Intelligence work paid off, but needless wars drag on

May 03, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

Finally, mission accomplished: We got Osama bin Laden.

Americans cheered the news of the assassination of the world's most notorious terrorist. Others were compelled to return to the sadness and horror of the fateful day in September 2001 when bin Laden's most daring acts turned into one of the darkest days in our history. Some were simply relieved.

Americans can probably agree on the broader significance of finally locating and killing bin Laden.

For starters, it means that friends and family members of the Sept. 11 victims, and the victims of terrorist actions bin Laden helped fund and coordinate elsewhere across the globe, have now achieved some measure of justice. "My 12-year-old daughter will wake tomorrow to a safer world, hopefully a more peaceful world," wrote Kristen Breitweiser, one of the so-called "Jersey Girls" who lost their husbands on Sept 11. "And that brings me a rare sense of relief."

It means that all the time, money and risks the U.S. government and its military and intelligence agencies invested in finding and killing the al-Qaida leader finally paid off. "The raid was the culmination of intense and tireless effort on the part of many dedicated [Central Intelligence] Agency officers over many years," CIA director Leon Panetta said, in a prepared statement. "Our men and women designed highly complex, innovative, and forward-leaning clandestine operations that led us to bin Laden."

It means terrorists can run and even hide for long stretches — but not forever. "You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us, but you can make a choice to abandon al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful, political process," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

What the killing of bin Laden means for the future of American intelligence gathering or national security is not so clear.

For starters, bin Laden's death doesn't guarantee the end of al-Qaida. A cellular, amorphous and stateless organization like al-Qaida is not akin to humans or other mammals but is more like the hydra you learned about in biology class: Cut off parts, and it simply regenerates. So the misnamed "war on terror" (terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, and one cannot win a war against a tactic) is far from over. Indeed, there's a good chance that others seeking radical Islam's false martyrdom and 72 promised virgins may try to honor bin Laden and send the rest of the world a message by committing senseless acts in the coming days or weeks.

It doesn't mean we should keep using Guantanamo-style detention techniques — but it doesn't mean we should abandon them, either. Initial reports indicate that some of the intelligence used to track down bin Laden was wrested four years ago from a suspected terrorist detained at Guantanamo. American ideals are compromised when we torture or imprison people indefinitely without trial, or detain innocents who are accidentally rounded up with the guilty. Because actionable intelligence is vital to our security, however, we have to find ways to collect information without sacrificing our ideals.

Nor is the assassination of bin Laden a reason for America to discontinue its military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, the reasons for ending those wars, just like the reasons for starting them, are mostly unconnected to the actions in life and now death of a single man. We should have brought all but regional security units and humanitarian personnel home from both countries long ago.

Finally, in domestic political terms, the assassination of bin Laden on Barack Obama's watch doesn't ensure the president's re-election, but it sure doesn't hurt. If the field of potential Republican challengers prior to Sunday night seemed like a mixed bag of has-beens (former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum), wannabes ("10 Commandments judge" Roy Moore) and conspiracy nuts (Donald Trump), the incentives for more serious candidates to invest the time and money to run against an incumbent who killed Global Public Enemy No. 1 surely decreased.

Mr. Obama's Sunday night announcement was understated. The president didn't land on an aircraft carrier in a flight jumpsuit or deploy a giant banner as backdrop to prematurely proclaim a victory that, eight years later, still hasn't been won. Some missions are best accomplished without bombs, best announced without bombast.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His email is schaller67@gmail.com.

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