On the anniversary of OBL demise, Politico asked “Will bin Laden mean brownie points for Obama?” I weighed on the stupid DC parlor game of whether or not Obama had “spiked the football” writing:
It was Voltaire who once observed that “medicine is the art of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”
Politics may be a similar art, events occur and politicians tell a story around them. It is difficult to imagine any president not giving the order to take out Osama bin Laden, given the opportunity. The big question would be the president’s tolerance for risk. Obama risked it and gets the credit.
A hypothetical president Romney probably would have given the order as well. The intelligence community really gets the credit for developing the capability to track down individuals – no small task. In theory, a president could – as Romney seemed to be implying – do a cost-benefit analysis and argue that the resources used to track down bin Laden were diverted from something more pressing. But no politician would realistically have made a decision not to target OBL.
Meanwhile, Andrej Matisak (a journalist in Slovakia) asked my thoughts on OBL’s demise and al-Qaeda’s ability to function. I replied:
Most terrorism experts are not talking about mega-plots but rather self-motivated individuals adopting al-Qaeda’s cause carrying out smaller-scale attacks. This is a strong indicator that the organization is less capable – in great part because of the extensive scrutiny on its activities by intelligence agencies worldwide. While every unnecessary death is a tragedy – lone wolf attacks such as the atrocity in Toulouse, France are not a threat to national security like a mass attack such as 9/11 or 3/11 in Spain.
That being said, the turmoil across the Middle East is creating power vacuums and opportunities for al-Qaeda. Many countries undergoing the Arab Spring are seeing an Islamist resurgence. In countries where the turmoil is violent (such as Yemen, Libya, or Syria) there is a tremendous opportunity for al-Qaeda to establish itself. Further, antidotes to the great challenges facing the greater Middle East are in short supply. It is unlikely the situation will get better in the short term and continuing mass discontent could lead to greater numbers adopting al-Qaeda’s radical ideology.
As more documents from OBL’s safehouse are released we will learn more about al-Qaeda’s internal operation. So far, what has been released seems to be an increasingly marginalized and incoherent organization. Terrorists are not supermen. A clandestine organization of a few hundred, deprived of state-sponsorship, is not going to be able to survive when a superpower turns its enormous capabilities against it. But al-Qaeda is but one symptom of the social/political pathologies afflicting the greater Middle East. Even if they were eradicated, a range of other radical organizations (some of which dwarf al-Qaeda such as Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba) remain. The Iranian nuclear project has the potential to spark a regional arms race. If there are multiple nuclear powers in that contentious region an accident becomes highly probable. Finally the demographic and environmental trends (that’s fancy talk for growing population and decreasing water supplies) creates a series of time-bomb nations.
While the great eye has focused heavily on al-Qaeda – and decimated it – other dangers continue to grow.