May 02, 2011

How Much Does Osama’s Death Matter?

The effects of Bin Laden's death on Al Qaeda and the Middle East will be profound, but the most surprising could be in Washington. 

In war, the issue of morale is critical. To break the enemy is to break his morale. The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Operations Forces in a firefight north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad delivered a pivotal boost to American morale and a blow to the morale of al Qaeda, with repercussions that are being felt worldwide. Bin Laden did not mysteriously fade into oblivion, simply never to be heard from again, fueling conjecture about his fate, and thus giving hope to the radicalized Sunni Muslim faithful; nor did he die a natural death. He was hunted down and killed. This fact cannot be overestimated. The following number among the salutary results.

President Barack Obama has proved for evermore that Democrats are a party of national security: This is good for his re-election prospects, but, more importantly, healthy for American democracy. The country has thus returned to the pre-George McGovern Cold War-era in which national security was less of a partisan issue because both parties were perceived to be good at it. And now with deeply symbolic national security credentials, it will be easier politically for Obama to cut the defense budget -- something which needs to be done.

While in the short run there may be greater tensions with Pakistan, this might structurally ease the relationship. The United States never demanded a fundamental shift in how Pakistan does business -- only more assistance in some key specific areas, such as the hunt for high-value targets of al Qaeda. Now that the most important of these high-value targets has been killed -- with the possible connivance of the Pakistani authorities -- the relationship gains the possibility to normalize. A looser relationship with Pakistan could actually be healthier for both countries. Tangentially, it should be easier to deliver up intelligence assets in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Taliban accomplice Mullah Omar.

The killing of Bin Laden also boosts American prestige in Afghanistan, perhaps giving the Taliban a greater incentive to make a deal with the government in Kabul. At the same time, it makes it possible for America to substantially draw-down troops in 2014 while claiming victory in the war on terror. The war will go on, to be sure, in far-flung places like Yemen and Somalia, where al Qaeda has spawned franchises. But the morale of those franchises themselves will suffer from the death of their leader.

Albeit indirectly, bin Laden's death will help the struggle for democracy in the Middle East, as it has delivered such a symbolic morale blow to extremism. The struggle for better governance in the Middle East will be slow and tumultuous, with periodic bouts of chaos here and there. But the combination of revolts against calcified tyrannical regime and the killing of al Qaeda's No. 1 has to augur well for the region. Also, this is bad news for Hamas and the aspirations for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, which, while not affiliated with al Qaeda, benefitted from its example of challenging the West. Al Qaeda was already weakened by the democratic uprisings across the Arab World; now it is weaker still.

Bin Laden's death is part of the process of healing the instability and extremism that, because it has so plagued the Middle East, has drawn American troops into the region. Likewise, it now helps the process -- which is part of Obama's grand strategy -- of shifting American attention somewhat to East Asia in the long run, which is developing as the real center of the world economy and naval-maritime activity. Take a step back and think for a moment:

Obama has substantially withdrawn from Iraq, positioned America for a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, avoided war with Iran (even as industrial espionage slows Tehran's drive for nuclear weapons), and overseen a more vigorous and creative foreign policy towards East Asia than did President George W. Bush, particularly in the way that he has reassured our allies in the South China Sea. Yes, there is uncertainty surrounding Libya -- but without boots on the ground there, a quagmire is unlikely. Thus, despite all the criticism he gets from the elite, this could well end up as the most competent foreign policy administration since President George H. W. Bush.