Bin Laden's Demise: Death of a Salesman

By Heilbrunn, Jacob | World Affairs, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Bin Laden's Demise: Death of a Salesman


Heilbrunn, Jacob, World Affairs


While adjustments in the "fact pattern" of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces, and arguments over afterdeath issues such as whether or not to release photos, continue to be made, this much at least is clear from what happened on May 1st: the long war against terrorism has now become a little shorter. The terrorist attacks on 9/11, it's important to remember, had revealed numerous weaknesses in American defenses. The very morning that tragedy struck, the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York, went on alert--to rehearse a Cold War exercise against the threat of Russian planes flying over the North Pole to bomb the United States. No effective opposition was mounted against al-Qaeda's assault by America's trillion-dollar defense establishment. Instead, it was left to passengers to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania before it could reach Washington, DC.

Al-Qaeda's heinous attacks prompted President George W. Bush to establish the Homeland Security Department, in an effort to coordinate the bickering intelligence services, including the FBI and CIA, and launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Adaptation was demanded to the new kind of battlefield created by the war on terror. Now, a decade later, President Obama, in an audacious operation, finally presided over the tracking down and killing of bin Laden.

Just as the 9/11 attacks had a clarifying effect on American foreign policy, so the death of bin Laden recasts the battle over the war on terror itself. From the outset, 9/11 has functioned as a crossroads where rival assumptions about the meaning of the assertion of American power, relations with foreign allies and adversaries, and the mission of our government agencies and institutions meet and sometimes violently disagree. No event since the inception of the Cold War has had a more transformative effect on American policy, both domestic and foreign, than 9/11. Now that bin Laden is dead, some of the controversy is resolved and conclusions can perhaps begin to be drawn about the consequences and course of the war on terror.

The first such lesson is that George W. Bush had it right about the need to deal with terror in a military rather than law enforcement framework. Operation Geronimo was a success, not because of the role played by waterboarding and other aspects of "coercive interrogation," as Bush's supporters implausibly insisted directly after the event, but because of something more sweeping and profound--the methodical buildup and streamlining of the defense and intelligence establishment that lay behind these techniques. Obama's venture was not in danger of replaying the chaos of the 1975 Mayaguez "incident" or of the helicopters crashing in the Iranian desert in the ill-fated 1980 effort to rescue American hostages in Tehran. This time, when a Black Hawk helicopter failed, a Chinook was right there as backup. Eschewing half-hearted measures, the military had the reserves and resources to pull off the operation, audacious as it was, successfully. Just as George H. W. Bush profited from the Reagan defense buildup when he went to war against Saddam Hussein, so Obama benefitted from the stronger and more versatile military he had inherited, one that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has emphasized must become more nimble and adept at tackling precisely the kinds of threats posed by al-Qaeda and the kind of challenges posed by the killing of its commander in chief.

The much-reviled CIA also deserves credit for its careful intelligence work, an effort whose thoroughness became clear in after-action reports of nearby safe houses and long-term surveillance. Had the operation failed, it would have been Obama's Bay of Pigs and might well have effectively terminated his presidency. Instead, the CIA, which had been caught napping on 9/11 and playing internecine war games with the FBI over the disposition of intelligence gathered, went a long way toward redeeming its reputation. …

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