Barack Obama concluded his announcement that US forces had assassinated Osama Bin Laden by saying, “Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”
The crowds celebrating the news in America’s streets no doubt shared the same triumphalism.
But in reality two rather different conclusions stand out. The first is that no one should succumb to the “great man” view of history that informs so much infantile media coverage, whether it is to make heroes of Western leaders or to demonise their enemies.
Killing Bin Laden will not end the jihadi campaign against the US and its allies. Jason Burke in his excellent book Al-Qaeda argued that Bin Laden’s organisation never existed as a centralised terrorist network.
He compared Bin Laden in his heyday before 9/11 to a venture capitalist. He would provide money and expertise to Islamist groups with what he regarded as promising ideas for attacking the West. The jihadis have undoubtedly been weakened by nearly ten years of war. They have been completely marginalised in the Arab revolutions.
But some armed groups have survived. Bin Laden never commanded them, but served as an inspiration and a symbol of resistance. Having died at the hands of the US, he will continue to play this role, not just for organised jihadis, but also for some young Muslims angered by Western racism and imperialism.
Secondly, killing Bin Laden may make it easier for Obama to do what he wants to do anyway, which is run down the war in Afghanistan. Nearly three years ago one expert, Anatole Lieven, cynically suggested that, “Killing Osama Bin Laden should be made the top priority for Western intelligence in the region.
“This is not because it would have a great direct impact on the global terrorist threat… but because such a public success would make it much easier for us to declare victory and go home.”
The US troop surge in Afghanistan may have improved the Western position there, but few still believe in a real military victory over the Taliban.
Meanwhile the world has been changing around a US that has been weakened by the economic crisis and absorbed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s global influence is rapidly growing.
Obama understands that, if Washington is to maintain US dominance, then it must cut the resources it puts into these wars. Last week he reshuffled his high command, replacing defence secretary Robert Gates with Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Panetta is an ex-Congressman, who served as budget director and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton. Described by the Washington Post as “a quintessential Washington player”, he is well equipped to push through the big cuts in Pentagon spending that Obama believes is necessary to reduce the vast US budget deficit.
“You couldn’t cut defence with Gates there; he was opposed to doing it,” ex-Pentagon official Lawrence Kolb told the Financial Times. “By putting Panetta there, Obama can make the cuts.”
Obama replaced Panetta with General David Petraeus, currently US commander in Afghanistan and the architect of the 2007-8 US troop surge in Iraq that prevented the collapse of the occupation.
Petraeus is a clever political general rumoured to have presidential ambitions. More to the point, he wants to delay the rundown in US troop numbers in Afghanistan that Obama promised would start in July. So Obama has moved him out of the way.
But the CIA itself has become, the New York Times recently noted, “a paramilitary organisation”, mounting a “bombing campaign in Pakistan using armed drone aircraft”, and increasing its “secret bases and covert operatives in remote parts of Afghanistan”.
The fact that US Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad, a garrison town close to Islamabad, will no doubt make relations between the US and Pakistan even worse. Obama may want to run down the imperial wars, but the US continues to fight ruthlessly to maintain its dominance.