Did the United States murder bin Laden?

There's some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration's original story had been more complete from the start, I'm inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it's not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.

Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don't know. But I'm sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).

There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.

The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely. 

Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.

I get all that, but I'm not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it's possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that's hardly a certainty. Mussolini's place in the family crypt isn't a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn't become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.

Stephen M. Walt

What bin Laden's death really means

It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.

For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death. 

In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.

Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.  

Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).

Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect. 

Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.

But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.

Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."