It’s hard not to be thrilled at this moment. I am not especially nationalistic, but Osama bin Laden (OBL) was doubtless an enemy of liberal democracy, a homicide, and virulently anti-American. Like Obama said, the world is a better place without him, and certainly America, the West, and liberals everywhere are safer. If there is a liberal democratic ‘end of history,’ this was a step on that path. So here a few thoughts:
1. Did we assassinate him? Did we intend to kill him, or just capture him? When I first saw the CNN story, a by-line in the scroll at the bottom of the screen quoted an unnamed spokesmen saying the goal was to kill him, not capture him. If he really was unarmed, was this then an execution, a murder (!)? What if he had put his hands up? Would the US government or Obama be liable (!)? Honestly, these are just academic question though. No one really wants to ask them, Arabs and Muslims included, and probably not even the Pakistanis. Everyone, Middle Easterners included, is just glad he’s gone. As Walt notes (last link), the rules of engagement on the raid were probably pretty loose, because no one really wanted him captured. Ideally, that would have been best and most humane, but his capture would open up so many problems, that practically, killing him was the most attractive option. If we had him, what would we do with him? Send him to Guantanamo? Torture him? (Imagine how the pro-waterboarding crowd would have responded.) Do we send him to NYC for a trial, or a military tribunal? If he did get a trial, imagine the OJ-style feeding frenzy and his use of it as a platform to capture global attention once again. Given how much trouble we have had structuring a legal architecture for the global war on terror (GWoT), even after 10 years of conflict, the legal issues would have bedeviled the country for years. In fact, if we would have tortured him the way we tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times in one month), and then executed him (like Timothy McVeigh), it may in fact have been more humane to kill him during the raid.
2. If we did assassinate him, then can/should we do the same to Gadaffi? I find it ironic that at the same time we killed OBL in a targeted strike, NATO argued that it was not purposefully targeting Gaddafi. It seems very likely that Gaddaffi’s death would end the Libyan war at a stroke, saving countless lives. Assassinations however are a violation of US law.
3. Is it right/wrong to be ‘happy’ that OBL is dead? It feels terribly macabre to wish for someone else’ death, and notably, both Obama and Secretary used the oblique ‘brought him to justice’ in order to avoid saying something like ‘we are glad we shot him in the head.’ (Go here for that ‘Rot in Hell!’ headline.) But OBL is one of those figures like Hitler or Pol Pot who have such a history of unrepentant and continuing awfulness that the moral calculus likely changes. If OBL were the prodigal son and legitimately changed his ways, perhaps we should feel differently. But even after 9/11, he didn’t stop. At some point, even the most Christian/Buddhist/pacifist/Amish/liberal whatever could agree that ethics would be served by his death. Because he so obviously planned to keep on killing on a huge scale, killing him undoubtedly saves lives. This alters the moral discussion, I think. My Korean students and friends seemed a little unnerved that I was pleased. But I mentioned the obvious parallel of Kim Jong Il. He too is one of the figures with such an awful and continuing record that just about everyone believes Korea will be a better place without him. And indeed, SK has flirted in the past with trying to kill his (equally awful) father. When unification comes, if there is war or large-scale violence, it is hard to imagine the SK government wouldn’t also be thinking it would just be easier if Kim and his top cronies die in a firefight. (More likely though is a Mussolini/Ceausescu-style ending where is he is lynched by enrage locals.)
4. Was Pakistan sheltering OBL? Did we connive with western-leaning elements of Pakistan against islamist-leaning ISI elements? No one wants to say this, but it seems increasingly unlikely that OBL survived in a reasonably comfortable home (not in the cave we all thought) in the middle of the country without substantial informal tolerance. Others know far better than me on this point, but this is yet another marker that we should probably be slowly getting out of South Asia.
5. How important is this? W famously said he doesn’t worry to much about OBL anymore. That was probably the right attitude actually, although W was pilloried by the Democrats for saying so. OBL was isolated – the house in Pakistan had no phones or internet to prevent tracking, and his communication with the world went through just a few couriers. So he really was not in operational command of anything anymore. Has the jihad and GWoT moved on? Probably, as Bush said. So yes, OBL’s death was a necessary conclusion to the long post-9/11 story. But it doesn’t actually change too much in the larger GWoT; if anything, maybe we can take it as an opportunity to declare victory and get out of South Asia (see below).
6. Congrats to the US intel services for a job well-done. I haven’t always been too congratulatory of the US conduct of the GWoT, but this was clearly a big breakthrough that richly deserves praise, as does Obama. The headlines about US power are that we are in decline, and that is true, relatively. We are wildly overstretched and need to start coming home. But this is an important marker that we can still be effectively, coherent and focused, in contradistinction to our image from Iraq. This was clearly planned and efforted for many months with lots of details thought out in advance. After the mess we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a good demonstration of the way we can struggle against terrorism without a GWoT. Success doesn’t require massive invasions and the inevitable blunt tactics that come with them. I hope this stands as a future model of US force, along with our moderate efforts in Libya, and not more Iraqs and Afghanistans.
7. What is the Muslim world’s view? I saw Feisal Abdul Rauf (the guy who wants to build the World Trade Center mosque) on CNN. I was disappointed that he couldn’t seem to admit on TV that OBL was bad for solely killing Americans or non-Muslims. He had to say ‘we’ (Muslims) also suffered at his hands. This is true and makes it political easier to ‘sell’ in the Middle East. But he still should have said that OBL deserved justice solely for 9/11 on its own terms. Given that he has proclaimed the WTC mosque to serve ‘inter-faith outreach’ and all that, his automatic tribal instincts at such an important moment disappoint.
8. Will this finally push apart the Taliban and al Qaeda? Can this help us get out of South Asia? Yglesias suggests we can ‘declare victory in the GWoT’ and start to wind down? I am mixed on this. We really need to, but it is not yet clear how much this will set back al Qaeda. Is Zawahiri, who is just as homicidal and fanatical, going to step in keep al Q rolling along? But it does make sense to pivot from a war-fighting to a management strategy at some point. (By management, I mean seeing terrorism like a ‘regular’ social problem akin to crime, piracy, or drugs – limiting the massive use of resources and force, because ‘victory’ is impossible without doing more harm than good.) We will never kill all terrorists globally. That would be far too difficult, would turn into US global imperialism for decades, will bankrupt the country, and destroy our liberal values. As Lithwick notes, the unending GWoT is perverting our sense of justice and liberal values (torture, warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions, and so so). As the Framers and republicans everywhere since Cicero have noted, unending war is terrible for democracy and liberalism. So maybe this is the long-needed juncture so that we can finally move on.