Americans today still live in fear. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the nuclear arms race made the US believe its absolute military dominion guaranteed its national security.
The Clinton Administration confidently shelved Reagan’s Star Wars programme (the Strategic Defence Initiative). The Russian Bear was dead.
It proved to be a misjudged calculation. On September 11, 2001, the US realised its vulnerability. On that tragic day, America was badly shaken. The country had fought many wars but never before had the enemy hit so deep on its own soil. The Imperial Japanese Navy had come the closest when it attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour. In that attack, 2,350 Americans lost their lives and 21 warships were sunk or severely damaged.
On 9/11, it was very different. The aggressor was no imperial power and had no nuclear warheads or intercontinental missiles. It was the work of 19 terrorists supported by Al-Qaeda, a multinational network of Islamic militants. The missiles were four hijacked commercial passenger aircraft, America’s own planes. The suicide attacks left 2,977 people dead. Targeted cities included New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
From that day, guerilla warfare assumed a new global dimension. America’s worst dreams had come true, just like in Vietnam. National security had to be redefined as America no longer felt shielded by its military superiority or by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
President George Bush Jnr was quick to respond by declaring “war on terrorism”. The aggressor had a face, that of Osama bin Laden. He was the mastermind behind the 9/11 and other attacks. The FBI placed a $25 million bounty on his head. The US felt threatened and took drastic action to improve its internal security. A Department of Homeland Security was set up to be the sole agency responsible for security. Congress legislated the US Patriot Act and a secret National Security Agency was established. These controversial measures created the right to tap communications without a warrant. Guantánamo became infamous for the torture of Islamic detainees.
Americans felt besieged and were prepared to compromise their privacy rights. Less than two months after 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq was to follow soon after. Bin Laden, however, was still nowhere to be found.
The war on terror is an open-ended war. It has been going on for almost 10 years, so it is not surprising that the elimination of public enemy number one led to rejoicing in the streets. The assassination of bin Laden by the Navy Seals brought with it an expression of relief among Americans. Some celebrated publicly because they felt justice had been made. They hoped bin Laden’s death would send a strong message to Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
The attack itself was a bit of an anti-climax. In his den, the Saudi-born businessman was more like a trapped rat rather than a stealthy leopard. What exactly happened in bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad is not clear. Probably, the world will never know and maybe it is better that way.
The death of bin Laden was a personal victory for President Barack Obama. It was he who authorised the operation. It was he who decided in favour of a manned assault rather than an air strike. He was not prepared to leave anything to chance.
Mr Obama and his team, followed the 40-minute helicopter attack live on video. The President wanted to show he was America’s commander-in-chief. He wanted to prove the likes of Sarah Palin, the ex-beauty queen turned politician, darling of the Tea Party movement and potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, how wrong they were in accusing him to be just a professor-in-chief.
Pacifist Obama succeeded where cowboy Bush had failed. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is emerging as the decisive leader that Venus America craves for. It was Mr Obama who, a few days earlier, had consented to air attacks against Libya. Not exactly the doings of a peacemaker. On receiving the coveted award, Mr Obama had insisted he was the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. (At that time, he had just authorised sending an additional 30,000 soldiers into Afghanistan.)
Evil existed in the world and the use of violence could not be eradicated. In Oslo, Mr Obama spoke about “just wars”. He declared that what he was against were ideological, rash, dumb wars.
Indeed, Mr Obama is no Ghandi and the US is no India. Defining what is a “just war” is difficult, especially if a country often acts as judge and jury. Bin Laden too believed his jihad was a “just war”.
Violence should be the measure of last resort. In 2009, addressing a Cairo rally, President Obama had promised a new beginning between the US and Muslims. Little changed. Bin Laden’s death and the Arab uprising, present another opportunity for Mr Obama. Last week, the US President unveiled a multi-billion dollar economic plan to encourage Arabs to embrace democracy. He emphasised that the US should be driven by its values not just strategic interests. Now “we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” said Mr Obama.
President Obama committed the US to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in line with UN Resolution 242 of 1967.
Offering an olive branch to Islam may not guarantee Mr Obama re-election but it would prove to the world that he truly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
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