Osama bin Laden’s death was announced by the president on May 1, a date that once had worldwide significance on the revolutionary calendar of communism, which was America’s absorbing national security preoccupation before Islamic terrorism. Times change.
Barack Obama, in his pitch-perfect address informing the nation that bin Laden is as dead as communism — never mind the cadaverous Cuban and North Korean regimes — rightly stressed that this is “the most significant achievement to date” against al-Qaida, but that it “does not mark the end of” our effort to defeat that amorphous entity. Perhaps, however, America can use this occasion to draw a deep breath and some pertinent conclusions.
Many salient facts about the tracking of terrorism’s most prolific killer to his lair — some lair: not a remote cave but an urban compound — must remain shrouded in secrecy, for now. But one surmise seems reasonable: bin Laden was brought down by intelligence gathering that more resembles excellent police work than a military operation.
Granted, in nations as violent as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the line between military operations and police work is blurry, and military and other forms of intelligence gathering cannot be disentangled. Still, the enormous military footprint in Afghanistan, next door to bin Laden’s Pakistan refuge, seems especially disproportionate in the wake of his elimination by a small cadre of specialists.
Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College points out that Gen. David Petraeus has said there are perhaps about 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every al-Qaida fighter. It costs about $1 million a year to deploy and support every soldier — or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion a year, for each al-Qaida fighter. “In what universe do we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”
There remains much more to al-Qaida than bin Laden, and there are many more tentacles to the terrorism threat than al-Qaida and its affiliates. So “the long war” must go on. But perhaps such language is bewitching our minds, because this is not essentially war.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry received much derision for his belief (as expressed in a Jan. 29 debate in South Carolina) that although the war on terror will be “occasionally military,” it is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world.” Kerry, as paraphrased by The New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, thought “many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror.” True then; even more obviously true now.
Again: Granted, the distinction between military and law enforcement facets is not a bright line. But neither is it a distinction without a difference. And the more we couch our thinking in military categories, the more we open ourselves to misadventures such as the absurd and deepening one in Libya.
There, our policy — if what seem to be hourly improvisations can be dignified as a policy — began as a no-fly zone to protect civilians from wanton violence. Seven weeks later, our policy is to decapitate the government by long-distance assassination and to intensify a civil war in that tribal society, in the name of humanitarianism. What makes this particularly surreal is that it is being done by NATO.
Unpack the acronym: North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was created in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Red Army. Its purpose was, in Lord Ismay’s famous formulation, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” NATO, which could long ago have unfurled a “mission accomplished” banner, has now become an instrument of addlepated mischief.
This is an episode of presidential malpractice. Obama has allowed NATO to be employed for the advancement of a half-baked doctrine (R2P — “responsibility to protect”), a quarter-baked rationalization (was it just in March that Hillary Clinton discovered that a vital U.S. national interest required the removal of Moammar Gaddafi because he “is a man who has no conscience”?) and an unworthy national agenda (France’s pursuit of grandeur on the cheap).
When this Libyan misadventure is finished, America needs a national debate about whether NATO should be finished. Times change.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.