So long as Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, remained at large, it was perhaps impossible for America to confront the fact that its war on terrorism was a tragic mistake targeted at an enemy that existed more in the minds of its leaders than in reality. But with bin Laden gone, it should be easier to separate fact from fiction and call off a war that has led American foreign policy astray for an entire decade.
For all emotionally healthy individuals not suffering from too much self-righteousness, bin Laden’s death is cause for celebration. He was a mass murderer whose malevolent agenda stemmed from a deep indifference to human life. But he was a lucky mass murderer. He pulled off one spectacular act that succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. But he commanded a peasant army and didn’t have the talent necessary to be anything more than a nuisance for the United States.
Indeed, international terrorism had already been steadily waning when 9/11 happened. To be sure, in terms of casualties, 2001 surpassed all previous years. But in terms of number of incidents, it was among the bottom five least active years since 1976, according to the Patterns of Global Terrorism, a now-discontinued annual report produced by the State Department. There were 635 incidents of international terrorism in 1985 and 440 in 1995. And in 2001? Only 355. Post-9/11, in 2002 and 2003, the last two years for which reliable data are available, there were 205 and 208 incidents, respectively. This prompted the Center for Defense Information in 2006 to conclude that “terrorism reached its zenith in the mid-1980s and has been declining since,” not counting incidents in two conflict zones, Iraq and Kashmir.
And yet America’s war on terrorism continued undeterred for 10 years, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths—about 7,000 of its own troops—and $1.2 trillion in spending. The full price of the war can’t be counted in American blood and treasure alone. It must also include future consequences.
Right now, the world is awestruck by the sheer brilliance of the Abbottabad operation and furious at Pakistan’s possible complicity in harboring bin Laden. But this reaction inevitably will give way to discomfort over America’s audacity.
Indeed, America has further crossed a line by invading the sovereignty of a friendly nation with which it has full diplomatic ties without any advance notice. This might have been necessary to maintain the integrity of the operation given that the Pakistani government leaks like a sieve. And if America had done this to rescue its citizens—as was the case with Israel’s daring 1976 Entebbe raid or President Jimmy Carter’s botched 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission—it would have been one thing. But it did so just to kill a wanted man.
This can’t help but make the world nervous. I was in India when America invaded Iraq. If there is any country in the world that can understand America’s struggle against Islamist terrorism, it is India, given that it has been fighting this scourge even longer than the United States has. Indians rejoiced when America toppled the Taliban. But when it came to Iraq, I watched friends and family quietly cheer every time the BBC reported American casualties or setbacks. This wasn’t because Indians had any affection for Saddam Hussein. To the contrary. Still, they regarded Iraq as an optional war. As they saw it, there was nothing left to counter America’s awesome military prowess—either an antiwar movement within America or a competing superpower outside it. Thus, unless America paid a heavy price in Iraq, there would be no telling where it would strike next.
But a world that is rooting against America is not likely to be cooperative with America in future struggles. Indeed, foreign governments will have a hard time wholeheartedly allying with a country that alienates their people.
What’s more, if America thinks it is above the law and doesn’t have to answer to international opinion, it will lose its leverage for peacefully resolving disputes. For instance, some Indian commentators are openly speculating whether America could legitimately prevent India from pulling an Abbottabad-style raid to abduct the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks holed up in Pakistan. Likewise, America will have less credibility should it want to discourage Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The first thing the president could do to calm an anxious world is dial down his triumphalist rhetoric. He should stop saying that “America can do whatever it sets its mind to” when discussing the war on terror.
And then he should call the war off and deal with terrorism as a law enforcement problem. So long as war remains official policy, America will be tempted to undertake actions—drone attacks, targeted killings, interference in civil wars—as a matter of routine that should be reserved only for emergencies.
The open-ended, ill-defined nature of the war on terrorism puts America at odds with potentially every country, lacing disagreements and conflicts with the threat of aggression. This ultimately does more to compromise the world’s sense of security than bin Laden ever could.