This article appeared at The Nation on May 2, 2011.
The killing of Osama Bin Ladin is a triumphal moment for President Obama and the CIA, allowing a symbolic claim to victory in the War on Terror, bringing an understandable feeling of closure for the victims of 9/11, and will almost certainly assure the president’s re-election in 2012.
But as I wrote in The Nation in October 2009, however, the death of Bin Ladin is not likely to end the Long War on Terror, now spreading from Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and a dozen other theaters of counterterrorism.
If Bin Ladin is gone, and his network heavily damaged, what is left of the terrorist threat to our national security that justifies so many trillions of dollars and costs in thousands of lives? Because of a fabricated fear of Bin Ladin, we invaded Iraq. The invasion of Afghanistan was to deny sanctuaries to Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda. In response, Al Qaeda moved into Pakistan, where Bin Ladin was killed tonight. So why are the Taliban in Afghanistan a threat to the security of the United States with Bin Ladin gone? Surely there are terrorist cells with lethal capacity scattered around the world, surely there might be revenge attacks, but there is hardly a centralized conspiratorial threat that justifies the deployment of hundreds of thousands of American troops.
Now we shall learn whether there is another agenda that keeps 150,000 American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
John Quincy Adams long ago urged that American foreign policy should be based on the principle that “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
As history turned out, however, our governments have identified and defined many monsters, from Crazy Horse and Geronimo on to the present. The underlying theory has been that demonic conspirators provoke, lead and manipulate insurgent movements, and that silencing them will end the threat.
The example of Che Guevara is instructive. Detected, hunted, captured and killed by Bolivians accompanied by the CIA in October 1967, Che was transformed in death into a global symbol of rebellion. His spirit continues to be alive today all over Latin America, and indeed the world. It can be argued that Che’s impact became greater in martyrdom than during his guerrilla campaigns in Africa and Bolivia.
So it could be with the myth of Osama Bin Ladin. It may depend on whether the U.S. moves away from the War on Terrorism model to more active support of the youthful social revolution sweeping the Arab world today, which has already surpassed Al Qaeda in its scope and momentum.