The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

First Reactions to the Big News, Steve’s turn

May 2, 2011

There will be a lot of time to think about Bin Laden’s death, but I thought I would add a few quick thoughts while I catch up on the coverage online.  There are a bunch of surprises and non-surprises.

First, in retrospect, the non-surprises are:

  • Seal Team 6 (the super-special operations forces) did the job, not a drone.  This is not a surprise, because the US always wanted to have complete proof that it was Bin Laden and that he was dead.  A drone cannot do that…. yet.
  • That the US took the shot.  Yes, there are tradeoffs involved, especially backlash against the US and within Pakistan, but this is one campaign promise that Obama had to fulfill if he had the chance.  More importantly, the whole “US is a superpower but cannot find one guy” impotency tale had to end if possible.  Done.
  • That Pakistan* played a mixed role in this, perhaps helping at the end, but very clearly providing some support (by individual government officials certainly, by the government itself who knows) to Bin Laden during his years of hiding. 

*  This might alter the results of my amateur survey of who is America’s worst ally.  It also puts into perspective the recent visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, who was very critical of the Pakistanis.

  • That the speech was delayed an hour.  Sure, they had months and months to plan the op, so they could have spent months planning the speech, but the secret was tightly held (see below), plus word-smithing is a DC disease.  My minor memos got vetted to death and those were small stakes.  I can only imagine how many people were looking over the shoulders of the speechwriters–who did a nice job.
  • Osama was with his youngest wife.  Well, duh.
  • Burial at sea.  What other choice was there?  Take him to the US?  Afghanistan?  Create a location for folks to use as a rallying point?  Quick burial according to Islamic (and Jewish) tradition meant that they could not spend lots of timing figuring this out.  Will, of course, raise questions about whether he is dead, whether he was assassinated, etc, but smarter people than me spent months thinking about this, and it was probably the least bad choice. [Update: US apparently asked Saudis, they said “no thanks”]
  • That the mission ended with Osama dead.  He had sworn he would fight to his death.  I also would not be surprised if the troops were ordered to kill on sight, given that a captured Osama would have been far more complicated.

Second, the surprises:

  • That Bin Laden was hiding in a pretty fancy place (not a mansion but an Mc-Mansion perhaps) in the suburbs of a major city.  This is not entirely surprising since it is easier to hide in a crowd than by oneself. But it seems that the elaborate hiding place gave him away.  Indeed, more proof for the “Normal Accidents” approach–the multiplicity of tactics to hide Bin Laden (big walls, no internet, etc) ended up undermining the effort. 
  • That the US government kept the secret for so very long.  No leaks at all.  Nice to see that the US can work together when the stakes are super-high.  Still, this is very striking.  There is even a great pic of Obama laughing while Seth Meyers was joking about finding Bin Laden–when the choppers must have been on the way or just about to be.  Obama definitely was very busy in the public eye in the days leading up to this–the WH correspondent’s dinner, going to Alabama to see the tornado damage, going to the Shuttle launch (which was delayed)–doing a very good job of not tipping his hand.

What does this mean?  For the US?  For Pakistan?  For Afghanistan?  For the Arab Spring?  No one knows.  Lots of wild speculation to come (and not just from me–Charli got here first!).

There will be some complaints about the Americans cheering a death, but that is pretty lame given how much Bin Laden and his pals did of this cheering for much less precise attacks on far less guilty folks.  The man declared himself to be a mortal enemy of the US.  Of course, he proved he was exactly that yesterday–mortal.  I liked that Obama pointed out that Bin Laden was a murder of Muslims.  Indeed, combining the totals of the folks killed in AQ attacks over the years with OBL’s indirect responsibility* for those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, that is a lot of blood.  Not Hitler-esque, but still awful no matter how you count it.

*  By all accounts, Bin Laden wanted the 9/11 attack to trigger an American war in Afghanistan.  It is also pretty clear that attack made it far easier for the Bush Administration to launch the Iraq invasion–note, no real planning of that war until after 9/11.

These are just the first few thoughts I have.  I am sure that we will all be thinking about this for a while.  Your thoughts are most welcome.

website | + posts

Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.