After Bin Laden, Unity Might Not Be Fleeting

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 04, 2011, issue of May 13, 2011.
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The death of Osama Bin Laden has a lot of folks talking about a new feeling of national unity, a sense that we’ve suddenly been granted leave for the first time in a long time to feel like one nation instead of warring tribes. How long it will last is anybody’s guess. Nobody is taking bets on our leaders learning to work together and tackle the country’s problems like grownups anytime soon. I’ll tell you what, though: Don’t write it off too quickly.

Here and there amid the cheering and backslapping, you can see some real and quite unexpected signs of rethinking across partisan lines. Some influential opinion-makers are looking at what happened in that compound in Pakistan and questioning some of their own and their allies’ old assumptions. In some cases they’re actually listening to what the other side has to say with an open mind. You can even hear the odd public figure saying, “Hey, the other side was right.” When was the last time you heard that?

The most important of these shifts goes to the very notion of a war on terror. Bin Laden’s end didn’t come as a result of a military campaign by armed forces invading enemy territory. It resulted from a long, painstaking process of intelligence and detective work, followed by what amounted to a SWAT team entering a building, seizing the target and then sweeping the scene for evidence. That sounds a lot more like police work than a military operation.

Republicans have spent the last decade ridiculing any Democrat who dared to stick out his neck and argue for a criminal justice approach to fighting terrorism, as opposed to the war paradigm. John Kerry was raked over the coals in 2004 for making that case in a presidential debate. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and a host of others have been insisting for years that treating terrorism as a criminal problem, trying to arrest the perpetrators, doing anything short of waging all-out war, is somehow tantamount to surrender, and that liberals who favor it are showing their lily-livered wimpiness.

The bin Laden raid proved Kerry’s point better than a hundred televised debates could ever do. Conservative pundit George Will, who has been making this argument for years in lonely defiance of his fellow Republicans, said it flat out in the Washington Post on May 2, the day after the raid. Bin Laden, Will wrote, “was brought down by intelligence gathering that more resembles excellent police work than a military operation.”

True, Will cautioned, Al Qaeda is still out there, so “the ‘long war’ must go on. But perhaps such language is bewitching our minds, because this is not essentially war.”

This time, though, Will is not alone. Hawkish foreign-policy wonk Anne Applebaum, also writing on May 2 in the online magazine Slate, compared the long, costly, indecisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the quick victory in Abbottabad and wondered if we’re spending our money in the right places. Hard-line military writer Robert Kaplan, writing at, talked elliptically about the changing nature of the war on terrorism after bin Laden’s death and rattled off a list of Obama-era operations that succeeded through small-bore tactics rather than classic military engagement.

Bush-era security experts were saying similar things on television, sometimes to their hosts’ embarrassment. Bush administration CIA director Michael Hayden, for one, was asked by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly to agree that President Obama made a mistake sending in a strike team instead of the Air Force and answered with a flat “no,” drawing a flummoxed scowl from O’Reilly.

Most telling of all, hardly anyone is making the counter-argument. Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s attorney general, made the case against the criminal justice approach at the National Review Online, but even there, much of the reader comment was critical.

On the other side of the aisle, the rethinking is a bit harder to discern, mainly because it’s most evident in what’s not been said. There’s been no outpouring of indignation over what looks an awful lot like a targeted assassination. Up until now, the left has been quick to jump on the president when he’s been seen continuing Bush administration policies. And nothing he’s done has drawn more heat from the left than his continuation of Bush security policies. He had led his supporters to believe there would be a dramatic about-face. Instead he stepped up the war in Afghanistan, left troops in Iraq and, most controversially, kept Guantanamo open.

We still don’t know whether or not important clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts were obtained by so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. The administration won’t say, and partisans on both sides of the torture debate claim they’ve been proven right, though the most detailed reporting on the raid, in The New York Times, indicates that at least some crucial evidence was obtained by rough treatment. Either way, it’s certain that the manhunt began years ago with interrogation of detainees in some dank cells in the Bush era. Obama White House officials have made that much clear. Obama himself made it even clearer by phoning Bush immediately after the deed was done, symbolically sharing credit. The liberals should be outraged.

But they weren’t. The biggest names — Roger Cohen in The New York Times, Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post, Monica Potts at The American Prospect, even Tom Hayden, in a guest appearance in The Nation — all were taking the justice of the operation as a given, at least in the immediate aftermath, as if to say: Yes, due process is sacred, and no, you can’t fight ideas with guns, and certainly human rights are indivisible, but this time I’ll have whatever those guys are drinking.

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