Osama Bin Laden’s death is not a great event in and of itself. What will make it great, for anyone concerned, is how it is handled. Here is a look at what has unfolded so far, and opportunity resulting from the assassination of the world’s most infamous terrorist.
Acts of Derring-Do
The US Navy’s SEAL Team Six has, overnight, become the ultimate symbol of American exceptionalism. Ten years in the making, the OBL assassination operation had everything required of great Hollywood action epics. A nation wronged. Innocents dead. Fearsome men that live in the shadows swoop to the rescue. They invade a sovereign state armed with nothing more than audacity and American steel, and the intent to avenge the American spirit, soiled and battered as it is by the aftermath of 9-11. They succeed, and young American boys now have an alternative to dreaming of becoming firefighters. In a time of impending US defense cuts, the US Navy and SOF communities are the only clear winners so far.
The US Presidential Narrative
The Obama administration has had mixed success in capitalizing on this feat of arms. On one hand, Obama has long been accused by the American Right of being weak and “conciliatory” in his foreign policy. He now has demonstrated ability in upholding the US ideal of unwavering will. The “Osama Bump”, as it has been called, has the potential to win over some US conservatives in the 2012 election. It may also prove to be a catharsis of sorts for the US, should its society choose to abandon the internal politics of fear of the last decade.
At the same time, his administration has demonstrated humility to the Arab street and to the world. Underlying all international sentiments of resentment towards the United States is the impression that with their vast wealth and power, they tend to treat matters of state with the same jingoistic bravado and flag-waving as organised sports. Obama has showed another side of the American psyche. He has buried OBL at sea to exile him from the physical world, yes, but he has done it while observing Mulsim practice as best he could, and most importantly he has been unwavering in his refusal to disseminate photographs of a beaten enemy in his lowest state. Let us remember for a moment that OBL represents everything that Americans loathe most, and President Obama has refused to be brought down to the level of Islamist terrorists who distribute photos and videos of Westerners being decapitated while in their custody. This is a clear sign that the US has learned something about imperial humility in the last decade.
However, the administration’s media-reactions in the aftermath of the OBL killing has not been so perfect. The narrative provided by the administration has shifted with the days, clearly indicating that they are fabricating events to their best ability (which is not very good). The first story heard had gallant Navy SEALS in a heroic 40 minute firefight which culminated in the killing – in self defense – of a most vile nemesis. Then came news that there was no 40 minute firefight. No, in reality there were only three people in the compound: OBL, his wife, and one follower. We also find out that only the third individual was armed. However you can rest assured, America, that this was still a just deed: rumors have it that OBL was holding his very own wife as a human shield. How base and anathema to the American way. Good riddance. But no, wait, this didn’t happen. Actually what really happened was, the SEALS on the ground had full authority to do what they did, and they chose to kill OBL, so they must have had good reasons, and the President stands behind them. With these statements, not only has the President tarnished some of his integrity in what concerns American humility, but he has also dodged responsibility for what is clearly presidential authority. No US SEAL would assassinate a man in an operation of this magnitude without express orders from the President of the United States. There are certainly a few fearsome men this day who do not appreciate this act of political swashbuckling.
Opportunities for Us
Long War advocates have suffered an ironic setback. The killing of OBL is akin to the removal of the enemy king in chess. Yet in real life, the game goes on, and peons still fight without their leader. In the current political climate, it will be harder to mobilize Western populations for renewed efforts in the Afghan war, most notably in the face of allies such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who doesnt seem to realize his power comes from our support, and the fence-sitting Pakistani government. Without OBL, there is no more underlying rationale for war. There is no more iconic symbol against which to rally. Afghanistan is just another foreign wasteland, and the Taliban is just another foreign organization of epitomized evil. There are countless others in the world, so why get involved in this one? Why squander billions?
OBL’s death may therefore result in what Canada wishes for most: An honourable end to the war. “The US got OBL, so we don’t need to be here anymore”. That narrative sidesteps the political damage which a "retreat" may invoke. It enables withdrawal to be dignified – on our terms. The death of OBL may allow us to say “We did our part, we stood by our allies, but we know when to stop burning dollars and burying men”.