But apart from that cynical thought, let us be straight about one thing. Bin Laden was killed this Sunday, and it does offer serious possibilities.
Gullibility and skepticism seem joined at the hip. People who would take their umbrellas if the Obama administration told them it was sunny outside are quite willing to believe and quote any deranged website with a conspiracy theory. It is interesting to note the convergence of left and right — Osama’s death was faked, Obama’s birth certificate was forged.
Occam’s razor compels me to think that neither is true. And by the way, I was living close to the World Trade Center, saw and heard the planes, and commented at the time on Rudi Giuliani’s spectacular incompetence at putting his emergency headquarters in Number 7 World Trade Center and stocking it with tanks containing thousands of gallons of fuel in defiance of his own city’s Fire Department regulations.
That consistent incompetence is a factor that has fueled a thousand conspiracy theories. Going after Saddam Hussein and downplaying Afghanistan allowed Bin Laden to get away. Trusting the Pakistani ISI, former CIA surrogates in the region, allowed him to stay away. The war in Afghanistan was consistently under-resourced so the Bush White House could exorcise its own familial ghosts in Baghdad.
But strategic incompetence has not obviated flashes of tactical brilliance on the part of conservatives. As I said at the time, the perennial TV news backdrop of the triptych of the burning World Trade Center flanked by Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein helped provide the emotional strength for the war on Iraq, despite it having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the 9-11 attack. It occurred to me that some of the exultation on those young faces in the flash mob with their unseemly celebration of Bin Laden’s death could have derived from subliminal childhood exposure to those images. It is also that image which has given some metaphysical substance to the absurdity of a war on an abstraction, the “War on Terror.”
Which comes back to the death of Bin Laden. It was a very risky move for Obama. “Liberals” and Democrats are not allowed the luxury of spectacular failure. Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to rescue the hostages from Teheran haunted his career. A similar helicopter crash in Pakistan could have sealed the fate for the Obama White House.
Of course an assassination on the territory of a foreign and allegedly friendly state could also have caused problems. It is indeed illegal in a prima facie way, but Bin Laden’s presence in a major Pakistani metropolis certainly embarrasses the government there. It was in everybody’s interest not to inform the local authorities. The Pakistan government could disclaim knowledge, and the US could be certain that any information they passed on would go straight to warn Bin Laden. Indeed, such is the climate of rancor among American conservatives one would almost wonder if one of the worries in Washington was a risk of leaks or sabotage from insiders there. But internationally, while, say Beijing and Moscow might tut tut about it, the heirs of the KGB are hardly in a secure pulpit to sermonize, and their real feelings are more likely to be admiration than admonition.
Even the burial at sea is, shall we say, a red herring. Few of his victims got to choose their funeral rights, and the Sunni Wahabi tradition is spartan in the extreme.
In any case the action has given Obama a big boost domestically at a time that he needed it. It would be ironic if healthcare for elderly Americans were protected because the President has overseen the assassination of an elderly Saudi, but that’s politics!
Internationally, it will not necessarily have that much effect. Bin Laden was no Lenin overseeing an Islamist international. Al Qaeda was a state of mind more than an organized conspiracy. He was no Old Man of the Mountains sending out his assassins, but his example inspired the varying spontaneous degrees of psychopathology among the disaffected.
But his rallying cause for jihad still holds: US support for Israel is as strong now as ever. Obama would have had more beneficial international results taking out Netanyahu politically than eliminating Bin Laden physically, since it would address that genuine cause. Recent poll results from Iran and Egypt suggest that the US still provides plenty of room for suspicion in the region.
One possible consequence is that Obama might be tempted to declare victory and pull out of Afghanistan. He could even claim budget savings to protect Medicare! However, the Taliban were not controlled by Al Qaeda and his death is unlikely to affect their belligerence. His elimination at least allows the US to get over its prejudices and get into serious talks with the Pushtoon communities for a negotiated settlement of some kind.
Indeed the exorcism of the Bin Laden ghost could even provide political cover for talks with Hamas and Hizbollah. Of course anyone except Fox news pundits knows that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with them at all, but with his shade out of the way, an emboldened Obama could do it.
But it comes back to the same core problem. At the core of America’s fractious relationship with most of the world, and particularly the Middle East, is Washington’s relationship with Israel — and he is unlikely to get Netanyahu’s “permission,” for it. Would he go ahead anyway? How about being tough on terror — and on the excuses for terror as well? It is possible and desirable, but is it likely?
For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.