The death of Osama Bin Laden is very welcome news. But as much as Americans might wish, the killing of any one terrorist or leader does not automatically end or vindicate a given policy or strategy. How the United States and allied governments respond to bin Laden's killing is much more important than the raid itself. If his death becomes an occasion for triumphalism and open-ended war or disregard for the importance of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, we will be in danger of snatching strategic defeat from the jaws of a genuine tactical victory.
Because bin Laden had been residing at a large compound in a suburb of Islamabad, the immediate reaction has been that Pakistan must have been complicit in hiding him. Almost certainly, bin Laden received support from elements within the Pakistani intelligence service. But as President Obama said in his announcement, it is equally true that Pakistani security cooperation was valuable in finding bin Laden. Islamabad will understandably want to minimize or deny Pakistan's role in all of this to appease its own public, most of whom have never accepted Al Qaeda's responsibility for the September 11 attacks. But Americans should not forget that Pakistan's authorities helped the United States eliminate a real, albeit small, security threat to our country at the cost of considerable discontent at home.
One of the recurring mistakes in U.S. foreign policy is the tendency to identify a policy problem closely or completely with an individual and his nearest associates, and to conclude wrongly that the elimination of those few people will also eliminate America's problem. This is done partly to reduce a conflict to a more digestible clash between an identifiable villain and the United States, but it is also oversimplifies conflicts and creates false impressions that conflicts can end as soon as the main villain has died. As the killing of one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons by forces allied against the Libyan regime shows, decapitation strikes do not always work as planned. In fact, even when successful they can sometimes have the opposite "demonstration effect" of the one intended.
With bin Laden's death, al Qaeda has certainly suffered a significant loss. But that loss may just as easily be turned into a recruiting tool and a call to arms as it could mark the disintegration of bin Laden's organization. Bin Laden's goal of expelling America from Muslim countries remains a popular one with many Muslims, and killing him has not changed that. The longer large numbers of U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan beyond the original 2011 withdrawal deadline, and the longer the United States continues destabilizing Pakistan with counterproductive drone strikes, the less significance bin Laden’s death is likely to have for diminishing the threat of future terrorist attacks.
President Obama said that bin Laden's death meant "we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to," and this was more than a throwaway line near the end of the speech. The president was expressing a conviction that there is nothing that American power cannot achieve, which is exactly the wrong lesson to draw from the past decade. We have found that the United States can very effectively and capably destroy enemy forces and kill individual leaders, but when it comes to rebuilding countries or reshaping political cultures, Americans have run up against the edges of what is possible. The president’s claim that the United State is engaged in these efforts because of "who we are," rather than because of very specific security threats to Americans, suggests that the spirit of idealistic overreach that fueled the last decade of overreaction and overkill remains alive and well in our government.
A more plausible lesson to take from the past decade is that the United States faces significant limits to its power, and Americans have paid vast, disproportionate costs to retaliate against a few major terrorist attacks. The country has poured enormous resources into ongoing wars, distorted its foreign policy with the framing of the "war on terror," and vastly expanded the national security state. In return, it has succeeded in routing a relatively small band of violent criminals and killing their leader.
The question now is not whether the original effort was justified, but whether it makes sense for the United States to continue expending huge amounts of finite resources in an indefinite "global counterinsurgency" that costs far more than it seems to benefit America.