US Foreign Policy After Bin Laden

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

US Foreign Policy After Bin Laden

Obama will undoubtedly get a boost from the killing of Osama bin Laden. But his death also needs to herald a shift in foreign policy, including Afghanistan.

The United States has been celebrating the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and much of the Western world has cheered in sympathy. But the deadly assault by US Special Forces on the al-Qaeda leader in his Pakistani hide-out wasn’t simply an act of revenge (although in some ways it was all the sweeter for having been longed for and plotted for a decade). It also shouldn’t be seen as a mere settling of accounts with a man responsible, in President Barack Obama’s words, for ‘the worst attack in American history.’

The reality is that bin Laden was feared and detested because he struck a blow at American self-esteem. With the devastating attacks of 9/11, he had dared to carry the war into the United States’ heartland, puncturing its view of itself as an exceptional nation, favoured above all others. His killing will therefore serve to wash clean that terrible moment of national humiliation. The feud is over. Dumped into the sea, his blood-stained carcass will provide food, if not for worms, then for fishes. Americans will have a sense of awakening from a nightmare. They will be able to renew their faith in their country’s greatness.
In the jungle of international power politics there’s no joy to match that of the demise of an iconic enemy. But although Americans will rejoice at his death will that be the end of the story? That remains to be seen.
There’s little doubt that Obama’s stature will be boosted by bin Laden’s demise. He will at last be seen by ordinary Americans as a strong and effective commander-in-chief dedicated to ensuring US security. His chance of re-election in 2012 will be enhanced. As a result, there will be much gnashing of teeth in the Republican camp.
Yet, in announcing the news to the United States and the world, Obama was careful not to gloat, as his predecessor George W Bush might well have done had the killing taken place under his watch. Instead, he was sobriety itself. No one is more acutely aware that the war against Islamic militancy can’t be won by military means alone.
The United States, Obama was careful to stress, isn’t at war with Islam. This is a sentiment he has already expressed a number of times, notably in his celebrated Cairo speech of June 2009. The problem, however, is that Obama is no longer believed. He has failed to match his words with actions. The great hopes he aroused at that time have given way to an equally immense disillusion. The promise of a new departure in US foreign policy has worn desperately thin.
Obama seems to be trapped between his personal convictions and the electoral necessities of US politics. Instead of acting resolutely in his first years in office to defuse Arab and Muslim anger at American policies, he has bowed to domestic pressures from the US Congress, from Bush-era neoconservatives whose influence still reaches deep inside the administration, from powerful pro-Israeli lobbies and their affiliated think tanks, and from an increasingly right-wing and Islamophobic American public. If anything, the United States under Obama has waged war more ferociously than ever against radical Islamic groups.  

So will the elimination of bin Laden put an end to Islamic militancy? This is very unlikely. It would seem that in recent years, bin Laden has been less of an operational commander, sending militants to attack US targets across the world, and more of a symbol of Islamic resistance, making occasional speeches from what looked like semi-retirement. His message has been ‘franchised’ to far-flung militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, in the Saharan borderlands of North Africa and elsewhere. Since they have adopted the al-Qaeda appellation, some of these groups may now seek to avenge him. Retaliation by such militants against the United States and its allies is a distinct possibility and will require additional defensive measures by security services (no doubt to the further inconvenience of air travellers).
Yet bin Laden’s death could provide Obama with a unique opportunity to revise and correct some aspects of US foreign policy. Bush’s global ‘War on Terror’ can at last be put officially to rest. Obama can proclaim victory over al-Qaeda, announce a ceasefire in Afghanistan, followed by a speedy withdrawal of US and allied troops from that war-ravaged country.
The Talban and other militant groups, which the United States and its allies have been fighting for a decade, at great cost in men and treasure, at one time hosted and protected al-Qaeda. But they aren’t al-Qaida and shouldn’t be confused with it. The Talban aren’t international terrorists. They are now an essentially Pashtun tribal resistance movement fighting foreign occupation.
The United States should seize upon the death of bin Laden to promote urgent peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership. At the same time, drone attacks against militants in Pakistan, which destabilise the country and arouse fierce anti-American sentiment, should be halted. The killing of bin Laden was a clear success for US Special Forces, but many, indeed perhaps most, counter-terrorist operations are counterproductive as they inflame opinion and arouse hate. New terrorists are created rather than old ones tamed.
There also remains the unresolved Arab-Israel conflict, which has long been a major cause of Muslim and Arab hostility to the United States, and to the West in general. Will Obama’s new stature and authority, earned from the elimination of bin Laden, give him the political muscle he needs to deal with Israel’s far right government? Nothing is less certain.
Instead of welcoming the recent reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas as a major step towards Israeli negotiations with a united Palestinian movement, the United States has followed Israel’s lead in condemning it. Israel wants to divide the Palestinians precisely in order to avoid negotiations. In Washington, Israel’s friends in Congress are pressing for a ban on US aid to any Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
The democratic wave sweeping across the Arab world won’t tolerate US complicity in Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinians. Egypt’s new leadership has already urged the United States to recognise Palestinian statehood and has announced that it will break the cruel siege of Gaza by opening the Rafah crossing on a permanent basis.
If the United States is to salvage its battered image in the Arab and Muslim world it must heed the new trend in the region. The killing of bin Laden may give US opinion a moment of triumphalism, but it needs to be followed by a major re-think of US policies. Only then will Americans be safe.
Patrick Seale is a London-based writer.