9/11 changed everything, bin Laden’s death does not

Stephen Yates Contributor
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Who will ever forget what we saw, where we were, and how we felt in the wake of the horrible string of events witnessed on September 11, 2001? Nearly everyone’s life was disrupted and too many lives were lost or changed forever.

American politics, government institutions, foreign policy, military missions, and of course air travel changed in fundamental ways. The Bush presidency was transformed. A new enemy moved from the margins to take center stage. Americans were awakened to the grave realities found at the intersection of radical Islam, modern technology, and open societies.

Thus to say that 9/11 changed everything is not categorically true, but it is not much of an overstatement.

By contrast, the execution of Osama bin Laden, while surely very good news, is not a transformational event.

The high stakes risks America faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan remain, and may actually grow more acute in the near term. America still must decide whether and how it will side with those struggling for freedom across the broader Middle East and elsewhere. The violent ideology of Islamism remains a potent threat and its terrorist offspring are not small enough in number.

Bin Laden’s demise will not lead to dissolution of the Homeland Security Department, realignment of U.S. forces, lower oil prices, new budget realities, or peace in our time in place of uncertainty and fear.

Islamists declared war on us long before bin Laden came on the scene, and long before we chose to face that reality. His death does not un-ring that bell. It does not un-declare that war.

He was, in the end, just one man, with only one life to give after having taken thousands. Aside from our own fiscal responsibility, the preeminent strategic challenge of our time is not this man or even his organization. It is the ideology — radical Islamism — that he did not invent and will not end with his life.

It is appropriate that Americans feel some relief; that victims sense a down payment on justice has been made. President Obama deserves credit for authorizing the action. The world is better off with bin Laden dead, and our combined military and intelligence forces executed this very risky operation with exquisite precision.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this operational success will transform American policy or the fortunes of the Obama presidency. It may in fact inflame rather than settle disputes over the methods and facilities necessary to deal with this unconventional enemy. President Obama’s base cannot be happy that he used the CIA to execute Bin Laden or accepted the legitimacy of Gitmo and military tribunals. And his opponents will not let him forget his demagoguery against the very methods that appear to have provided intelligence vital to the very mission he now celebrates as a success.

The world still cries out for effective leadership. As much as liberals at home and abroad hate the idea, most of the world and most Americans still see America as exceptional and expect greatness of our leaders. The Obama administration’s recently articulated strategy to “lead from behind” falls short of those ideals and the realities of our time. Command of our budget and decisive action abroad are needed. One order to execute one man, however deserving, does not balance against or change those demands.

Stephen Yates was Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs (2001-2005) and currently is president of DC International Advisory.