I’m not sure why, but it feels a bit tacky to write about the news that Osama bin Laden was finally killed – I think it’s possibly too fresh to be suitable for reflection. On a personal level, it’s hard to write something that doesn’t sound trite. The adjectives that leap to mind (cathartic, unifying) are rather obvious, but in this case I don’t think it makes them less apt.
I may come to regret writing this if I’m ever up for a Senate confirmation hearing (heaven forbid) but it has been unusual to feel such a sense of “us vs. them” American-ness. I’m extremely grateful for the rights and privileges (and, yes, the baggage) that come with being an American, but I tend to feel divorced from the concept of American-ness when it comes to realpolitik. We’re pretty hard-wired (and/or conditioned) towards tribalism and group identity, so it’s hard for me not to be skeptical when those levers are deployed to exert power over individuals – particularly when they become pretexts for death and destruction.
And yet, as we say in New York, I’m really fucking happy we got the bastard.
I really hope that this moment of national cohesion can be put to constructive use, although I’m certain our political culture will waste no time in defecating all over it. It would be nice to see the Left retire the conceit that it’s possible (let alone desirable) to always have ethical purity when fighting enemies who don’t. There have been suggestions that critical intelligence for this mission came from detainees at Guantanamo Bay. We may never know if this is true, or if so, what methods were used to acquire this intelligence. The Left should confront the fact that this victory may well have been tainted by connection to Guantanamo. A certain ideological purity would demand rejection and hand-wringing that, to me, initially seem pretty ridiculous. It would be nice to see the Right retire the conceit that liberals are all pantywaists who can’t be trusted to make hard calls that put tangible national interests ahead of vague national ideals. Obama deserves credit for pulling the trigger. And it would be really, really nice to avoid the fruitless debate over whether Dubya or Obama deserves “more” credit. The reality is that each pursued policies that had some successes and failures, and that those of us outside the West Wing have no idea how little we probably know about the complexity behind any policy call (let alone a grand strategy).
One extremely constructive step would be to evaluate the size, scope, and cost of our global military ambitions from this position of relative triumph. We have an extraordinary opportunity to claim this modest victory as a pretext for accelerating our withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq if we think that’s an inevitable outcome, or for doubling down if we think there’s an opportunity to ride momentum for peace-keeping and institution-building. I have no idea what’s the right answer. But I do know that we have a clear need to repair our public finances. It is not at all obvious to me that maintaining a military that is capable of engaging in trillion-dollar campaigns is the smartest way to invest scarce public dollars, relative, say, to education and infrastructure. I think it is going to be much easier to have a real debate about this now that the abstract need to “get Osama” is off the table. I doubt this debate will actually happen to a meaningful degree, but at least there is a window for it.
In the meantime: score one for Team America.