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U.S. Foreign Policy after Bin Laden

6 May 2011

On May 1st, after many hours of tense monitoring in the White House Situation Room, confirmation was made that a US Special Forces raid on a house just north of Islamabad in Pakistan had resulted in Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of al-Qaeda, being shot dead. A somber address to the nation from President Obama and impromptu parties of several hundred people outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York soon followed, broadcast on news channels across the world.

The execution of bin Laden is a watershed moment in many obvious respects. Obama’s presidential ratings in the U.S. have been given a permanent boost. Victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001, families of the victims, and individuals and countries that have been affected by the ensuing War on Terror will feel a sense that a modicum of justice and relief has finally been delivered. But there are also signs that the transition to a new chapter in history can be a rather messy and uncertain process. Consider, for example, the long deliberation that Obama has taken on whether to release the gruesome photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death, the continued lack of clarity on what exactly happened between the Navy SEALS and bin Laden and his entourage in that fateful last fight, and the debate over whether the death of such a famous militant jihadist will lead to a resurgence of Islamic terrorist operations or their demise.

I asked SPSSI members what they thought about how the U.S. and the international community should act now that bin Laden has been killed. Here is a look at what could happen next:

Torture tactics get more supporters
John Yoo, former Bush administration attorney, and author of the notorious ‘torture memos’ has unabashedly come out saying that the widely discredited and disgraced efforts of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) are of value after all. Supposedly, EIT was used to elicit information leading to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Reportedly, detainees at Guantanamo and in the CIA’s secret network of prisons gave crucial evidence regarding the courier who was key to tracing bin Laden. Foul play on the part of interrogators may be revealed in the near future, but, at the same time, there will be more voices making utilitarian arguments about the justification of torture for security objectives that save lives.

A quicker end to the U.S. and its allies’ operations in Afghanistan
In the U.S. Congress, many members are calling for troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, has long been saying that a political solution is necessary for peace to come back to the country. Perhaps now is the time to begin talking formally to the Taliban leadership? But a glance at the country’s state shows that far more humanitarian work needs to be done. In some provinces unemployment is up to 70%. According to the UN, roadside bombings have doubled in number since 2009. Attrition rates, reported General Caldwell, the man in charge of training the Afghan army, are at about 1 in every 3 new recruits. Opium production is still on the rise. The most worrying part of Afghan infrastructure development will be the withdrawal of the funding that has been part of the “hearts and minds” campaign of the anti-Taliban offensive and which will be reduced when NATO withdraws.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan looks set to become even more strained. The conspicuousness of bin Laden’s hide-out suggests that the Pakistan government or army must have known something about his location. The violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty in the raid on bin Laden’s compound will also touch a soft spot for its citizens. One SPSSI member said “The death of bin Laden does not appear to be producing positive outcomes for the Pakistani government and its people, and will take actual focus on the needs of that country aside from the War on Terror to change relations”. SPSSI Member Cort Rudolph of Wayne State University said that “As a social researcher, my concern is that the circumstances surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden will serve to further polarize the U.S. from other nations. Such accentuated differences may fuel additional intergroup discord - both domestically and internationally – and may ultimately prolong this conflict.”

And how might this change international efforts in interventionist wars in the name of democracy and global security? One SPSSI member wrote saying that “I think that we will witness a decline of the “war on terror” and more willingness for compromise or matters that will ensure a return to, at least, a modicum of “safety” to all involved. Each country and each region will engage in fighting that which they perceived as radicalism that threatens their own governments and influence”. In contrast, a second member opined that “so much is happening in the Middle East, I really want people to stay focused on terrorism. Just because Bin Laden has been killed in no way shape or form does this mean that terrorism died with him”. Another member said: “We have reached an impasse in our political, economic and diplomatic negotiations.  More of the same ethnocentric diplomatic approaches will not build international relationships.  Coercion, force and violence are not acceptable "solutions."  We must increase our intercultural awareness and communication abilities.  There is every reason to believe that intercultural understanding will promote peace building”.

Al-Qaeda’s revenge
“Although Osama bin Laden did not invent the incandescent light bulb”, writes Lawrence Husick of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “he may yet be remembered as the Edison of Islamism, inventing al Qaeda, an innovation factory of terrorism without equal in the modern world”. Barak Mendelsohn of the same organization writes that although this “could mark a critical junction in the process of demilitarizing the war on terrorism”, in fact “the motivation for revenge attacks by groups and individuals in the West will be at its highest level. Lone terrorists and “homegrown” cells in particular will seek to avenge bin Laden, and they will be even less discriminate in their killings”. Looking more broadly, however, “examples from Libya and Egypt suggest that some jihadis may even abandon local jihads altogether and seek reintegration into their societies. As a result, al-Qaeda may end up largely irrelevant to setting the future of the Middle East”. One SPSSI member wrote to me saying, “I don't think that the killing of Bin Laden will have any meaningful impact on the global war on terror. After a nearly decade-long manhunt in which Bin Laden has eluded the most powerful and technologically-savvy military in the world - at unknown financial and psychological costs - he has taken on a symbolic, cult-hero status that is perhaps harder to kill.”

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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin