Osama bin Laden is dead — and so is an old Middle East. That they died together is fortuitous and apt.
Bin Laden lived to propel history backward to the reestablishment of a Muslim caliphate. He died a marginal figure to the transformation fast-forwarding the Arab world toward pluralism and self-expression.
He came of age as the Arab world shifted from Nasserite nationalism to the discovery of identity in political Islamism. It was a potent form of anti-Western defiance. His death comes as post-Islamist revolutions from Tunis to Cairo topple despotism in the name of democratic values long denied Arabs, who, in their vast majority, now seek a reasonable balance between modernity and their faith. Arab pride has disentangled itself from the complex of the West.
Bin Laden’s Holy War drew sustenance from “Westoxification” — the sense of humiliation among Arabs at perceived Western dominance and aggression. Bin Laden whipped that resentment into al-Qaeda’s capacity for nihilistic mass murder.
He died as Arabs en masse move away from the politics of rage and revenge, directed mainly outward, toward a new politics of responsibility and representative government, directed mainly inward.
It is not only the timing of his death at the hands of US forces that is apt, but also its location — far from a Middle East with which he had lost touch. He died in Pakistan. Or rather he died in the so-called Af-Pak theatre where a decade of war has fed jihadist ideology even as it has lost appeal for Web-savvy Arab youth in the region of its birth.
An era has passed. It was a painful decade of disorientation and American whiplash. The mass murder so agonising it had to be distilled to three digits — 9/11 — poisoned a new century at its outset. Bin Laden was that poison’s slow drip.
I was in New York City that day, at the bottom of Atlantic Avenue, by the East River, when a guy next to me said, “Hey, look, the World Trade Centre’s on fire.” So, on a clear day, began the pulverising horror that turned human beings to dust and shook Americans’ most basic assumptions about the land that morphed into a “homeland.”
Today I’m in Benghazi, where brave Libyans determined to forge a decent society battle an Arab despot, Muammar Gaddafi, the sometime terrorist and slayer of Americans who then claimed anti-Qaeda credentials to secure the support of the West. In fact, of course, his tyranny, which must end, has fed the very extremism he claimed to oppose. Bin Laden thrived on Arab despotism and on the American hypocrisy involved in supporting that repression.
He died as President Obama’s America has made democratisation in the Arab world at least a semi-serious US objective for the first time. Effective counterterrorism does not lie in starving a whole region of basic rights. That much has been learned.
There is hope in this passage from the suicidal Arab rage of 9/11 to the brave resistance of Libya’s 2/17 Benghazi revolution — and the other revolutions and uprisings sweeping the region. A long road is left to travel — al-Qaeda is not dead — but the first step was the hardest: the breaking of the captive Arab mind, the triumph of engagement over passivity, the defeat of fear. Bin Laden’s rose-tinged caliphate was the solace of the disenfranchised, the disempowered and the desperate. A young guy with a job, a vote and prospects does not need virgins in paradise.
America initially nourished bin Laden’s ideology as a means to defeat the Soviet empire, before becoming its target. Neglect and end-of-history euphoria preceded devastating blowback. In the decade since then, there has been further blowback — from two punishing wars and from mistaken policy.
This is a triumphant day for a young American president who changed policy, retiring his predecessor’s horrible misnomer, the Global War on Terror or GWOT, in order to focus, laser-like, on the terrorists determined to do the United States and its allies harm. Bin Laden had enticed George W. Bush’s flailing America into his web. Obama saw the need for extraction and engagement — extraction from the wars and engagement with the moderate Muslim majority.
The passage has been uneven but his achievements unquestionable. Open societies have this going for them over circles of fanatical conviction: they learn from mistakes.
How then to complete the work and make a corpse not only of bin Laden but his movement? Oust Gaddafi with ruthlessness and in short order. Steer the Arab revolutions into port with consistent political support and funding. Arab democracy must also mean Arab opportunity.
End the war in Afghanistan as soon as America’s basic security requirements are met. Make America’s closest regional ally, Israel, understand that a changed Middle East cannot be met with unchanging Israeli policies. Palestine, like Israel, must rise to the region’s dawning post-Osama era of responsibility and representation.
The 2012 campaign just got less interesting. Obama, as I’ve written before, is a lucky man. I suspect luck and purposefulness do a two-term president make. Obama got Osama because he turned a wider tide.