The operation that ended with a Navy SEAL transmitting the coded phrase, “Geronimo-E KIA”, will be a signature moment in the history of the 21st Century. But the killing of Osama Bin Laden will not be a definitive moment, either in this administration specifically or for this nation in general. Symbolic acts have their place, but it is a fatal error to overestimate their importance.
In the aftermath of 9/11, many leaders in our democracy (and many citizens), made a critical error in regards to our enemy. The threats of terrorism and al-Qaida were wrongly interpreted in conventional American themes. We understand World War II and the Cold War (or we think we do), and a plurality of we the people have spent a decade trying to fit terrorism into the same tidy package. Osama Bin Laden’s execution, in this construct, has real strategic importance. In reality, the construct is flawed.
Terrorism in general, and al-Qaida specifically, do not fit in the World War II model. Nor do they match up to the example of the Cold War. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms, terrorists don’t have quartermasters, terrorists don’t have embassies to be infiltrated, terrorists don’t rely on a linear chain of command. Conventional operations that disrupt all of the above have little effect on terrorism. Osama Bin Laden was an influential figurehead, revered and respected, but outside of direct operational involvement.
The ill-conceived strategy has had its consequences. The War on Terror has been long and expensive. Over the last ten years, our democracy has spent the lives of more than 5,500 of our best, and spent more cash than the “Bush Tax Cuts” (conservatives hate that label) and ObamaCare (liberals hate that label) combined. For that trouble and cost, we have been roughly as safe after 9/11 (in terms of terror attacks) as before. When we Americans go after something, we generally go big, but we don’t always go smart.
The Bin Laden operation, in contrast, was both smart and small, but will likely be overwhelmed by its context. The only tangible benefit from the operation, from a security perspective, would be the changes in communication and other flows of information resulting from Bin Laden’s death. These changes in pattern could help network analysis and, maybe, lead to the isolation and elimination of active terrorist cells. If you are looking for more benefit or impact than this however, you will have to look at the broader security picture.
A president’s foreign and national security philosophy is defined over time, and President Obama’s is beginning to take shape. The totality of the Bin Laden operation speaks of caution and patience, culminating in a bold stroke meant to secure the largest possible gain. I voted for Obama because of his contemplative nature and patience, his willingness to gamble is something of a surprise.
When it comes to discretionary military actions, this president is proving more than willing to push all-in. Attacking Bin Laden with ground troops, inside an Islamic country armed with nuclear weapons, is as bold as it gets. We should remember that Senator McCain was explicit in his statements that he would not follow Bin Laden into Pakistan…ever. The consequences to this or any president, should the operation fail, would be catastrophic. For a president always looking down the road in a political sense, the move into Pakistan was a startlingly aggresive move into murky water.
Killing Bin Laden then does not define success or predict failure. It is not a turning point in any conflict, and will not likely increase or decrease the danger from terrorism. It is the act of attacking Bin Laden in Pakistan that will almost certainly be definitive. How will Pakistan react, both officially and in her streets? How will this affect our nation’s ability to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this summer? How will we the people reflect on this decision and this strategy?
A moment of great importance certainly took place, how definitive its catalyst will prove to be is far from certain. The turning points of history are always easier to see in hindsight.
The Rational Middle is listening…