Debate still rages among enthusiasts of generational theory over when the current great crisis began. Was it in 2001, on 9/11, or was it much later, perhaps in 2007 when the markets began to crash? As I made clear last July 4 in one of my most important posts, I am inclined at this point to think that 9/11 was indeed the beginning. That once again raises the question of whether Osama Bin Laden's death marks the beginning of the end.
There is no question but that George W. Bush leapt into the role of crisis leader on several levels. He declared war not only on Islamic terrorist, led by Bin Laden, but on regimes that had harbored or tolerated them. He invaded two countries, involving the United States in occupations that have lasted nearly a decade. He talked about a new spirit in the country, and he suspended, in effect, various provisions of the laws and the Constitution of the United States. But he did not mobilize the countries' resources. Instead of increasing taxes like Lincoln and FDR, he cut them. He relied on a volunteer army with a huge auxiliary force of contractors. And, sadly, he embarked upon wars whose outcome has been dubious at best. Yet he had a profound long-term impact on the country, crippling the finances of the federal government, involving us indefinitely in the Middle East, and establishing what looks like a small but permanent gulag at Guantanamo. He also mobilized new Republican constituencies, although even his re-election victory was very narrow.
Unfortunately Bush lacked the vision to turn the country's energies into productive channels, or even, it seems,to evaluate what we faced in southwest Asia. He does not seem to have been very interested in apprehending Osama Bin Laden, although it will be decades, if not longer, before we know what kind of discussions took place between the White House and the CIA about Bin Laden's whereabouts. Instead he wanted to establish the US in the heart of the Middle East in Iraq. And he seems to have accepted the fiction that Pakistan was our ally against terror, in spite of overwhelming evidence that the Pakistanis had always supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and were sheltering Bin Laden on their own soil. Bush intervened in Pakistani politics, encouraging the resignation of Pervez Musharraf and thus the election of Benazir Bhutto, who was promptly assassinated. But he refused to face these elemental facts.
The killing of Bin Laden is welcome evidence that the United States can in fact carry out a major operation. I have felt both astonished and a bit humiliated, as an American, that a man who purposely killed 3000 random Americans has remained at large for so long. Capturing him would have been disastrous. Right wingers would have called for his torture to find out what he knew. (That is not a fantasy. No less a figure than Michael Scheuer, the retired former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit under Clinton and Bush, violently attacked President Obama for outlawing torture because it would, he thought, cripple us if Bin Laden were apprehended.) Terrorists around the world would have planned attacks to try to secure his release. Controversies would have erupted over a possible trial. I am opposed to capital punishment in domestic law, but Bin Laden had started a war with the US, and had to be killed. The outcome may even buy us some respect in the honor-based societies of the Middle East. (On the other hand, the immediate release of fragmentary information from his computer hard drive is extremely irresponsible.)
But what now? President Obama's next move will determine whether this marks the end of an era or not.
Voices on both sides of the aisle are now being raised calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The circumstances of his capture vindicate the arguments of many long-standing opponents of our surge there, including myself. Al Queda has not been living in Afghanistan; its leaders, including its founder, have been sheltered by nuclear-armed Pakistan. It is impossible to believe that elements of the Pakistani Army and government did not know where Bin Laden was hiding. As long as they can stay where they are, the Al Queda leaders will not be tempted to leave. And we have shown that we can find them and kill them in Pakistan--even in the interior of the country.
The question hanging over the affair is whether, in fact, Bin Laden's death resulted from some kind of US-Pakistani deal. I am not saying that it did; it is pure speculation on my part, prompted in part, I admit, by my own long-standing advocacy of such a deal. Pakistanis and at least one blogger for Le Monde have suggested that the US has promised to withdraw from Afghanistan in return for being tipped off as to Bin Laden's whereabouts. Of course both Americans and Pakistanis are denying any such thing, but that is what one would have to expect. In any case, with or without a deal, withdrawal would make sense. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain all have more strategic importance than Afghanistan--and they are now in flames. I am not suggesting that our troops should be redeployed into any of those countries. They must work out their own problems and the US must be prepared to live with any outcome. But these revolutions, to paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, give Afghanistan a chance to return to the obscurity it so richly deserves. Ambassador Ikenberry warned the Obama Administration in late 2009 that success would depend upon the performance of the Afghan government, which he did not trust. Everything that has happened since has vindicated his judgment. Even Mohammed Karzai himself is calling for fewer American troops and less American influence, just as Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu did in 1963. This time we should let the host government have its way.
President Obama could announce that we have discovered a successful counter-terrorism recipe, involving the use of intelligence and special operations. The next target should be the American-born Imam Anwar al Awlaki, said to be living in Yemen, who has directly inspired the Nigerian shoe-bomber, the Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and Major Nidal Hassan, who shot up his own Army base in Texas. Such operations are much more cost-effective than attempts to remake Islamic societies with the help of tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops. Once again the President has the chance to put a key aspect of the Bush era to an end. But will he take it?
I do not know, but one another straw in the wind suggests that he might. General David Petraeus is the face of the American Army's involvement in the Middle East. He took over the Iraq effort in 2007 because he was the only general who truly believed in it, and he scored a partial success. That earned him the CENTCOM command and then the command in Afghanistan. Now he is on his way to the CIA--and many senior army officers are well aware of the enormous strain the last ten years have put on their forces, and the meager results we have to show for it, especially in Afghanistan. His new job could represent an effort to put the counterterrorist mission where it belongs.
The President remains on the defensive regarding the budget, even though some signs now suggest that the Republicans have overplayed their hand once again. He has scored a dramatic success, but he needs to keep the political initiative. The country is surely as sick of Afghanistan as it was of Vietnam in 1970, when President Nixon finally agreed to serious drawdowns. We have the chance now to declare victory and begin coming home, and I hope we take it.