May 052011

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of SEAL Team Six on Sunday has sent shockwaves around the world. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks who stayed out of reach of American forces for nearly a decade, given up as missing before President Bush was out of office, was found and slain in his plush Pakistani compound by America’s finest. In life bin Laden was a constant reminder of the limitations of American power, his survival daily proof that the Great Satan could be humbled and best. His death, and when it came, may be the last stand of the violent movement he personified. His defeat is not only vindication for an American public hungry for some kind of justice for the World Trade Center but one of the final nails in the coffin of the ideology of violent struggle he championed throughout his life.

The most obvious impact of bin Laden’s death is on the future of Al Qaeda. While global in nature the beating heart of the organization was bin Laden himself.  He was the big money behind the group with a multi-million dollar fortune and fundraising operations the world over Known for being highly charismatic bin Laden was crucial for keeping the factions in Al Qaeda working together. It is very telling that new recruits to the organization did not swear their allegiance to the cause but to the man himself. Following the success of the September 11th attacks his star power, and by extension his organization’s, skyrocketed. Bin Laden was able to cultivate the mystique of a holy warrior striking righteous blows against the mighty Americans and living to tell the tale. His continued survival built up the myth of bin Laden with each day he remained alive and free a constant reminder of his victories over the Americans. His star power certainly didn’t hurt his ability to draw recruits to the organization. Killing bin Laden didn’t just destroy the man, it destroyed the myth he had built up. Just as Robert E. Lee’s image of invincibility in the North was wrecked following his defeat at Gettysburg bin Laden’s death destroys the idea that any terrorist can remain beyond the reach of the United States.

His death could also spell doom for Al Qaeda. Over the past decade American forces under Presidents Bush and Obama have tracked down Al Qaeda leaders and key commanders capturing the ones they could take alive and killing those they couldn’t. The constant attrition on the mid and upper levels of the organization, while having no obvious impact, could not have been healthy for the terrorists. Any organization, regardless of purpose, needs more than just its brilliant founders to lead the way. They need to build a deep bench of talent who can step up when the first generation falls or steps aside. The constant whittling away at this second string has left bin Laden’s followers with a much smaller reserve of talent.  Following his death the most likely candidate to take control is his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri who is certainly no bin Laden.  With no clear successor Al Qaeda will be scrambling to piece together some kind of working leadership at a time when it can least afford it. The seizure of hard drives and other vital pieces of intelligence during the raid on his compound puts the security of information for Al Qaeda up in the air. As likely as it is that Al Qaeda operatives are preparing for retaliatory strikes against the US it would not be far-fetched to assume at least a few are sleeping with one eye open wondering if and when the US will come for them.

On a grander scale bin Laden’s death couldn’t have come at a better time. Jihadi terrorism gained much of its allure from the repressive nature of the governments of the Arab World. The long-term survival of stability of these governments, along with the naked brutality used against peaceful resistance, sent a message to would-be reformers that change can only come through violent action. Leaders took advantage of this impression channeling the rage of their restive people against Israel and the West further encouraging angry radicals to join the jihad abroad instead of causing problems at home. Tahrir Square loudly and soundly refuted this status quo. With the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt non-violent political opposition had gained its first real successes in Arab history. As long as violence was perceived as the only option for bringing about real political reforms peaceful resistance would always be seen as a pipe dream. Victory in Cairo legitimized the methods of the Egyptian activists inspiring similar revolts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain with even autocratic Saudi Arabia and theocratic Iran feeling the rumblings of discontent. When compared to the relatively dismal track record of jihadi groups which to date have yet to overthrow a single government, drive the US out of any Middle Eastern country, destroy Israel, or bring about any meaningful change the runaway successes in Tunisia and Egypt are likely much more appealing thanks to having worked as advertised. Every government brought down by the mostly peaceful Arab Spring is another nail in the coffin of jihadi terrorism.

Bin Laden’s death is, like the man himself, much bigger than the elimination of one notorious terrorist. Without him Al Qaeda has lost a valuable source of funding, recruitment, and the invincible reputation that came with his continued survival. His death coming during the height of the Arab Spring is a powerful contrast to the wave of peaceful democratic revolution sweeping across the Middle East showing the people of the Middle East there is another, better option than taking up the cause of holy war.  This is not to say a bright future is certain.  The revolts are still being fought out in the streets of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya.  Al Qaeda may be on its way out but they could always find new leadership and recover.  The Taliban, in spite of losing a useful ally in bin Laden, continues to fight on in Afghanistan.

Events shaping the world offer the United States a golden opportunity to bring about an effective and lasting end to the threat of jihadi terrorism.  The operation to take out bin Laden showed us the United States has highly effective, precise tools for fighting terrorism.  Osama bin Laden was not brought down by an armored column but by a team of elite Navy SEALs.  Unlike bloody insurgency operations in Iraq or drone strikes in Pakistan the SEAL team was able to accomplish their mission without inflicting any civilian casualties.  Occupation of territory has similarly proven less than effective.  Attempting to suppress terrorist havens in Afghanistan mostly succeeded in pushing bin Laden into Pakistan and tying down large numbers of American soldiers.  The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, far from successfully winning hearts and minds, have led to substantial civilian and military casualties, massive debt, and mostly succeeded in upsetting the Arab world more.

Change abroad should go hand in hand with change at home.  In the past ten years we have seen steady encroachments on our civil liberties all in the name of security and the War on Terror.  Yet for all that effort what consistently brought down terrorist plots and high value targets was not earned through the groping hands of the TSA or warrantless wiretapping but through conventional intelligence methods.  Bin Laden’s demise is an excellent moment to show the world that we can do the right thing and our current flirtation with authoritarian mechanisms is a temporary aberration.  Most of all we must do this for the sake of our rights.  It is our duty to future generations that they do not inherit diminished rights because of a moment’s panic.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Jan 282011

Things are developing quickly in Egypt — so quickly that everything may have changed by the time you read this. For a long time Egypt has been stuck in a holding pattern under its dictator Mubarak and his careful balancing act. He has been crucial to American interests, part of our campaign to contain Iran and strengthen Israel. The fact that he is a dictator with a rather bloody record and his people have lived without a free press or other basic human rights has been an uncomfortable fact for half a dozen US administrations.

But now Egypt is rocked by protests. Mubarak has shut down cell phone and internet access to try and disorganize the protestors, a move that will cost him dearly on Monday if the banks can’t open and do their business. Is it time for the US to withdraw its support? Or will what replaces him be even worse?

Alex Massie of the Spectator writes:

It seems extremely unlikely that every “reform” movement will produce results that please the west, especially initially. But the fear of something worse only takes one so far. The Telegraph editorialises that “The West needs to be on its guard that, by supporting the cause of Arab democracy, it does not unwittingly unleash the forces of radical Islam.” Well, yes. So does the Telegraph believe that, in the long-term, Arab democracy is impossible? Does it actually think that the west has been supporting democracy in the Arab world? (Apart from a brief, but even then ambivalent, flurry when Condi Rice was Secretary of State.) Or is it still too risky? If so, then for how much longer must it, and the people, be suppressed?…

Sons of bitches remain sons of bitches even when they’re notionally your sons of bitches. In the end there’s a limit to how long you can support or tolerate them. Eventually the clock runs out on realpolitik. We may not be at that moment yet (there’ve been false dawns before) but some day we’ll reach it. God knows what the consequences will be and some of them are likely to be pretty grim. But that’s what happens when you’re working with crooked timber.

Massie suggests it may be time to cast aside realpolitik, the philosophy of pragmatic statecraft made famous by Otto von Bismarck during his efforts to create a unified German state in the 1800′s. Bismarck, the First Chancellor of Prussia, ruled during conditions not unlike Egypt of today: there were popular uprisings and protests against the monarchy, demands for human rights and political freedoms, and advances in communications and transportation that made it harder to keep dangerous ideas from spreading. Bismarck felt that a ruler had to look first to practical matters, matters of power and influence, not idealistic dreams or moral crusades. Regardless of what the people of Prussia wanted, his duty was to his king and the king’s rule, and he held that pragmatic goal in mind. By the end of his tenure, he had marched Prussian armies into France and captured Paris, and united Germany under Prussian rule, creating the Second Reich.

Realpolitik was introduced to US foreign policy by Henry Kissinger, who (for example) encouraged Nixon to open trade negotiations with China, despite its loathsome record on human rights. Kissinger reasoned that China was going to be a great power in the world, regardless of what the US did, and they would be a much better ally than an enemy. So the US held its nose and Nixon went to Beijing. Since then, the US has been engaging in realpolitik of this sort all over world, particularly the Middle East. Some observers wonder whether we’ve entirely lost our sense of smell.

But now one of our odious odorous dictators might be falling. Is Massie right? Are we done with realpolitik in Egypt? Not really. Our philosophy hasn’t changed; what is real has changed. We’re still interested in power politics, in maintaining a coalition against Iran and protecting Israel and our oil interests. What’s changed is Egypt. Even Otto von Bismarck adopted some liberal social policies when it suited his geopolitical goals. Sometimes it’s pragmatic to give the people what they want.

Realpolitik is alive and well, and will always be, as long as power players like massive governments and corporations exist. And they will smash resistance and prop each other up when it’s to their advantage, regardless of idealistic fantasies like “right” and “wrong”. We can’t get them to stop playing realpolitik. But as Egyptians are learning, we — the people — can change the “reality” they’re politiking with. They’ll play their games, but it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to play along.