Paul Pillar

Leveraging Our Preoccupation with Bin Ladin

I am writing this less than 24 hours after the news of Osama Bin Ladin's demise, and there already has been a flood of commentary on this subject the likes of which are difficult to recall. I wasn't around on V-E Day or V-J Day at the end of World War II, but it is hard to imagine the reaction of pundits and press being any more voluminous then. There probably is nothing left to say about the meaning and implications of this terrorist's death, and I am not going to try to say it. But the national preoccupation with this subject has been so enormous that the preoccupation—and its meaning and implications, and the opportunities it may present—is itself worthy of analysis.

First, some declarations. One, Bin Ladin's death is on balance a good thing; the world, and U.S. interests, are better off for it. Second, the national preoccupation with this one man is in a sense understandable, given the national trauma caused by the attack nearly ten years ago perpetrated by a group he led. And third, what happened in Pakistan yesterday was a splendid U.S. operation, warranting thanks and congratulations to all those involved, from intelligence officers who collected and assessed the information, to the brave and incredibly skilled Navy Seals who executed the raid, to the president who ordered the operation in the face of what surely were unavoidable information gaps and risks.

But the national reaction to the operation has been of a magnitude that would be appropriate if it involved something or someone bigger than what Bin Ladin really was. It would be appropriate if it had meant, say, the bumping off of a dictator whose demise would mean the introduction of an entirely new political order, or the elimination of a wartime leader whose death would mean the end of a war. Bin Ladin was neither of those things. An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin's narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States. For a decade and a half, we in the United States have unwittingly been doing Bin Ladin's bidding by helping to sustain his desired, and artificially exalted, status. As early as the 1990s some U.S. officials (especially Michael Sheehan when he was the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism) realized how counterproductive it was to build up Bin Ladin's status that way, and tried to tone down the public image that we were giving him. But the United States never was able to get very far away from its counterproductive image-building.

We could not get away from it because the image is rooted not only in the trauma of 9/11 but also in some characteristically American ways of looking at foreign threats and enemies. Americans tend to think of their foes in terms of discrete, identifiable entities. And they tend to personalize threats by thinking in terms of individual enemy leaders. And so a “war on terror” became conflated with a war on al-Qa'ida and a war on Osama Bin Ladin. In a sense the carrying over of his inflated status from life into death was Bin Ladin's final success.

The image of Bin Ladin is reflected in inaccuracies in much of the day's commentary and press coverage. Bin Ladin is said, for example, to have been the “mastermind” of 9/11. He was not. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, currently incarcerated at Guantanamo, was the mastermind of that operation. Bin Ladin was the head of an organization that provided resources useful in enabling KSM to implement his evil idea. Even the identification of Bin Ladin as “the leader” of al-Qaeda is somewhat misleading, in that although he clearly was the leader of a group that has sometimes been called more precisely al-Qaeda Central, the label al-Qaeda has commonly been applied to a looser, larger movement that Bin Ladin inspired but did not direct. Then there are other popular misconceptions on matters related to al-Qaeda and Bin Ladin, such as one citizen's observation I heard on the radio today that the killing of Bin Ladin achieves what thousands of Americans in uniform had been trying to achieve over the past ten years. No, only a very small fraction of those Americans in uniform were working on that particular objective.

As long as we have deeply rooted popular misconceptions of this type, we should turn them to U.S. advantage by making them the basis for mustering public support for beneficial redirections of some U.S. policies. This may seem like cynical exploitation of public ignorance. But the misconceptions are not about to go away anyway. And even if people support the right changes for the wrong reasons, the changes are still right.

One area for redirection is the war in Afghanistan. The public belief that an important mission relevant to this war has been accomplished with Bin Ladin's death provides an opportunity for bringing the costs of this war more in line with the questionable benefits. I will say more about this later this week.

A more general redirection concerns some of the attitudinal and other excesses of the so-called “war on terror.” This point was made eloquently today by David Rothkopf:

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