Honestly, if there’s an afterlife, then the soul of Osama bin Laden, whose body was consigned to the waves by the US Navy back in 2011, must be swimming happily with the dolphins and sharks. At the cost of the sort of spare change that Donald Trump recently offered aides and former campaign officials for their legal troubles in the Russia investigation (on which he’s unlikely to deliver)—a mere $400,000 to $500,000—bin Laden managed to launch the American war on terror. He did so with little but a clever game plan, a few fanatical followers, and a remarkably intuitive sense of how this country works.
He had those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, a scattering of supporters elsewhere in the world, and the “training camps” in Afghanistan, but his was a ragged and understaffed movement. And keep in mind that his sworn enemy was the country that then prided itself on being the last superpower, the final winner of the imperial sweepstakes that had gone on for five centuries until, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded.
The question was: With such limited resources, what kind of self-destructive behavior could he goad a triumphalist Washington into? The key would be what might be called apocalyptic humiliation.
Looking back, 16 years later, it’s extraordinary how September 11, 2001, would set the pattern for everything that followed. Each further goading act, from Afghanistan to Libya, San Bernardino to Orlando, Iraq to Niger, each further humiliation would trigger yet more of the same behavior in Washington. After all, so many people and institutions—above all, the US military and the rest of the national-security state—came to have a vested interest in Osama bin Laden’s version of our world.
Grim as the 9/11 attacks were, with nearly 3,000 dead civilians, they would be but the start of bin Laden’s “success,” which has, in truth, never ended. The phrase of that moment—that 9/11 had “changed everything”—proved far more devastatingly accurate than we Americans imagined at the time. Among other things, it transformed the country in essential ways.
After all, Osama bin Laden managed to involve the United States in 16 years of fruitless wars, most now “generational” conflicts with no end in sight, which would only encourage the creation and spread of terror groups, the disintegration of order across significant parts of the planet, and the displacement of whole populations in staggering numbers. At the same time, he helped turn 21st-century Washington into a war machine of the first order that ate the rest of the government for lunch. He gave the national-security state the means—the excuse, if you will—to rise to a kind of power, prominence, and funding that might otherwise have been inconceivable. In the process—undoubtedly fulfilling his wildest dreams—he helped speed up the decline of the very country that, since the Cold War ended, had been plugging itself as the greatest ever.