Bin Laden Dies: The War on Terror Lives

Published May 2, 2011

National Review Online

This is a great day for America: a moment for pride in our intelligence services, our military planners, and the bravery and professionalism of our fighting men.

Don’t mess with us: there will be consequences. It’s easy to forget that with all the troubles and setbacks of the past ten years, this is a message America has actually brought across to the world with considerable success. From that perspective, the killing of bin Laden is less an instance of belated justice than the capstone of a continuing and successful effort to convince those who would tolerate or abet terrorists within their borders that making an enemy of America is not a good idea.

This is in no way to deny the considerable difficulties and complications of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the contrary, I warned early on that democratizing Iraq would be a much more problematic project than many realized, and I remain skeptical of aggressive democratization as a basis for our policy in the Middle East. That said, it’s too easy for Americans to forget that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—in some measure precisely because they have dragged on with greater difficulty than initially imagined—have shown the world’s leaders that giving over your territory to terrorists who would attack the United States is a prescription for trouble. Even imperfectly managed wars—maybe even especially such wars—have a deterrent effect. Our policy of taking the fight to the enemy has surely been a factor in a decade’s worth of freedom from major terrorist attacks on our soil.

The War on Terror (yes, I’ll call it that) puts the United States in a uniquely difficult position. Back when the British controlled the tribal regions of what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan, they wisely chose to rule them through the intermediary of friendly local leaders. These areas have never been amenable to direct military or administrative control by anyone, much less European outsiders.

On the other hand, nineteenth century Pashtun tribesmen couldn’t blow up London. Therein lies our dilemma. The idea of thoroughly policing tribal Afghanistan and Pakistan, much less turning the area into a functioning modern democracy, is a ridiculous pipedream. On the other hand, withdrawing and allowing the area to be retaken by our terrorist enemies and their supporters could have deadly consequences at home. The rise of modern destructive technology puts the West in an intolerable position. We cannot fully control the Middle East’s terrorist havens, yet cannot afford to fully leave them either. That is why even President Obama, with all his desire to have done with Afghanistan at the first available opportunity, had to approve a surge of forces. There is no easy answer here.

As for the notion that al-Qaeda is in fact weak and poses no existential threat to America, I cannot agree. Pakistan is a profoundly divided and unstable country. The possibility of a revolution or civil war in which nuclear material for a dirty bomb—or even finished weapons—are passed on to al-Qaeda is all too real. The fact that bin Laden was able to build a custom-made villa in a military town shows that a worst-case scenario is possible. He obviously had friends in high places.

A nuclear-armed Iran, with a fully nuclearized Middle-East to follow, would multiply that region’s danger and instability, greatly increasing the likelihood that nuclear material or weapons would at some point be passed on to terrorists. The danger is real, and will likely only grow with time.

Because the danger of nuclear terrorism is profound, I favor an energetic and assertive American military and diplomatic posture in the Middle East. For the same reason, however, I do not believe this country has the luxury of committing its limited military resources to counterproductive adventures in humanitarian intervention, as in Libya. We need to hang back and keep our powder dry. As chaos sweeps across the Middle East, there are, sadly, plenty of reasons why our vital interests may soon force us to act. Given that, we ought not to be wasting effort and resources on “post-American” adventurism.

Like it or not—confess it or not—we are indeed engaged, of necessity, in a multi-decade War on Terror. The killing of bin Laden—and all that led up to it—shows us that honorable victory is both necessary and possible.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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