I was resting on my couch late Sunday night, doing something utterly forgettable and reveling in the great victory of one American-owned British soccer team over another American-owned British soccer team, when my friend texted me the news: Osama bin Laden was dead. Never far from a live laptop, I grabbed mine and came here to the Tatler and saw that Ed Driscoll and Austin Bay were already on the story. Drudge had posted a photo of the terrorist upside down, with a suitably red headline. Flipping on Fox, there was Geraldo saying mostly silly things while he waited for the president’s remarks. Well, it all did look legit. But after all these years, could it really be possible?
Personally, I’d considered OBL to be dead after a raid in Afghanistan in early 2002 that reportedly obliterated a very tall man at a known terrorist compound. But then around the 2004 election, OBL released a video in which he commented on events in ways that amounted to a proof of life. After that, mostly silence while other terror mouthpieces from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Anwar al-Awlaki did all the al Qaeda PR. Bin Laden was mostly their silent partner. We would hear about the latest al Qaeda reaction to the news from Zawahiri, and the latest call for blood from al-Awlaki. Not much from OBL himself. The deaths of Zarqawi and Saddam punctuated the war, and the surge eventually won Iraq while Afghanistan continued to be a demoralizing morass.
And now weirdbeard is dead, thanks to a sound decision to go after him based on actionable intelligence gleaned over the course of the past few months. OBL’s demise is a great day for America, no doubt about that, and President Obama deserves credit for authorizing the raid that got him while the Navy SEALS deserve a place as heroes of American history.
Overall bin Laden’s death doesn’t change the reality that Islamic terrorism springs not from a man or a single group of them, but from an ideology that has been around for a very long time and bases its thinking directly on the Koran, and in the 21st century has access to technology and global openness that it twists into tools of mass murder. That won’t change. But terrorists do now have to consider the old strong horse-weak horse calculus and realize that while America may not always be the fast horse, we are the strong one, and if you attack us we will hunt you down no matter where you are. As it turned out, we had to hunt down OBL just a few miles down the street from Pakistan’s version of West Point, and a few blocks from the local police station. There should and will be many questions about that. There is simply no way the Pakistanis are that incompetent; someone in their military knew bin Laden was there.
There are a couple of points worth noting in all the celebrations. In the days after 9-11, the U.S. administration made a fateful decision in how it would treat captured terrorists. A debate flared up shortly after 9-11 as to whether the attacks constituted acts of war or not. That was not an academic debate: If they were acts of war, the Geneva Convention’s boundaries regarding legal and illegal combatants applied; if they weren’t acts of war, then any captured terrorists would essentially fall under the Miranda standard.
Many voices on the Western left argued that we should prosecute any action against al Qaeda as if it were merely a crime, as the Clinton administration had tended to treat al Qaeda attacks that occurred on its watch. President Bush’s team swiftly rejected that, characterized 9-11 as an act of war, and made the decision to detain captured terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for security as well as legal reasons. The administration further designated captured terrorists as illegal enemy combatants, which subjected them to military tribunals rather than ordinary civilian trials. And the administration ruled that captured terrorists must be interrogated, both to prevent future attacks and so that American forces might unravel their global terror networks. We needed to know everything, all of the unknown unknowns as then Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld might have put it: how they communicated, how they were financed, where they had cells and what their plans were and who was who in the command structure and out in the field. We knew too little on 9-11 and had to study up fast.
Stories emerging about the mission that got bin Laden point very clearly that the early decision to capture and interrogate al Qaeda terrorists paid dividends in intelligence over the years. Captured terrorists broke and spilled information about details large and small, among them the name of bin Laden’s favorite personal courier. That was important because OBL’s Abbottabad compound had no phones or internet connection. He had to rely on personal messengers, and having found his, U.S. forces could find him. It is also now beyond debate that taking the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan was the right thing to do, and staying there enabled our forces to fly in and kill the terrorist. Had our forces not been basing in Afghanistan, they might have had no place from which to move in and get the kill.
President Bush took a great deal of criticism from many quarters, including the current president, for the decisions regarding captured terrorists. He was dubbed a “war criminal,” a designation many on the left hesitated to place on the author of 9-11 itself. But it was his decision to treat them as illegal enemy combatants, and it was a decision for which he weathered a storm of criticism. And now we know, it was a decision that set America on the course to get bin Laden.
So while President Obama rightly gets some credit for authorizing the raid, we should remember that he was a leading critic of the difficult decisions that led to the intelligence that made the raid possible. We should remember to thank the president who withstood the critics because he knew his actions were taken in America’s interests. The nation owes both our 44th and 43rd presidents our thanks today.
Personally, I’ll “blame” Bush this time, and eagerly await the movie version of the raid. It will make a perfect counterpoint to Black Hawk Down.