Did Osama Bin Laden Win the "War on Terror"?

We now have conflicting accounts of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of a U.S. special forces team in a tony Pakistani suburb this week.

President Obama, in his address to the nation Sunday night, painted a picture of a perfectly clean, morally unambiguous operation: he said the U.S. was prepared to take the terror leader alive, but a major firefight ensued and, after trying to use his wife as a human shield, bin Laden went down with guns blazing.

The White House “revised” several key details of the raid in the following days. Bin Laden wasn't armed after all (he still “resisted,” officials say, although it's unclear how one resists a heavily armed special forces team without a weapon), and he didn't use a human shield. One official told CNN that there were no armed guards at the compound, another told Reuters that the Navy Seals team had been ordered to kill rather than capture bin Laden and NBC news reported that nobody fired a shot at the SEALs. Bin Laden's daughter, who was present during the raid, said that U.S. forces first captured their quarry alive and then executed him.

We don't know what happened that night. But we should at least acknowledge that there were any number of reasons why dumping bin Laden's corpse in the ocean would have been seen as far less problematic than taking him alive. What, exactly, would they have done with him? The International Criminal Court can only consider cases committed after 2001, and trying him in a domestic court with its evidentiary procedures was never an option. He could have been tried by military commission, but that process hasn't been widely accepted as legitimate.

On the margins, there has been some debate about the morality – and legality -- of such a “kill team” operation, but most Americans, understandably, couldn't care less. Even if we did assassinate him, so what? Bin Laden was a mass murderer, the bastard got his just rewards, and the U.S. government proved it could still accomplish a major national goal. The country got closure for the attacks of 9/11, and perhaps could now begin to wind down its “war on terror.”

That discussion has overlooked an important question, however. Setting aside the moral and legal implications, and our visceral, emotional satisfaction at seeing an outlaw shot down, would the decision to kill rather than capture him have been in the best interests of the U.S. and the international fight against terrorism?

I would argue that it would not have been – that, in fact, the reverse would hold true. Osama bin Laden is widely seen to have become a figurehead without direct operational command of the organization he founded. His importance, at this point in time, was largely symbolic. He served as an inspiration for extremists around the globe. Had he a choice in the matter, I have no doubt that he would have wanted nothing more than to die in a hail of gunfire by foreign troops in a predominantly Muslim country, a martyr to his cause, rather than rot away in a military prison, aging poorly and providing living proof that the world's most prominent terrorist – a figure who had been elevated to an existential threat – was ultimately impotent in the face of the world's greatest super-power.

Martyrdom has always been a powerful inspiration for others. I certainly don't blame Americans for rejoicing in the news of bin Laden's death, but we may have given him the exact ending he would have wanted, and, in doing so, we may have inspired others to follow his path to a  “glorious” expiration.

This, again, is entirely speculative so long as the details of the raid remain obscure. But it mirrors another argument that is not so: that Osama bin Laden's attacks provoked the U.S. into a disastrous over-reaction – drawing it into an unwinnable and often hellish ground-war in Afghanistan and ultimately costing us thousands of American lives, trillions of dollars in national wealth, an enormous amount of international prestige and, more importantly, influence over global affairs.

That argument was ably sketched out this week by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, based on an interview he conducted with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As Klein put it, Gartenstein-Ross thinks bin Laden “had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against.” His goal was not some fantasy about establishing a worldwide caliphate or imposing “Sharia law” on Greenwich Village; having seen the Soviet Union decline in large part by bankrupting itself in an arms race with the U.S., with a huge assist from the Mujahadeen fighting them in Afghanistan, his objective was to wage economic war against the United States by drawing it into a similar conflict.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Gartenstein-Ross noted that “the Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991.”

Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire's dissolution is through the costs imposed by the conflict.

“The campaign [against the Soviets] taught bin Laden a lot,” wrote Klein:

For one thing, superpowers fall because their economies crumble, not because they’re beaten on the battlefield. For another, superpowers are so allergic to losing that they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand. This was bin Laden’s plan for the United States, too.

Did it work? Well, that depends on how you look at it. The U.S. economy is far more resilient than the Soviet economy of the 1980s, and we haven't gone anywhere, so in that sense it did not. But prior to the attacks, the Congressional Budget Office projected that we'd see budget surpluses throughout the decade. We face a large deficit now, in large part, because of Bush's decision to declare a “war” on terrorism – and to wage conventional wars against Afghanistan and Iraq – and then pass the first war-time tax cuts in the history of the Republic.

I would take the analysis a step further. The decision to go to “war” against a tactic also brought with it significant restrictions on our civil liberties; no longer could we credibly claim to be a beacon of freedom that the world ought to emulate.

Finally, we have to consider some geopolitics. University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, one of the world's foremost experts on suicide terrorism, argues that all such acts have a common goal: to induce Democracies to withdrawal from lands they occupy (either directly or by proxy). The decision to declare “war” on terrorism – and a couple of nation-states – led directly to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, as well as the scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib, the CIA's secret detention facilities, extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay, and all the rest. And all of those things resulted in a very significant decline in the United States' global prestige, and our ability to influence global events.

Since its founding, al Qaeda has had two big, fat targets aside from the United States: the Saudi and Egyptian governments. Ten years after 9/11, the regime of Hosni Mubarak is gone, and last week, the Wall Street Journal reported ($$) that Israeli officials were “urging Washington to make it clear that the U.S. would intervene in Saudi Arabia should the survival of that government be threatened.” It would be a mistake to link the so-called “Arab Spring” directly to the decline of American influence in the Middle East, but it would be equally shortsighted to dismiss it as a contributing factor.

Perhaps this argument gives bin Laden too much credit. But terrorism is ultimately a tactic used by marginal extremist groups against far more powerful enemies. Bin Laden couldn't have known that we'd invade Iraq, but the idea that the United States under George W. Bush would react to acts of terror with acts of war against at least Afghanistan was not terribly difficult to predict. And the ruinous results of that reaction are apparent. We're still around, and it's likely that we have now killed or captured every single human being who was operationally involved in the attacks of 9/11, so perhaps it was a draw. But a superpower spending trillions to fight a handful of terrorists to a draw may have been the best outcome for which bin Laden realistically could have hoped.

This is important to understand for one reason. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross noted, “bin Laden's strategic ideas for beating a superpower... have permeated his organization, and are widely shared by al Qaeda's affiliates.” Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his ideology remains, and we continue to hemorrhage blood and treasure in a futile conflict into which the “terror mastermind” may well have drawn us. It's time that we stop doing what international terrorists want us to do.


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