America has been celebrating the killing of Osama Bin Laden. And much of the western world has cheered in sympathy. But the deadly assault by American Special Forces on the Al Qaida leader in his Pakistani hide-out was not simply an act of revenge, although all the sweeter for having been longed for and plotted for a decade. It should not be seen as a mere settling of accounts with a man responsible, in US President Barack Obama’s words, for ‘the worst attack in American history.’
Bin Laden was feared and detested because he struck a blow at American self-esteem. With the devastating attacks of 9/11, he had dared to carry the war into America’s heartland, puncturing its view of itself as an exceptional nation, favoured above all others. His killing will serve to wash clean that terrible moment of national humiliation. The death-feud is over. Americans will have a sense of awakening from a nightmare. They will be able to renew their faith in their country’s greatness.
In the jungle of international power politics there is no joy to match that of the demise of an iconic enemy. Americans will rejoice at his death, but will that be the end of the story? That remains to be seen.
There is little doubt that Obama’s stature will be boosted by Bin Laden’s demise. He will at last be seen by ordinary Americans as a strong and effective commander-in-chief dedicated to ensuring American security. His chance of re-election in 2012 will be enhanced. As a result, there will be much gnashing of teeth in the Republican camp.
Yet, in announcing the news to America and the world, Obama was careful not to gloat, as his predecessor George W. Bush might well have done had the killing taken place under his watch. Instead, he was sobriety itself. No one is more acutely aware that the war against Islamist militancy cannot be won by military means alone.
America, Obama was careful to stress, is not at war with Islam. Obama seems to be trapped between his personal convictions and the electoral necessities of American politics. Instead of acting resolutely in his first years in office to defuse Arab and Muslim anger at American policies, he has bowed to domestic pressures from the US Congress, from Bush-era neo-conservatives whose influence still reaches deep inside the Administration, from powerful pro-Israeli lobbies and their affiliated think-tanks, and from an increasingly right-wing and Islamophobic American public. If anything, America under Obama has waged war more ferociously than ever against radical Islamist groups.
Will the elimination of Bin Laden put an end to Islamist militancy? This is unlikely. It would seem that in recent years, Bin Laden has been less of an operational commander, sending militants to attack American targets across the world, and more of a symbol of Islamist resistance, making occasional speeches from what looked like semi-retirement. His message has been ‘franchised’ to far-flung militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, in the Saharan borderlands of North Africa and elsewhere.
Yet Bin Laden’s death could provide Obama with a unique opportunity to revise and correct some aspects of American foreign policy. Bush’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) could at last be put officially to rest. Obama could proclaim victory over Al Qaida, announce a ceasefire in Afghanistan, followed by a speedy withdrawal of US and allied troops from that war-ravaged country.
The Taliban and other militant groups, which the US and its allies have been fighting for a decade, at great cost in men and treasure, had at one time hosted and protected Al Qaida. But they are not Al Qaida and should not be confused with it. The Taliban are not international terrorists. They are an essentially Pashtun tribal resistance movement fighting foreign occupation.
The US should seize upon the death of Bin Laden to promote urgent peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership. At the same time, drone attacks against militants in Pakistan, which destabilise the country and arouse fierce anti-American sentiment, should be halted.
There remains the unresolved Arab-Israel conflict which has long been a major cause of Muslim and Arab hostility to the US, and to the West in general. Will Obama’s new stature and authority, earned from the elimination of Bin Laden, give him the political muscle he needs to deal with Israel’s far right government? Nothing is less certain.
Instead of welcoming the recent reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas as a major step towards Israeli negotiations with a united Palestinian movement, the US has followed Israel’s lead in condemning it. Israel wants to divide the Palestinians precisely in order to avoid negotiations.
The democratic wave sweeping across the Arab world will not tolerate American complicity in Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinians. Egypt’s new leadership has already urged the US to recognise Palestinian statehood and has announced that it will break the cruel siege of Gaza by opening the Rafah crossing on a permanent basis.
If the US is to salvage its battered image in the Arab and Muslim world it must heed the new trend in the region. The killing of Bin Laden may give American opinion a moment of triumphalism, but it needs to be followed by a major re-think of American policies. Only then will Americans be safe.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.