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After OBL

May 3rd, 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden has inevitably produced a gigantic volume of instant reactions, to which I’m going to add. Doubtless I’m repeating what others have said somewhere, but it seems to me that most of the commentary has understated the likely impact, particularly as regard US politics. That impact is by no means all favorable – while the Republicans are the big losers, Obama will also be strengthened as against his critics on the left, among whom I’d include myself (admittedly as a citizen of a client state rather than the US proper).


Looking first at the impact on the Islamic world, I don’t differ much from what I see as the conventional wisdom – Al Qaeda was already struggling for relevance in the light of the democratic upsurge in North Africa and the Middle East, and the death of bin Laden will weaken them further, even if they manage some terror attacks in reprisal[1].

As regards the political impact in the US, comparisons to GHWB and Gulf War I are beside the point. Hardly anyone in the US cared about Saddam or Kuwait before his invasion, and most of them promptly forgot about them once the cheering died down after Desert Storm. Even in GW2, it was clear that Saddam was just another nasty dictator of whom the Bush Administration had decided to make an example. By contrast, bin Laden was unsurprisingly, the object of more national fear and hatred than any figure since Hitler or Stalin.

Equally importantly, bin Laden and 9/11 were central to a Republican narrative about foreign policy as a crusade against Islamofascism and its liberal dupes/fellow-travellers/ineffectual resisters that has now collapsed almost completely. The story had been unravelling ever since the Iraq/WMD fiasco, but the contingent fact[2] that Obama has succeeded where Bush  failed has left the Republicans with almost nothing to say on an issue they expect to own.

That won’t wipe out the impact of bad economic conditions, but I suspect that the lack of Republican credibility on foreign policy (and for that matter, the birther issue) will encourage critical analysis of their fraudulent claims on economics as well.

Coming to the bad news, the success of the US intelligence machine in locating bin Laden is obviously going to strengthen Obama’s position in claiming that he has special knowledge that justifies suspending civil liberties. Reading the accounts in, for example, the New York Times, it’s clear that their sources are trying to make claims for intelligence extracted under torture  even though (on my reading) they didn’t actually get anything useful from these sources (the NYT quotes an intelligence source as saying that the value was in what was not said, which could justify just about anything).

There’s an outside chance that, having secured his standing on the issue, Obama will return to the policies he campaigned on. Failing that, as the fear of terrorism fades, there may be a gradual return to the rule of law, although the precedents set in the last ten years are likely to remain.

Finally, like most people in the world, I’m glad bin Laden is dead. I would have preferred to see him face trial for his crimes, but he was (assuming the official account to be correct) given the chance to surrender, and didn’t take it.

<strong>Update 4 May</strong> The parenthetical qualification in the last sentence turned out to be a sensible precaution, reflecting past experience of these announcements. As <a href=”http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/”>almost always seems to happen</a>, the revised account from the government is very different from the original one. Whereas the original story suggested a gunfight with bin Laden using a woman as a human shield, the new version has an unarmed bin Laden shot when his wife (also unarmed) ran at the assault team and was herself shot, though not fatally. That doesn’t preclude a call to surrender, but it certainly seems that he wasn’t given any time to think it over.

fn1. BTW, has there been any statement from AQ confirming or denying OBLs death?

fn2. It’s interesting to ask how history would have changed if the military had done as good a job with the Iran hostage rescue ordered by Carter as they did in the present case.

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  1. Robert (not from UK)
    May 3rd, 2011 at 22:05 | #1

    You win some, you lose some.

    Yes, Bin Laden’s dead, hooray.

    But the day before he died, in a kind of fearful symmetry, Pope John Paul the Koran-Kisser became Blessed Pope John Paul the Koran-Kisser. I am old enough to remember when a minimum of 50 years had to elapse between a death and a beatification, let alone a canonisation.

    There used to be an Internet meme to the effect that JP2 wasn’t really kissing the Koran. Or else he didn’t realise it was the Koran he was kissing. Or else it wasn’t really JP2 at all but Elvis / JFK / J. Edgar Hoover impenetrably disguised so as to look like JP2 while the real JP2 was held captive on the planet Neptune by the Bavarian Illuminist Masonic Gnomes of Zurich. Or something.

    But when blogging really got under way in the Catholic world in about 2007, this particular meme died out as abruptly as it started. And it was conceded by all, from the most ferocious ultramontane to the most anarchistic revolutionist, that, yes, the real JP2 did kiss the real Koran.

    For the benefit of the three cave-dwellers in the world who have not seen the relevant image, here it is:


    Eleven years later, and this particular Catholic still hasn’t stopped feeling ashamed of it.

  2. May 3rd, 2011 at 23:52 | #2

    Lots of people are calling Obama courageous and I think your mention of Carter and the disastrous attempt to rescue the Iran embassy hostages explains why. If both helicopters had been lost in Pakistan instead of one, it would have been a first class SNAFU for Obama.

    The sustained effort to justify detention without trial and torturing detainees is a deliberate attempt to divert people from the important issues that were highlighted on September 11 2001 and which successive US administrations have stubbornly refused to consider. The assassination of Osama deep in sovereign Pakistan territory simply illustrates yet again how the USA has come to regard a great stretch of the Middle East and SW Asia as a kind of protectorate, where it reserves the right to intervene whenever it feels its interests warrant it. Its need to lock people up and torture them only arises in the first place from its insistence in playing this imperial role.

    Such a policy will inevitably continue to spawn endless resistance from the people subjugated, and they will express that resistance in whatever ways are open to them. Pakistan is obviously in a dangerously unstable condition, and we have yet to see the implications of the recent power shift in Egypt. Budgetary realities are putting pressure on US defence spending but once they start to pull back, their whole regional dominance might start to unravel as quickly as did the European colonial empires after 1945. But everyone in Washington seems determined to press on as if nothing has changed and they can sustain their position forever.

  3. Donald Oats
    May 3rd, 2011 at 23:55 | #3

    I suspect that much of the intel from torture led the US down the garden path, rather than assisting. Furthermore, the repeated torture for extended periods (eg 6 month through to several years) of individuals who mightn’t be guilty of anything beyond association, is at odds with the “tough interrogation” description promoted by those who wish the tools of torture to be acceptable within the USA, and among its friend-states like Australia. It is at odds because it implies a short period of incarceration, rather than the ongoing detention that long-term torture actually entails.

    The connection being attempted, that of associating state-sponsored torture as an intelligence-gathering tool with the recent results of gittin’ OBL, is a politically motivated connection. From the CIA’s perspective, they need extra-judicial powers or as close to that “ideal” that they can get; from the current government’s point of view it justifies their maintenance – sadly even strengthening – of such freedom-scrunching, civil liberty violating, laws; and, the sad, sad ol’ GOP is desperately trying to hold onto OBL as their prize, which can only come from anti-terrorism laws enacted under GWB II, or so they think.

    I believe that any assumption of a critical introspection by either Republican politicians, or by their media hacks, would be premature. No doubt the more liberal media will indulge in such criticism, but not Fox or other Murdoch Media – perhaps 1 in 5 MM articles will be extremely negative, but most won’t be or will be negative about poltical PR strategies, rather than actual policy issues concerning terrorism and dealing with it:

    but I suspect that the lack of Republican credibility on foreign policy (and for that matter, the birther issue) will encourage critical analysis of their fraudulent claims on economics as well.

    I think this is far too optimistic. The birther issue spawned a plethora of claims of Photoshop or Illustrator layers being in the (scanned) image (of the long-form birth certificate) as proof of a cover-up or faking of his place of birth. You just cannot win against such desperados, for they aren’t fighting for the truth, but rather are fighting for their projection onto the president of some evil-incarnate profanity. This same perverse effect prevails among UFO believers, etc.

    PS: Upon hearing of the helicopter failure, my thought was “I bet this time they have room for the whole team in the second one”. The Iranian failure could hardly be blamed upon Carter, and yet it was the proverbial albatross around his neck.

  4. James
    May 4th, 2011 at 01:44 | #4

    Re fn.2: the team that conducted this operation was formed as a direct result of the Iran hostage rescue failure.

  5. Rob
    May 4th, 2011 at 03:24 | #5

    JQ, Did you have a link for that NY Times piece on the value of interrogation? I would like to see it. Like you, I’m particularly dismayed at the effects this could have on reinforcing a whole heap of bad security practices.

  6. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 05:55 | #6

    I mostly agree with JQ but diverge on two points.

    The foreign policy of a lot of Republicans has been quite atrocious. Trumps attitude to China and OPEC is appalling and the war in Iraq wasn’t something I agreed with (although things seem better there these days). However I think it is wrong to regard the Republicans as being of a single view on these matters. Both Ron Paul and Rand Paul are quite clearly of a different foreign policy view. As is presidential candidate Gary Johnson. It’s true that someone like Trump still beats someone like Ron Paul in the polls but only by 1% in the latest and only off the back of a celebrity factor. The Republicans need to get there house in order on foreign policy but there are contenders who are trying to do that. Meanwhile the Democrats seemed to have adopted all the Republicans foreign policy clothes. Many of which they campaigned against.

    In terms of a trial of OBL. I don’t think such a trial could have been credible. Nobody presumes he is innocent and nobody could entertain the possibility of an aquital. An exjudicial killing seems like the most logical approach.

  7. gerard
    May 4th, 2011 at 07:46 | #7

    Re fn.1:

    A member of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) on Monday admitted to AFP that the chief of the extremist network had been killed, calling it a “catastrophe.”

    “This news has been a catastrophe for us. At first we did not believe it, but we got in touch with our brothers in Pakistan who have confirmed it,” a member reached by telephone told an AFP correspondent.


  8. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 07:49 | #8

    White House announces OBL was unarmed.

    “Aw, Schucks. Almost takes the fun out of it.”

    Of course capturing him alive would have presented plenty of political problems for the Nobel Peace Prize winner (and others). They might have even had to put him on trial. He might have even had the opportunity to speak and say things, or release information, they didn’t want anyone to hear. After executing him (before or after they gave him a fair trial) they might not have been able to dump his body in the ocean.

    There weren’t no votes in capturing him.

    He did resist, the White House claims. Apparently, US SEALs are unable to take a sick old unarmed man. Typical. More of the moral leadership that inspires hatred of the West and puts our lives at risk.

  9. Hermit
    May 4th, 2011 at 07:58 | #9

    Had the Americans captured this unarmed person and put him on trial it would have shown the world the rule of law and that it really was OBL. The US seems to regard OBL as the architect of the 11/9/01 incident when it was Khalid Mohammed, already in Gitmo and no doubt the subject of many more water boardings.

    Strangely in death OBL may get his wish to turn opinion against the US. As the empire declines the US will increasingly need small victories to remind us of its once great economic power and moral authority. Perhaps now they could impress the rest of the world with something a bit less gung ho, for example universal health care or limiting greenhouse emissions.

  10. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 08:03 | #10

    @Donald Oats

    All this criticism of torture. Despite its proven track record.

    Remember, without the valuable information gained through torture, the church would never have broken the back, by the end of the 17th Century, of that dangerous outbreak of witches and witchcraft.

    Do you see any witches today? I rest my case.

  11. Tim Dymond
    May 4th, 2011 at 08:51 | #11

    I think it was Guy Rundle in Crikey yesterday who made the point that, even if there was some useful information produced by torture, it was still ridiculous that you actually needed that to find him. OBL’s ‘hideout’ was physically close to Pakistan’s official power centres – yet the US still needed to waterboard people to locate it? I know there won’t be embarrassment about that but there should be.

  12. Tim
    May 4th, 2011 at 08:54 | #12

    One of the more interesting aspects of this for me is to see all those supposed opponents to capital punishment, special forces assassinations, and judgement without trial look the other way for the special case of OBL. What is the point of having these principles if you’re willing to make exceptions when it’s popular to do so?

    Myself I would have found nothing more satisfying than seeing him face the ICC and given life in prison, especially as his ‘resistance’ was apparently nothing more than not raising his hands:

    http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/03/white-house-bin-laden-was-unarmed-when-killed/ (the 5:03pm update)

  13. Oliver Townshend
    May 4th, 2011 at 09:05 | #13

    The value of interrogation? Check out this wikileaks document where the courier is talked about and named, and his location (Abbottabad) – https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/87933-interrogation-file-of-abu-faraj-al-libi.html#document/p5/a17091

  14. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 09:13 | #14

    @Tim Dymond

    Waterboarding worked with witches. If it ain’t broke…

  15. Tim Dymond
    May 4th, 2011 at 10:34 | #15

    If the US authorities had paid attention to geographers they might have found OBL in 2009: http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/05/geographers-had-calculated.html?ref=hp

  16. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 10:42 | #16

    @Oliver Townshend

    Oliver, you are not doing our cause (of arguing for the efficacy of torture) any good at all. The document you link to suggests the information was obtained through interrogation. It does not connect the provision of information to an act of torture. Those who doubt the value of torture claim that skilled interrogation is much more effective. If anything they might grasp on this link as evidence of support.

    I base my support (of torture), not on the somewhat questionable claims by the Americans in the current conflict. Indeed, I think their inability to provide credible evidence in support is doing the campaign to reintroduce widespread use of torture irreparable harm.

    No. I base my support on the solid evidence provided by the Roman Catholic Church. Through their meticulous record keeping it is possible to see exactly how the use of torture played an essential part in the defeat of witchcraft. No one seems to have confessed without it! And, few of those involved in witchcraft seemed to have given up the names of others involved without a judicious bit of torture loosening their tongues.

    Re: After OBL. I hope when they put out the Xbox version of the SEAL attack on the compound they arm OBL with a rocket launcher or something to make the execution slightly more meritorious. Maybe you ought to lose points for shooting the wife, also.

  17. Ikonoclast
    May 4th, 2011 at 10:46 | #17

    I really can’t add much to what Ken_L said in the first post. He was on the mark. If some American novelist can write the great American novel of the decline of the US, I suggest for the title, “Power Without Wisdom”.

    The self-destructive nature of US policy is extraordinary. The Chinese leadership must often have a laugh at how at the Americans are destroying themselves without China having to lift a finger.

    The rise of China proves the uselessness of US imperial policy. All the things that the US does to secure (as it sees it) its security and empire, China does not do. China does not send troops abroad. China does not try to maintain a global empire. China does not get bogged in quagmires and sandtraps throughout Asia and the Middle East. And yet China grows and grows and will soon exceed the US economically. (Limits to Growth will affect this equation but will affect the US as much as China.)

  18. may
    May 4th, 2011 at 12:39 | #18

    “water boarding” for water torture.

    “enhanced interrogation” for sending people insane torture.

    “sleep deprivation” for sending people insane torture.

    “rendition” for sending people somewhere else to be tortured.

    dare i say war crimes?

    bush and his young nixonians, in eight years,destroyed two centuries of authority in humane governance.

    yes,the crime was hideous,the reaction played to US parochial interests ignored basically the experience in hideousness of the rest of the world.

    within living memory.

  19. Oliver Townshend
    May 4th, 2011 at 13:47 | #19

    Actually Freelander, I don’t think you can draw any conclusion about torture from the document, as you don’t know how they got that specific piece of information. I would think it was from multiple sources and connecting the dots, some of which may have included torture.

    One argument I’ve seen is that the wikileaks release had people re-read these documents and see what they’ve missed. Equally plausible is Tariq Ali’s argument that someone in ISI wanted the reward…

  20. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:44 | #20

    @Oliver Townshend

    As I said, you aren’t doing the reintroduction of widespread torture any favours.

    Anyway, Obama’s stocks have been resurrected by the assassination.

    Today, in celebration of the execution of OBL (and the shooting of his wife in the leg), the US Congress passed a resolution, that, for all purposes, Barack Obama is to be treated by US law as though he was actually born in the USA (even though we all know that he wasn’t). After all, Congress had already passed a similar resolution for McCain. http://www.opencongress.org/bill/110-sr511/show Moreover, to celebrate his election as the first Black and first Muslim President, henceforth, the 22nd state is to be known as “al Obama”.

    Once more, the Donald has taken credit.

  21. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:45 | #21

    @Oliver Townshend

    As I said, you aren’t doing the reintroduction of widespread torture any favours.

    Anyway, Obama’s stocks have been resurrected by the assassination.

    Today, in celebration of the execution of OBL (and the shooting of his wife in the leg), the US Congress passed a resolution, that, for all purposes, Barack Obama is to be treated by US law as though he was actually born in the USA (even though we all know that he wasn’t). After all, Congress had already passed a similar resolution for McCain. http://www.opencongress.org/bill/110-sr511/show Moreover, to celebrate his election as the first Black and first Muslim President, henceforth, the 22nd state is to be known as “al Obama”.

    Once more, the Donald has taken credit.

  22. May 4th, 2011 at 15:05 | #22

    Bin Laden got what he deserved. Good Riddance.

    “He shoulda been taken alive” is a refrain heard mostly from those whose lives have never included tight situations. It simply isn’t that easy.
    And this job wasn’t an easy one. The attack team crashed on helicopter. These fellers have flown before, many times, & practised this sort of confined area hot work countless times.
    Nobody was going to err on the side of caution, not when Bin Laden was the target.
    There are no mitigating factors when an order of “stick ’em up” is given. You either put your hands up or get shot dead straightaway.

    Once that raid was underway it could not be allowed to end with bin Laden still at large.

    Yesterday’s most wanted, today’s fish food.

  23. Donald Oats
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:00 | #23

    Damn straight. These nancies with their “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and their “cognitive water therapy” – call it TORTURE! IT Works, it’s sweet! No trials, no messy plea bargains. Freelander, you call it like it is…

  24. zoot
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:54 | #24

    I think Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

  25. Alice
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:57 | #25

    Id admit to anything if I was being water tortured. Thats the ugly part about torture and inteorrogation. It makes fo conveniently guilty persons, even when they are not.

    Mans inhumanity to man. Its an ugly thing.

  26. Alice
    May 4th, 2011 at 21:01 | #26

    ROFL, I see more warlocks than I see witches alive today (hey how come they dindnt burn warlocks at the stake?) Ripped off and now they are still alive, male and healthy!”

  27. Chris
    May 5th, 2011 at 00:46 | #27

    In my opinion, water boarding did not get the information needed to find and kill bin Laden. If you really think about, these are heartless terrorist who are literally “brainwashed” to take part of heinous terrorist acts to advance their so called “causes.” If they are willing (because of the brainwashing) to fly a plane into a building knowing it would kill them in a terrible, painful way, and they did not stop and say “hey” I value my life! Not to mention the lives of the children, women and elderly people I’m sure they saw on those planes before they busted into the cockpit, then how do you think a simulated sensation of drowning by putting a rag in their mouth is going make them give up secret information? I don’t think so. Thus, enhanced interrogation techniques may work for someone who still has a heart and who values his/her life, but it isn’t going work with the devil.

  28. TerjeP
    May 5th, 2011 at 04:02 | #28

    Chris – I think you are wrong to assume that terrorists are immune to the frailties of other humans. They may have different beliefs but they bleed the same.

  29. Hermit
    May 5th, 2011 at 16:31 | #29

    I’d still like proof the body was that of OBL. There is still a ring of untruthiness to the whole story; lack of observations by locals, the fact the bride was a third of OBL’s age, the absence of dialysis equipment at the house and no taunting video messages provably made since 2006. When a US State Dept spokesman says we can be assured OBL will not walk the Earth again perhaps he means OBL must have died years ago since they got someone else.

    Perhaps they could show the death pictures to a council of wise people who could form an opinion. DNA samples could be given to an independent expert. Until this is done I’ll be inclined to think OBL died in the period 2004-2007 of kidney failure, typhoid or bomb injuries or perhaps a combination. The guy they killed was a reclusive nobody so they are covering it up.

  30. Jim Birch
    May 6th, 2011 at 12:13 | #30

    Missing a smiley?

  31. Freelander
    May 6th, 2011 at 13:25 | #31

    The sad legacy of OBL is that he is still winning. A relatively small investment and a small group of crazies, and he has precipitated the US and the West to do enormous and costly damage to themselves. The West still bleeds from self-inflicted wounds.

    Some have made money out of it on the way. I suppose that’s all that really matters.

  32. GlibFighter
    May 7th, 2011 at 05:10 | #32


    Link is to pro-torture lies by Michael Mukasey, claiming that evidence from KSM was the basis for locating Osama. As noted in the OP, this has been shown to be false, as well as being absurd on its face, given the time lag. Not quite sure why this was posted, but I’ll let it stand – JQ

  33. Hermit
    May 7th, 2011 at 16:53 | #33

    OBL’s height of 6’4″ or 193cm could be the proof the doubters (like myself ) need. Surely some military personnel involving in handling the corpse could vouch that it was of a tall person. Apparently the walled compound was surveilled and showed a tall person pacing around. Release high resolution images that can be contrasted with the height of doors, windows etc.

    Remember the previous US president said Saddam had WMD. That turned out not to be the case.

  34. Freelander
    May 7th, 2011 at 20:12 | #34


    One outcome of OBL’s murder, could be that tall people in Afghanistan and Pakistan can breath a sigh of relief because at least now they will not be targeted by drones on the basis of their height. Not complete relief because they are still targets; that’s the price of living in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    A further outcome could be recognition that Assange is living on borrowed time. He committed that ultimate crime that politicians must consider deserves that ultimate sanction. He embarrassed them, or at least facilitated their self-embarrassment through the material he released.

    As Obama has been doing the victory lap, as he attempts to convert credit for the ‘daring’ murder into a second term, he made the obligatory visit to ‘Ground Zero’. I imagine that I am not the only one continually struck by the irony of ‘Ground Zero’.

    Ground Zero, after all, is the term used to identify the point on the ground closest to the detonation of a nuclear explosion. There have been two Ground Zero’s that involved instantaneous loss of life, indeed, loss of cities. Both were ordered by another American administration. In at least one case, part of the reason for creating a Ground Zero was to grab Japan before the Soviet Union, which had just ramped up its effort in the East.

    Given that the term “Ground Zero” has been appropriated as part of the 9/11 lexicon, why stop there. Surely, ‘9/11’ is somewhat pedestrian and ought to be replaced, with typical American hyperbole, by ‘Holocaust’?

  35. Alice
    May 7th, 2011 at 20:52 | #35

    If they kill Assange it will be like the killing of Martin Luther King, or the shooting of John Lennon, or of President Kennedy, or the death of Marilyn Monroe or of Joe Hill for that matter.
    Everyone will know it is wrong. It will live forever in history as a great injustice.

  36. Freelander
    May 7th, 2011 at 21:48 | #36


    Yes. They would have to avoid being so blatant. But they have avoided being blatant in the past. A number of Americans still think that the US government had a role in at least two of the three murders you mention. If that’s true we will probably never know.

    Maybe Assange will have an accident? They have strong reasons to make an example of him so his demise will probably be more obvious.

    What surprises me is how few people seem to understand that expecting a bin Laden to be provided with the protections of due process and to be subject to rule of law rather than be murdered on the whim of an Obama is about protecting us from the same arbitrary treatment. Looks like we have no rights. Anything done to any of us, little people, can be conveniently swept under the carpet as collateral damage. And if we are the subject of interest then we can be victim of an unrecorded executive order.

    In Australia many want to get rid of a constitutional monarchy. In America they should consider getting rid of their elected monarchy. Looks like Nixon was right “If the President does it. Its not illegal.”

  37. Alice
    May 7th, 2011 at 22:20 | #37

    Freelander – I agree.

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