After Bin Laden, Two Comforting Narratives Make America Seem Great

David Szydloski

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It is cold comfort that Osama bin Laden has been killed, all things considered. After 10 years, hundreds of billions of dollars (at least) spent on "War on Terror" expenditures, thousands of U.S. lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, and expansion of U.S. military involvement in Libya and Yemen, even those inclined to rejoice in his death have to wonder: Was this pay-off worth all the lost lives and treasure?In trying to come to terms with this big question, two separate lines of argument have crept into discussions of Bin Laden's death, both of them comforting but problematic interpretations of recent history.1) The Arab Spring repudiates Osama bin Laden’s violence!Many commentators juxtapose the democratic protests across the Middle East this spring with news of Bin Laden’s death. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's May 3 article, "Farewell Geronimo," is typical of this approach:There is only one good thing about the fact that Osama bin Laden survived for nearly 10 years after the mass murder at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that he organized. And that is that he lived long enough to see so many young Arabs repudiate his ideology. I will certainly not contest the fact that the people involved in the Arab Spring uprisings did not subscribe to the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam which was central to Bin Laden’s political project. Nor were they involved with al-Qaeda in any way. My problem is that this line of reasoning presents peaceful democratic struggle as if it had never occurred before in the Arab world, ignoring the history of struggle for self-determination by citizens in this region which have been too frequently frustrated by the United States or its allies.We must not forget how the administration waited to support protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square until after it was apparent that the people were winning the struggle. Nor should we forget the repression of Bahraini protesters by their government with help from Saudi Arabia, a regional ally, or the American support for Ghaddafi’s regime prior to Operation Odyssey Dawn.If we really want to seriously engage the meaning of recent events in the Middle East, we must realize that the Arab Spring is just as much of a repudiation of U.S. foreign policy as it is that of the terror of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Also, it should be mentioned that some forms of the “Arab Spring v. Bin Laden” argument contain a patronizing—if not outright racist—view that Arabs have (finally) learned the folly of their violent ways and are now are learning to deal with their problems peacefully.2) Now that Osama’s dead, we can leave Afghanistan!The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a May 3 hearing titled, “Afghanistan: What is an Acceptable End-State and How Do We Get There?” Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) opined during opening remarks that “it’s extremely difficult to conclude that our vast expenditures in Afghanistan represent a rational” strategy.At the same hearing, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argued that the war in Afghanistan had changed from a necessary war against the Taliban and its support for global terrorism to a “war of choice” because of the “near elimination” of al-Qaeda and the viability of other counter-terror policy options. Currently, our war of choice finds us taking sides in an Afghan civil war, Haass argues, and spending money we don’t have for little benefit. As Haass says, “Afghanistan is a strategic distraction, pure and simple.”But how do the conditions Haass describes differ from those at the beginning of the war? In 2001, we chose to take sides in an Afghan civil war when we supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The region is still a hotbed of terrorist activity and, as Haass himself admits, it is very likely that Afghan security forces will not have adequate numbers or training by 2014 2011 (the year Obama has pegged for beginning a troop drawdown) to combat a resurgent Taliban in the immediate future. Of course, the U.S. and allied troops have killed many al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. But we are left, again, asking if that justifies an invasion that has cost us so much.The words of Lugar and Haass are bittersweet vindication of what war opponents have been saying for a long time. But what do those same words say to the millions of people who have been killed or permanently scarred by the war, directly or indirectly, military or civilian? Arguments to withdraw after the death of Bin Laden—however correct—ought to reveal the tenuous arguments for starting the war in the first place.Correction: In the original version of this article, I indicated that 2014 was the year President Obama wanted to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. In fact, the President has said he hopes to begin the drawdown in 2011.

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