President Obama’s shocking May Day announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed and his body captured promises to usher in a new era of U.S. foreign and domestic policies alike. But what will this portend in actual practice? The implications for the future are potentially staggering in their full import, and they turn initially on how this seminal event will undoubtedly be used to justify U.S. policies that have defined the recent past.
In his announcement, President Obama demonstrated how different he is in temperament (if not policy making) from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Coming eight years to the day after the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech -- and, coincidentally, falling on the 66th anniversary of the announcement of Hitler’s death -- Obama’s rendering contained none of the misplaced bravado (“Bring It On”) or glorification of misery (“We Got Him!”) that defined the previous administration. Instead, the President spoke in measured terms about justice, courage, and American resolve in the face of grave challenges.
Still, despite his deliberate tone, Obama’s words are especially notable for their explicit vindication of the military operations of the past decade. Overtly citing the war in Afghanistan and the practices of the global intelligence apparatus as primary drivers of this potential closure event, the President has put his stamp of approval on the circuitous post-9/11 course of action that brought us here. Taking this further, the post-speech media spin implicitly extends his logic to validate tactics such as drone strikes and undeclared military incursions that have placed the U.S. in ethically murky waters while waging the War on Terror around the world.
Wearing his flag pin, President Obama invoked the legacy of Bush-era initiatives aimed at “winning” the war, and perhaps most poignantly, drew our focus back to the events of 9/11 as the impetus for this decade-long struggle that has now at least partly been brought to fruition. Yet Obama was equally clear that this is not the end of the conflict and that “the cause of securing our country is not complete,” reminding us that we must “remain vigilant at home and abroad” since “there’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.”
Make no mistake, this announcement signals a clear intention to vindicate the decisions of the past decade and continue on a similar course going forward. As if to affirm this historical eventuality, the media’s immediate focus on the spontaneous demonstrations of patriotic fervor that have sprung up with echoes of “USA, USA” brings us right back to those fateful September days in 2001. The tenor of these public celebratory gatherings, and the content of the President’s announcement, convey a strong sentiment that the last decade’s wars have been worth it, and likewise that the extraordinary security measures here at home have been equally successful.
On some level, the death of a single individual is essentially being heralded as a justification for the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands (a figure largely comprised of civilians) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It remedies all legal and moral defects attendant to the use of “enhanced interrogations” and “extraordinary renditions.” It clears the ledgers on the trillions of dollars spent to undertake these efforts for nearly ten years. It squelches dissent on Patriot Act policies and the Homeland Security apparatus. And, most appreciably, it retroactively validates the Bush Administration’s open-ended waging of global warfare.
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The reality of this retrospective confirmation will have serious implications for the near future. Undoubtedly, debates about the wisdom of military operations (wherever we are deploying them) will be tamped down, and attempts to rein in military spending will likewise be muted. Security at home will be amped up for a while in an abundance of caution over potential retaliatory attacks by al Qaeda, and (assuming none are forthcoming) soon after will slip back to the “new normal” we’ve been experiencing -- with nary a complaint in the public discourse.
Significantly, President Obama will appear eminently presidential, and even his most ardent critics will deem him praiseworthy. Americans will unite in a renewed spirit, and the stalled economic recovery will receive a shot in the arm from this moment of national buoyancy. Just as the First Gulf War was said to have dispelled the military malaise of Vietnam, this episode will go a long way toward abating the war-weariness of the post-9/11 era. American exceptionalism will be reinvigorated both as a political mandate and a psychological phenomenon, as the world is reminded that the U.S. makes good on its threats and, in the end, keeps its promises.
People will celebrate this moment in many quarters, perhaps as they did to an extent on VE Day and VJ Day (yes, Americans cheered the use of atomic weapons on civilians in Japan and the carpet-bombing of Dresden as tools of “winning” World War II). In this case, we are not likely to be offered such a strong sense of closure; rather, this will be a boost to a flagging effort and a likely enabler of its aggressive continuance. Where will the next front be in this generational war? Who will be the next bogeyman, the “face of evil” that galvanizes American fears and determination alike? With all that is at stake -- politically, economically, ideologically -- the one thing we can be reasonably assured of is that the present paradigm will continue in full force.
I would very much like to report the opposite. By cutting off the head of al Qaeda, and with due regard to the pro-democracy surge of the Arab Spring, the era of perpetual warfare could be supplanted by a period of unprecedented peace. America might slowly draw down its military operations, and redirect vast resources to education and opportunity for oppressed peoples in the Middle East and here at home alike. President Obama may finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize, and concomitantly help move the country from the near-ruination of a war economy to the stable prosperity of a long-awaited peace dividend. Renewed American pride could obviate the need for ever-expanding security schemes and incursions into liberty, as people are again seen as “good.”
It could still happen this way, but it will take more than the death of one individual -- no matter his iconic stature as evil incarnate -- to somehow countermand the events and roll back the ethos of recent years. However it breaks in the days ahead, one thing is paradoxically certain: we will continue to find ourselves living in decidedly uncertain times.