Thursday, May 5, 2011

Osama is dead. Good, but so what?

Who truly regrets the assassination of Osama bin Laden? There are those of us who never saw the Al-Qaeda founder as an avatar of Arab frustration and humiliation.We still believe that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Palestinian suffering or American imperialism, and everything to do with rational criminals striving to execute what they imagined would be the most aesthetical of mass murders.
However, there is something deeply disturbing in watching the United States applaud Osama’s elimination as the cornerstone of a national reawakening. A killing, no matter how justified, is still just a killing. Surely America can offer much more, particularly at this verge moment in the Middle East when protesters are looking to establish open societies, and are being gunned down as a consequence.

Unfortunately, the greater likelihood is that with bin Laden out of the picture, President Barack Obama may have found the near-perfect excuse he seeks to involve the U.S. less in regional complications. Even before his political campaign to become president, Obama’s narrative was that the attacks against New York and Washington imposed, primarily, a counter-terrorism response, making President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, with its nation-building component, the wrong war, in contrast to the right war in Afghanistan.

Obama has vowed to start a military drawdown in Afghanistan this summer; next year he faces an election. The president will not linger among the Afghans longer than he needs to. The tensions in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship may subside, despite the fact that there were Pakistani officials who surely knew that Osama bin Laden was in their midst. As Obama begins disengaging from Afghanistan with the bin Laden boil with Islamabad finally lanced, the president might welcome Pakistan’s cooperation to help fill the vacuum in the country.

The long-term question, as always with the Obama administration, is one of strategy and meaning. Until now, the president, otherwise a thoughtful man, has had little to say about the implicit link between the absence of democracy in the Middle East and the emergence of individuals like Osama bin Laden. Obama’s tendency to favor counter-terrorism action after 9/11, his mistrust of ambitious democratization schemes, has made for an especially vacant interpretation from the White House of the bin Laden phenomenon.

That’s not surprising, given the president’s political antipathies. After 9/11, the association between the rise of bin Ladenism and the absence of democracy in the Arab world was drawn primarily by so-called neoconservatives. There was a double irony there, as early neocon thinkers and officials tended to be realists politically, against the neo-Wilsonian of the George W. Bush years, when the spread of democratic values became a hymn; and they were also partial to dictators, as long as the dictators in question opposed communism.

By the time America was assaulted by Al-Qaeda in late 2001, this reading had changed among certain influential neocons in the Bush administration. More important, they gave the president an explanation for 9/11 that he found convincing, while old-line realists, left liberals, traditional conservatives, and libertarians had very little to say about why a group of young Arab men had murdered thousands of Americans for no apparent reason. The explanation, inasmuch as it was coherently formulated, was that authoritarian Arab regimes, by relentlessly suffocating their societies, had facilitated the emergence of Islamist-dominated oppositions, one of whose more extreme emanations was a particularly nasty transnational strand of jihadism that had targeted America.

One could agree or disagree with this perspective, but Bush happened to be sympathetic. For diplomatic reasons his administration tiptoed around a central contention of the neocons, namely the essential role played by Saudi Arabia in ideologically inspiring and financing jihadist movements. And since the U.S. was not about to invade the kingdom, the preferred way for dealing with this malicious cycle of a freedom deficit nourishing violent Islamist militancy was to establish a pluralistic, American-dominated Iraq in the very heart of the Arab world, to help transform the Middle East from within.

Obama never bought into that rationale. Which is precisely why Osama bin Laden’s assassination seems so devoid of deeper significance when you listen today to American officials describing the operation in Abbottabad. Retribution came, period. But the administration has pointedly avoided associating bin Laden’s fate with the democratic rumblings in the Middle East, except to suggest that Al-Qaeda, ultimately, is now a spent force in the region. Perhaps it is, but then why play up Osama bin Laden’s death with such fanfare?

Neocons aside, there is indeed an implicit link between authoritarianism in Arab societies and violence. This is not a culturally deterministic argument; it is a commonsensical one. When societies, most societies, are prevented from expressing themselves relatively freely through representative institutions, certain groups will feel compelled to effect change violently. This urge can take on a religious coloring or it can take on secular revolutionary or populist colorings. But for the Obama administration to view Osama as a phenomenon in isolation is, effectively, another way of declaring that the U.S. will not soon embark on a more profound meditation on liberty in Arab societies.

But if America has nothing much to say, or do, about advancing liberty, or merely political and social pluralism, in Arab societies, then where does its comparative advantage lie, in relation to Russia or China let’s say? If Osama bin Laden’s death provides Washington with a means of avoiding answering the question, it will have been in vain. A striking security operation no doubt, but also one that is as meaningless as revenge, almost by definition, generally is.

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