By Jacob Heilbrunn | May 25, 2011
Better late than never: thanks to the audacity of President Obama, who accomplished what George W. Bush could have back at Tora Bora in 2001, bin Laden has been condignly dumped into the ocean. His death has sent many Europeans into fresh spasms of moral superiority, prompting them to allege that America committed a war crime in polishing off the would-be Mr. Big of international terrorism. A Hamburg judge has even launched a criminal complaint against Chancellor Angela Merkel for having the temerity to announce that she was “glad” that he was dead. Meanwhile, America’s friends in Pakistan turn out to have been harboring its greatest enemy—and al-Qaeda has been thrown into turmoil.
Surely it’s time, then, to take a fresh look at the War on Terror? The fervor with which the claque of Bush supporters are championing torture and waterboarding as the true keys to the death of bin Laden suggests that they know the jig is up. The War on Terror, that ungainly phrase, has always been about the domestic as much as the foreign-policy front. The Bush administration deployed it to try to bludgeon the public into submission—the terror alerts, the warnings to the press to fall in line, and so on.
Now neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz are championing “the virtues of boldness”—more wars. Instead, Obama’s defanging of Al Qaeda—for that is what he may accomplish with the capture of information from bin Laden’s hideout—should signify a return to normalcy. No, terrorism won’t disappear. But a more sober, judicious approach, one that shuns the chest-thumping, the empty bluff and bombast of the Bush era, is clearly what Obama is pursuing.
He set the right tone with his restrained announcement of bin Laden’s demise. Refusing to release photos was sensible as well. The videos of a narcissistic bin Laden watching himself on television do far more to puncture the myth of the sage and virtuous leader than any photo of his death could achieve. Indeed, as the Arab Spring turns into summer, bin Laden is being revealed for what he was—a deluded windbag, droning on about the return of the medieval Caliphate.
Obama’s mission will now be to stay out of the way. He needs, and wants, to extricate America from Afghanistan. So he will press Pakistan to cooperate in Afghanistan. The loss of bin Laden is a catastrophe for Pakistan, which has been extorting billions from America. Now Islamabad has lost its trump card. And Obama has won breathing space from the welter of charges that he lacks the cojones to battle the bad guys.
Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at The National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.