TEL AVIV JOURNAL MAY 5, 2011
It was already deep into Yom Hashoah, the day that Israel had designated some 60 years ago as the time to memorialize the Jewish catastrophe perpetrated by the Nazis, when news leaked out and then was corroborated by President Obama that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a secured mansion hide-out in Pakistan, actually not far from the country’s capital. Apparently, the mansion was not secured nearly enough: The intelligence and defense forces of the United States had located it eight months before, and it was over that period that the United States—yes, the U.S. alone—had mobilized and meticulously carried out the operation that brought this long sought after mass murderer to justice. We should also not misrepresent and deceive ourselves about the manner in which the ultimate penalty was achieved. This was a “targeted killing,” all at once reasonable, righteous, required. Given the burdens of ingenue innocence with which Obama was shackled from the campaign, it was a brave decision he made to train the administration’s sights (and quite literally his own) on bin Laden’s very life.
My guess is, moreover, that no one will be honing in at the Navy Seals for cuts in the defense budget. Or at the technology which allowed the president to watch just as bin Laden was being shot in the head. The fact is that our country is the defender of civilized societies not of “last resort” but of “only resort.” It is a burden; it is also a blessing and a privilege. We deserve much more ethical authority in the world than we are conceded, and this should right the balance. Still, it is easy to make Americans feel guilty about anything. So I hope that the revelation that bin Laden himself was unarmed when he was killed will not turn into some quibble about whether the shoot-out was a fair one. After all, no one conceived of this as a gentleman’s duel.
The sangfroid with which the Obama apparatus has handled this episode is in welcome contrast to the way the Clinton administration compromised the goal of getting bin Laden dead or alive by focusing on the artificial legalities of whether the man was a war criminal, whether we could bomb his headquarters while some royals from the United Arab Emirates were visiting (by the way, many Saudi princes visited the fugitive), whether we should shoot rockets into premises containing a mosque that might be shot up. But bin Laden was responsible, aside from other brutalities, for the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which took 200 lives and also for the assault on the USS Cole, with 17 dead, in the port of Aden in Yemen. Still, as several chapters of the September 11 report dealing with the prehistory of that calamity make clear, there was something both neurotic and almost comic in the finickiness of the principals about how they might hurt their prey by mistake. What about the president himself? He was otherwise engaged. Madeleine Albright, oh my, oh my, she’d have trouble explaining it to her friends. Sandy Berger, trade lawyer that he was, had a commercial solution to every dilemma. Janet Reno, I think she was concerned with whether the government could secure a guilty verdict for Osama if he came to trial. Or was that George Tenet? The silliness of it all.
Bin Laden’s prime targets were other than the Jews or, for that matter, the State of Israel. He had larger objectives: America itself, the world’s democracies, science, even Christianity, schismatic Muslims, many as jihadist as he. But Jewry and the Jewish nation have a special place in the poisoned hearts of his Muslim followers and in the hearts of many who aren’t quite his followers. So the redemption of Zion is a fact that nags at those who live angrily with their own cultural self-humiliation, rebukes them, haunts them. How could it be, they may ask themselves, that nearly 80 percent of the 7.5 million Jews in occupied Europe (and others elsewhere) were murdered and yet the promise of Jerusalem—their own third holiest blah blah—in the broadest sense has been fulfilled?
Nazism was the first ideology in modernity to aim at killing an entire civilization, Jewish civilization. The Turks, after all, were content to murder the Armenians on their own turf. Not so the Germans. Make no mistake about it. Almost no one wished to recognize that somber fact. The shabby excuses for why the Roosevelt administration refused to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz (it would make it seem too much like a war for the Jews which, Lord knows, it wasn’t) make this clear. The genocidal ambitions still live. But certainly not in Europe. For nearly a decade the Reich disguised its ultimate intentions for the Jews. Dr. Ahmadinejad has no such tricks in his hat. He is as plain as day, and is an applauded figure at Columbia University, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the General Assembly. Something else has changed. In fact, there are two features of the world that were not present when the terrible homicide of the Jews occurred. The first is that there is a Jewish state.
This Jewish state literally rescued and paid ransom for at least two million Jews who would otherwise have disappeared. From the Soviet Union, from Poland, from Rumania, from Ethiopia, from Argentina, from other little pockets here, there, everywhere. Of course, another million, maybe more from the Arab countries earlier on in Israel’s history. There is a place for Jews to go, a place that is their own, their home. But this place is also a temptation to the new genocidalists who happen also to be candid genocidalists. One percent of the Jewish population of Palestine was killed in the War of Independence. Those are added to the Jewish nakba of less than half a decade earlier, except that this time the Jews (just like the Arabs) had guns.
Now more than guns. And no, not just nuclear weapons of their own. But, more important, an ingrown scientific temperament and its extraordinary consequences which produced a technological universe of defense and assault. Be assured that this is shared with the United States, as the U.S. shares many of its innovations with Israel. I’ve heard—I do not know—that every helmet on every American soldier includes a component contrived by Israeli military engineering. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that, aside from the work done at Siemens and the Idaho National Laboratory, some team of Israelis made the happy match between Stuxnet and Iranian centrifuges. Mazal tov.
The new parameters of war—to take care not to attack innocents, which was hardly a consideration by either the Axis or Allied countries during the Second World War—are quite scrupulously adhered to by Western military establishments, especially including Israel. But, while “underdog” fighters often employ quite sophisticated technologies, they have no compunctions about killing at random. Often without specific targets, like Hamas against Israel.
Or, as has been apparent these last three months in sequential bloodlettings in the Arab world, the very states of Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. To say nothing of a motley assortment of butchers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some official, mostly not.
Osama bin Laden brought this butchery to America, and he spooked the American people for nearly a decade. His ghostly and ghastly presence in the shadows of time and geography had transformed him into an ubermensch, at least to those millions (and more millions) who saw the mass murderer as a message and messenger of the Prophet. I myself had seen in several places over the Muslim world, in stalls and booths lining bazaars and even in book shops, the long wiry hatchet face that did not look you in the eye. (Verso Books, the publisher which puts out every nasty revolutionary idea for which assistant professors contrive arcane theories, had gathered Osama’s Messages to the World into print, and likely it will have a macabre new run in the wake of his death.) Still, in some places, many places, the violent seer remains the incarnation of hate-filled hope, not just by some wretched of the earth but also those pampered Arabs who contributed to his till.
In his dignified address to the nation and the world, the president cut him down to size. But he was no pollyanna. Osama is dead. His movement, not entirely one movement, in any event, still lives and may be reinvigorated by the resentments of his followers and hangers-on. Nonetheless, this episode will surely help Obama’s political standing, and Republicans will be hard-put to fault him on the facts. His predecessor, George Bush, made a gracious statement which was probably heartfelt, as well. We are all more liberated now, and this lift from fear was also experienced in Israel as Holocaust memorial ceremonies drew to a close and the news sunk in that bin Laden was no more.
Yet there were a few elements in Obama’s address that trouble me. It’s not exactly that he iterated and reiterated, as he has been doing since the start of his presidency, that “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam ... our war is not with Islam.” No one wants a war with the Muslim religion or with the Muslim world. No one and certainly no American ... except maybe the crazy Florida pastor who, with his flock, puts the flame to the Koran. Obama reverts to his trope so often that it seems, at least to me, that he is trying to convince himself that there is no space between Islam and the USA.
Obama pointedly observed that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims.” True enough. But then one wonders why, in societies that take easily to the streets, there were no demonstrations against his faithful and those who organize them for suicide and killing. Am I wrong? Was there even one? Please tell me if I am wrong.
I do not care that the president failed to place this intricate military operation within the context of Bush’s “war on terror.” Bush had his vanity. Obama has his. We go on.
But Obama is certainly among those few who almost tactilely experience the politics of the Muslim faith in Pakistan. Yes, there are also tribal differences. But Islam is a great motivator. After all, it’s what motivated the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to provide Iran and Libya (plus North Korea) with atomic materials and intelligence. Alas, Pakistan is also less an ally against Muslim terrorism than its protector. Steven Lee Myers and Jane Perlez have written a story in today’s New York Times about the deceptions practiced by the country’s intelligence elites against American efforts to close down terrorism in the country. After bin Laden was killed, “the Pakistani government issued a defiant statement calling the raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader ‘an unauthorized unilateral action.’” That’s an ally for you. No one has ever really come clean about Pakistan.
The Washington Post has an astute column by Richard Cohen which states precisely the president’s predicament with one of his Muslim allies. (The other Muslim allies pose similar predicaments, poor man: Turkey, for instance.)
He seized the spotlight, as he did the moment, offering us a crescendo of the word ‘I’—’I directed’ and ‘I was briefed’ and ‘I met repeatedly’ and ‘I determined.’ But what he did not mention was that he decided to go it alone. Our nominal allies in the fight for Afghanistan, the unreliable and unpredictable Pakistanis, were kept in the dark. Their sovereignty was violated, they lost face, and the United States, as a consequence, lost some cover. It cannot be said that Osama was killed by another Muslim. A martyr has been made.
For too long now the Obama administration has shown a touching but sometimes counterproductive sensitivity for the sensitivities of the Muslim world. It has proceeded as if it was more important to be liked than to be feared and as if some differences were not fundamental but always a product of misunderstanding.
I’m going to repeat Cohen’s meaningful last phrase: “as if some differences were not fundamental but always a product of misunderstanding.” And then Cohen continues.
This is not the case. The US can do little to mollify Islamists and others who seek the obliteration of Israel and the return of holy Jerusalem to the Muslim fold. It can do little with bigots who loathe America’s culture of tolerance.
We shall see if the killing of Osama signals the emergence of a new Obama.
It was as if Obama thought he could charm these guys, reason with them—that their antipathy toward him was based on some sort of misunderstanding and not, as it was and remains, their ideology.
Obama attempted something similar with Iran. He wanted accommodation, less belligerence. They know very well who we are, and we should know who they are. The same holds for Syria.
This is devastating. By the way, does Obama still want Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights to Assad which, of course, might strengthen him? Or to wait until the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power when Assad falls?
And now Obama faces “Palestine.” It is a new Palestine, to be run (if a phantom can truly be run) by a reunion of Fatah (or the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas, a certified terror organization which was sired by the Muslim Brothers of Egypt. Bin Laden’s is not a popular death. After all, he had brought cheer from Jenin to Gaza after September 11, as he had in every Arab state and the tiniest and wealthiest principality. No sooner had Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyah announced their organizational nuptials—an occasion on which Obama has not yet commented—than the Gazan “prime minister” denounced the assassination of a “holy warrior.” Why should he not have? They were both practitioners of random and mass death terrorism.
Bin Laden’s killing is arguably the most daring and difficult undertaking executed by the administration. Should it now accede to one of his acolytes sharing power and extending the dominion of stealth and death? If it does we will look back on this achievement as a sham.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.