Paul Pillar

The Forgotten History of the U.S. and Bin Ladin

Before the collective consciousness about national security matters gets away, as I hope it will soon, from the all-Osama-all-the-time mode we have been in for the past five days, we should note a major shortcoming of that consciousness as it relates to this country's encounter with the notorious terrorist of Abbottabad. One of the great popular American misconceptions about bin Ladin as a foe significant enough to be the target of an intensive manhunt is that the problem, or serious U.S. government attention to the problem, all began on a September morning in 2001. Some of the saturation media coverage during past week has reflected that misconception and may have helped to sustain it. A major retrospective in the Washington Post about the hunt for bin Ladin, for example, begins in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. An article in the New York Times that looks for a previous episode when U.S. officials thought they were close to bagging bin Ladin focuses on a moment in 2007 when it appeared that the terrorist chief might be coming across the border to a meeting in Afghanistan.

But America's intense encounter with Osama bin Ladin goes back well before 9/11. Through most of the last half of the 1990s, although the American public was not yet focused on this terrorist, the responsible government officials certainly were. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama were not the first to be preoccupied with eliminating bin Ladin; it was the administration of Bill Clinton. Preoccupation meant heavy attention by the relevant parts of the U.S. intelligence community, presidential authorizations to use covert action against bin Ladin, and much attention by senior policymakers to how this terrorist could be killed or captured. The planned-but-not-implemented operation against bin Ladin that was most similar to the successful one this week was not the one in the Afghan border area in 2007 but instead one that was ready to go in early 1998. That was more than three years before 9/11. It was before the bombing of the Cole, and it was before the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The “go” order was never given, not because the quarry was not considered sufficiently important but instead because the capture plan was in the end considered to have too little chance of operational success. The Times did give us the other day one reminder of this era with a report noting that, following bin Ladin's death, federal prosecutors in Manhattan were filing papers to dismiss an indictment against him that dated back to June 1998 and would have been the basis for dealing with bin Ladin had he been captured. Assembling the indictment was no easy task at that time, given that the terrorist attacks that would make bin Ladin and al-Qaeda famous were still yet to occur. But the indictment and the capture planning, difficult as they both were, were additional indications of how seriously officials nonetheless took the threat that bin Ladin posed.

The American public's lack of awareness of most of this history says more about American public attitudes and psychology than about the story of al-Qaeda. The lack of awareness demonstrates, as other episodes involving other topics have demonstrated, that warning—even strong warning—and attention by the government are not sufficient to motivate Americans to bear extra costs or risks in the name of national security. It takes a more dramatic demonstration of danger or hostility—something on the order of the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The American response grows mainly out of what Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian tradition, which regards war and peace as two clearly distinct states, which requires a strong stimulus to cross the line from peace to war, but which, once across it, demonstrates determination to do whatever is necessary to win.

As Mead argues, the Jacksonian tradition has at times provided critical energy to American endeavors in the world; it underlay the enormous effort required to win World War II. But it has major disadvantages when applied to counterterrorism. It has encouraged excesses in the “war on terror,” such as the resort to torture. It has encouraged an overly militarized approach that has included the continuation of one war well beyond its counterterrorist utility and made politically possible another war that was a highly costly diversion that only stimulated rather than suppressed international terrorism. And it has fostered the notion that the “war on terror” had a definite beginning in September 2001, thus disregarding all that came before. The public has mistakenly projected its own earlier inattention to terrorism on to the government, leading to feckless “fixes” such as rearranging boxes on the government's organization chart.