Osama and Obama: Turning the Page?

The reported killing earlier today of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is unlikely to prove a game changer for American foreign policy. Secretary Clinton has already suggested as much – the war on terror will continue unabated. Careers, promotions, budgets and bonuses depend on it.

I believe such a commitment to be both hasty and unfortunate, especially given the unmitigated disaster which the current course has visited upon the USA and the world since 9/11. That said, the death of “The Sheik”, the spiritual head of a loose federation of jihadi extremist groups affiliated worldwide under the ideological banner of the Al Qaeda franchise, does raise a series of other critical questions and issues.

A few key considerations include:

Justice and the rule of law: Assassination is not the equivalent of being “brought to justice”; this action seems predicated instead upon subscription to something like the Old Testament ethic of “an eye for an eye”. Does this not illustrate mainly the law of the jungle, and underscore the observation that notwithstanding the core values enshrined in the UN Charter and other international laws and conventions, in contemporary international relations there exists a highly asymmetrical relationship between the “rule makers” and “rule takers”? Could, or should Osama have been apprehended and tried in open court for his crimes?

Sovereignty: Pakistan’s  sovereignty and independence, already fragile if not failed, have been publically violated – shredded – by this attack. Local authorities were apparently not informed in advance of the operation – a decision which speaks volumes about confidence and trust. With the existing unpopularity of the drone attacks, will there be an anti-US backlash? Could such a thing ever be imagined to happen in the USA, or, for that matter, almost anywhere else?

Complicity: Osama was living very near the capital in a secure area and right under the noses of Pakistan’s rulers. What did senior figures in the USA’s front line ally in the war on terror know about Osama and his location in the midst of a colonial-era military cantonment? What does this mean for the future of US aid to Pakistan?

War in Afghanistan: Conflating internationalist Al Qaeda with the nationalist Taliban long after Al Qaeda had been driven from their Afghan sanctuaries has proven a costly tactical and strategic miscalculation, not unlike the blowback associated with the creation of the Mujahedeen. Might this incident provide the stimulus for long overdue, all party negotiations and the beginning of a NATO drawdown?

Political change: The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were largely secular and non-violent, with little obvious influence demonstrated either by Al Qaeda or more moderate Islamist groups. Even the stalemated civil war in Libya and the unrest in Yemen and Bahrain have not been overtly religious in character. Will this event burnish Al Qaeda’s flagging image and reputation and thus support recruitment efforts? Or, by eliminating the charismatic and ideological leadership, will Osama’s death force the movement further into the fringes?

Threat conjuring:  When the Soviet Union imploded, business was bad for the special interests who benefit from the militarization of international policy. At several points in the 1990s it actually looked as if a peace dividend might be paid.  Post 9/11, terrorism was elevated to the status of primary threat, the Islamists made to stand in for the Communists and the Long War was substituted for the Cold War. Just as Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, and various others were all thrown into the same bin and labelled as the “Red Menace”, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, and many other groups have been branded as “terrorists” and all lumped together. If Al Qaeda has been dealt a body blow, to whom, or to where will the threat conjurers turn next?

Osama and Obama: The fate of these two figures has become ironically intertwined. Will Osama’s stature and appeal benefit from his martyrdom and stimulate revenge attacks, or instead continue to fade into obscurity, as had been happening before his execution? If the former, this act may presage another signal misjudgement. For his part, and alternatively, could Obama use this development to find the will to return to the course of dialogue and engagement charted in his Cairo speech?

In Guerrilla Diplomacy, I argue that religious extremism and political violence are borne of the anger and resentment bred by severe underdevelopment and chronic insecurity. Even at that, compared to the host of issues which really imperil the planet – most rooted in science and driven by technology – I maintain that terrorism does not make the A-list. My suggestion for dealing with Al Qaeda was to use patient police and intelligence work to pursue the criminals, while mobilizing new media expertise and public relations acumen to spoil the militant Islamist brand.

In that regard, it remains far from clear whether or not the killing of Osama Bin Laden will create an opening for diplomacy and the remedial re-allocation of scarce resources, or make matters worse rather than better.

Next? Coming soon to a screen near you… conspiracy theories.