The killing of Osama bin Laden is a moment not for triumphal chest-thumping but for sober reflection. In the decade since September 11, 2001, what has the United States done in response to those horrific attacks? What did it cost us? And where do we go from here?
Out of the despair and wreckage of that day, two notions of the enemy came to dominate the American conscience. One was the terrorist mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, a figure whose infamy grew in proportion to his elusiveness. His face was seen only in mysterious, sporadic videos; his taunting words heard only in audiotapes of unverifiable authenticity; until May 1, he reportedly “lived in a cave somewhere.” But no matter how seemingly spectral bin Laden became, there was still a person somewhere who could be brought to justice, resources he controlled that could be seized, weapons that could be neutralized, a legion of followers who could be pursued and apprehended—in short, a material network of terrorism that could be disabled and held accountable.
But rather than dedicate itself wholly to these tasks, the Bush administration chose to create another monster, one even more shadowy than bin Laden and, because of this purposeful vagueness, one far more useful and ultimately more dangerous—terror itself. As the hunt for bin Laden was botched, dismissed as “irrelevant” and then largely forgotten, the country went to war against this limitless enemy.
At first we attacked those who had harbored bin Laden, the Taliban in Afghanistan, in a mission that was ill defined but at least bore some contestable relation to September 11. Then we went to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a regime that had no involvement in 9/11 and no relation to bin Laden or Al Qaeda. In the name of fighting this open-ended “war on terror,” more than 50,000 US and coalition troops have been killed or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani civilians have been slain. America spent $3 trillion, and counting, pursuing it. We’ve spied on citizens without warrants and engaged in torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, racial profiling, unmanned drone strikes against civilians, assassinations and other dark arts. Fundamental legal concepts like the writ of habeas corpus and the check on executive power were profoundly eroded. The “war on terror” grew into a global cause as other countries used it to justify clampdowns on dissent.
In one sense, then, bin Laden succeeded all too well. The purpose of terrorism is to provoke a disproportionate, counterproductive and irrational response that makes a nation less secure and less free. America chose to become that place.
In the end bin Laden proved to be mortal. He lived not in some ascetic cave on the Afghan border but in a well-fortified complex in Abbottabad, a tony city favored by Pakistan’s military elite, just thirty-five miles from Islamabad. Questions remain about the legality of the strike, whether bin Laden should have been captured instead of killed and what small part “enhanced interrogation techniques” may have played in locating him. But we can definitively say this: large-scale military invasions and occupations were irrelevant in bringing about his death.
And so bin Laden’s end presents the Obama administration with a unique opportunity to close a dark chapter in American history. That should begin by bringing our troops home from Afghanistan, from a war that has lost whatever rationale it may have once had. Now especially, with bin Laden eliminated and Al Qaeda’s operations there largely destroyed, the political space exists to end our occupation by reducing US forces and accelerating peace talks among Afghanistan’s many factions and neighbors.
Then it will be time to end the global war on terror. The Obama administration has already backed away from the rhetoric of a permanent war against a stateless enemy, but it has continued too many of the Bush administration’s extralegal, go-it-alone policies. These tactics are particularly ill suited to the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. To the extent that Al Qaeda still exists, it is a decentralized set of groups in different parts of the world. To combat it, Washington needs the cooperation of Arab and Muslim nations. As the historic revolutions of the Arab Spring demonstrate, Al Qaeda has resoundingly lost the battle of ideas there. The streets of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries hunger not for a clash of civilizations but for democracy, development and engagement with the world. Only by shifting our foreign policy away from viewing Islam as an enemy to supporting the nonviolent uprisings sweeping the Arab world can we seize this chance to achieve peace.
When faced with real attacks and credible, imminent threats of terrorism, American leaders have the duty and prerogative to take action. But with such awesome power comes responsibility—to see the danger clearly for what it is and to act accordingly, proportionately, justly. As John Quincy Adams warned, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”