As Osama bin Laden’s story has come to a much-deserved end, it’s only human to view it as a relief, a moment of closure, even victory. But it’s more complicated than that. The last decade has changed America profoundly, and we continue to evolve in how we deal with the most dangerous parts of the planet.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in a state of national shock, we took big, sweeping actions: We invaded Afghanistan, on the hunt for bin Laden; in the confusion, we gave out tax breaks to rich Americans; we created new bureaucracies, like the Department of Homeland Security; we borrowed money from China to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. If bin Laden’s plan was to bankrupt America, we played right along.
So we’ve tried the big, expensive, land-invasion version of worldfixing, and it turned out to be messy, often ineffective, and, ultimately, something we simply can’t afford. But eventually we learned the contours of the field of battle, and our approach evolved. We went surgical, with small teams taking out terrorist targets — sometimes via unmanned Predator drones, sometimes via Navy SEALS. We got back to shoe-leather police work to find the people who sucker-punched us. We got smarter, and that’s how we got bin Laden.
Something else happened, too — the Muslim world abandoned bin Laden. Most were appalled by his murderous ways, but even hardcore followers found his path to be just another dead end. The problems in the Middle East, we have learned in the recent uprisings, are hardly unique — lack of economic opportunity, parasitic governments. Today, Muslims want jobs, not jihad.
Earlier this year, when we pulled our support from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and threw it behind the reformers, it marked a major turning point in our foreign policy. Again, we learned from the past and took a smarter approach to the region. Winning hearts and minds is the only way to create lasting stability.
There’s a wicked twist to bin Laden’s demise. It’s like a cop-buddy movie where one of the partners was the killer all along. In our case, it turns out our partner — Pakistan, or significant elements inside Pakistan — has been harboring bin Laden all along. But what will keep our diplomats, soldiers and spies up at night is this chilling fact: Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
No, this struggle isn’t over, but the playing field is fundamentally different now. The last 10 years have been tragic, but at least they’ve prepared us for the next 10.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.