The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Thoughts on Bin Laden, #47

May 4, 2011

I’ll make it quick.

1. He’s dead. But that won’t stop the vast, academic industry around this war. We academics really have done very well out of the war on terror for the most part. We have a strong professional interest in not facing up to the raw strategic reality, that Al Qaeda has become largely a third-order nuisance, dangerous but mainly in terms of baiting us to do stupid things, and a diversion from much more difficult and serious stuff, like the vast imbalance between our power, resources and commitments, the near collapse of our financial system (September 2008, as well as 2001, is a critical date), the overloading of the planet with people competing for dwindling resources, the fact we still have hair-trigger nuclear weapons systems and false alarms and close calls, and that not so long ago, Boris Yeltsin had the nuclear briefcase before him as he decided whether to launch a nuclear attack in response to a Norwegian weather rocket mistaken for an incoming attack. No, an endless war on terror and a ‘global counterinsurgency’ lets us opine about such ticklish subjects as sectarian hatred, multiculturalism, alienated young men, globalisation, nationbuilding, etc etc and a whole network of institutions and careers built on it.

2. For just a small example, I remember arguing with a member of an ‘insurgency’ study group in a prominent university. When I made the blunt point that AQ attacks against us of any significance have been so rare and mainly incompetent that most of us are in more danger of falling of a ladder, he had the wit to reply that there was a broader ‘insurgency’ underway. It was manifest not only in violent militancy (silly me), but in the eccentric opinions of teenagers in chat-rooms getting excited about a Caliphate, and even in the demands of some folk for Sharia Law. He had expanded insurgency to encompass the holding of any subversive idea. A touch authoritarian, perhaps. When I asked him whether the Archbishop of Canterbury was an insurgent because of his mild belief in some kind of legal pluralism in the UK, the verdict was that he was a ‘useful idiot.’ A professional expert on insurgency finding insurgencies everywhere? Follow the money.

3.  On the death celebrations: I can’t agree with some folk here that the celebrations mark some kind of fundamental and scary brutalising of American civic life, like torture did, for example. Most folk haven’t taken to the streets to join in the party. Bin Laden declared war on the US and killed thousands of Americans, and if it is unappetising or unsavoury that some people have celebrated a little loudly, that is surely forgivable. Revenge and reprisal is part of our human condition, no matter how much we sublimate it into concepts like ‘justice’, even if we should work harder to civilise that urge. That terrorism against us is partly caused by the longing for vengeance because of ‘legitimate grievances’ is something academics argue for and sometimes sympathise with. Surely the fact that we might respond emotionally and vulgarly because of our legitimate grievances too deserves some sympathy?  In most societies across space and time, the news that a murderous enemy of the state has been killed is an occasion to be glad, even to rejoice. To condemn Americans, or Britons, or Westerners for failing to be exceptional and infinitely merciful and dignified is to apply a fictitious and narcissistic standard. Men and women are not angels.

4. I do hope the Obama Administration ends up revealing a photo of some kind. Rumours over the next ten years that Osama is somewhere in a retirement home playing backgammon with Elvis could be too much to take.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.