Osama bin Laden's American Legacy
It's Time to Stop Celebrating and Go Back to Kansas
By Tom Engelhardt
Back in the 1960s, Senator George Aiken of Vermont offered two American presidents a plan for dealing with the Vietnam War: declare victory and go home. Roundly ignored at the time, it's a plan worth considering again today for a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan now in its tenth year.
As everybody not blind, deaf, and dumb knows by now, Osama bin Laden has been eliminated. Literally. By Navy Seals. Or as one of a crowd of revelers who appeared in front of the White House Sunday night put it on an impromptu sign riffing on The Wizard of Oz: "Ding, Dong, Bin Laden Is Dead."
And wouldn't it be easy if he had indeed been the Wicked Witch of the West and all we needed to do was click those ruby slippers three times, say "there's no place like home," and be back in Kansas. Or if this were V-J day and a sailor's kiss said it all.
Unfortunately, in every way that matters for Americans, it's an illusion that Osama bin Laden is dead. In every way that matters, he will fight on, barring a major Obama administration policy shift in Afghanistan, and it's we who will ensure that he remains on the battlefield that George W. Bush's administration once so grandiosely labeled the Global War on Terror.
Admittedly, the Arab world had largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head. There, the focus was on the Arab Spring, the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots. In that part of the world, his death is, as Tony Karon of Time Magazine has written, "little more than a historical footnote," and his dreams are now essentially meaningless.
Consider it an insult to irony, but the world bin Laden really changed forever wasn't in the Greater Middle East. It was here. Cheer his death, bury him at sea, don't release any photos, and he'll still carry on as a ghost as long as Washington continues to fight its deadly, disastrous wars in his old neighborhood.
The Tao of Terrorism
If analogies to The Wizard of Oz were in order, bin Laden might better be compared to that film's wizard rather than the wicked witch. After all, he was, in a sense, a small man behind a vast screen on which his frail frame took on, in the U.S., the hulking proportions of a supervillain, if not a rival superpower. In actuality, al-Qaeda, his organization, was, at best, a ragtag crew that, even in its heyday, even before it was embattled and on the run, had the most limited of operational capabilities. Yes, it could mount spectacular and spectacularly murderous actions, but only one of them every year or two.
Bin Laden was never "Hitler," nor were his henchmen the Nazis, nor did they add up to Stalin and his minions, though sometimes they were billed as such. The nearest thing al-Qaeda had to a state was the impoverished, ravaged, Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan where some of its "camps" were once sheltered. Even the money available to Bin Laden, while significant, wasn't much to brag about, not on a superpower scale anyway. The 9/11 attacks were estimated to cost $400,000 to $500,000, which in superpower terms was pure chump change.
Despite the apocalyptic look of the destruction bin Laden's followers caused in New York and at the Pentagon, he and his crew of killers represented a relatively modest, distinctly non-world-ending challenge to the U.S. And had the Bush administration focused the same energies on hunting him down that it put into invading and occupying Afghanistan and then Iraq, can there be any question that almost 10 years wouldn't have passed before he died or, as will now never happen, was brought to trial?
It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden's good luck that Washington's dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet into a Pax Americana for decades to come. So if you're writing bin Laden's obituary right now, describe him as a wizard who used the 9/11 attacks to magnify his meager powers many times over.
After all, while he only had the ability to launch major operations every couple of years, Washington -- with almost unlimited amounts of money, weapons, and troops at its command -- was capable of launching operations every day. In a sense, after 9/11, Bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires, the way a bot takes over a computer, and turning them to his own ends.
It was he, thanks to 9/11, who insured that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan would be put into motion. It was he, thanks to 9/11, who also insured that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be launched. It was he, thanks to 9/11, who brought America's Afghan war to Pakistan, and American aircraft, bombs, and missiles to Somalia and Yemen to fight that Global War on Terror. And for the last near-decade, he did all this the way a Tai Chi master fights: using not his own minimal strength, but our massive destructive power to create the sort of mayhem in which he undoubtedly imagined that an organization like his could thrive.
Don't be surprised, then, that in these last months or even years bin Laden seems to have been sequestered in a walled compound in a resort area just north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, doing next to nothing. Think of him as practicing the Tao of Terrorism. In fact, the less he did, the fewer operations he was capable of launching, the more the American military did for him in creating what collapsing Chinese dynasties used to call "chaos under heaven."
Dead and Alive
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