Bin Laden’s death presents an opportunity to move on from a troubled foreign policy.
The reported killing on Sunday of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is unlikely to prove a game changer for American foreign policy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already suggested as much – the war on terror will continue unabated.
I believe such a commitment to be both hasty and unfortunate, especially given the unmitigated disaster that the current course has visited upon the United States and the world since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011. That said, the death of “The Sheik,” the spiritual head of a loose federation of militant jihadi groups affiliated worldwide under the ideological banner of the al-Qaeda franchise, does raise a series of other critical questions and issues.
A few key considerations include:
Justice and the rule of law: Assassination is not the equivalent of being “brought to justice.” This action seems predicated upon subscription to something like the Old Testament ethic of “an eye for an eye.” Does this not illustrate something akin to the law of the jungle, and underscore the observation that in contemporary international relations, there are the “rule makers” and the “rule takers,” notwithstanding the core values enshrined in the UN Charter and other international laws and conventions? Could or should Osama have been apprehended and tried in open court for his crimes?
Sovereignty: Pakistan’s sovereignty and independence, already fragile if not failed, have been publicly violated – shredded – by this attack. Local authorities were apparently not informed of the operation – a decision that speaks volumes. With the existing unpopularity of the drone attacks, will there be an anti-U.S. backlash? Could such a thing ever be imagined to happen in the U.S. or, for that matter, almost anywhere else?
Complicity: Bin Laden was living very near the capital in a secure area and right under the noses of Pakistan’s rulers. What did senior figures in the United States’ front-line ally in the war on terror know about bin Laden and his location in the midst of a colonial-era military garrison? What does this mean for the future of U.S. aid to Pakistan?
War in Afghanistan: Conflating internationalist al-Qaeda with the nationalist Taliban long after al-Qaeda had been driven from their Afghan sanctuaries has proven a costly tactical and strategic miscalculation, not unlike the blowback associated with the creation of the mujahedeen. Might this incident provide an opening for long-overdue negotiations and the beginning of a NATO drawdown?
Political change: The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were largely secular and non-violent, with little obvious influence demonstrated either by al-Qaeda or more moderate Islamist groups. Even the stalemated civil war in Libya and the unrest in Yemen and Bahrain have not been overtly religious in character. Will this event burnish al-Qaeda’s flagging image and reputation and thus support recruitment efforts? Or, by eliminating the charismatic and ideological leadership, will bin Laden’s death force the movement further into the fringes?
Threat conjuring: When the Soviet Union imploded, business was bad for the special interests who benefit from the militarization of international policy. At several points in the 1990s, it actually looked as if a peace dividend might be paid. Post 9-11, terrorism was elevated to the status of primary threat, the Islamists made to stand in for the Communists and the Long War was substituted for the Cold War. Just as Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, and various others were all thrown into the same bin and labelled as the “Red Menace,” al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, and many other groups have been branded as “terrorists” and all lumped together. If al-Qaeda has been dealt a body blow, to whom, or to where will the threat conjurers turn next?
Osama and Obama: The fate of these two figures has become ironically intertwined. Will Osama bin Laden’s stature and appeal benefit from his martyrdom and stimulate revenge attacks, or instead continue to fade into obscurity, as had been happening before his execution? If the former, this act may presage another signal misjudgment. For his part, and alternatively, could U.S. President Barack Obama use this development to find the will to return to the course of dialogue and engagement charted in his Cairo speech?
In Guerrilla Diplomacy, I argue that religious extremism and political violence are borne of the anger and resentment bred by severe underdevelopment and chronic insecurity. Even at that, compared to the host of issues that really imperil the planet – most rooted in science and driven by technology – I maintain that terrorism does not make the A-list. My suggestion for dealing with al-Qaeda was to use patient police and intelligence work to pursue the criminals, while mobilizing new media expertise and public-relations acumen to spoil the militant Islamist brand.
In that regard, it remains far from clear whether the killing of Osama bin Laden will create an opening for diplomacy and the remedial reallocation of scarce resources, or make matters worse rather than better.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.