Will we overestimate the importance of Osama bin Laden's death?

Always listen for the “to be sure” line, the caveat that reveals we may be getting things backward, or at least getting ahead of the curve. In announcing the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama wisely put the to-be-sure front and center: “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort.” Good. “We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.” Also good. But the point, so obvious as to be redundant the first time around, needs to be made to Americans in particular. More than others, after all, we have a unique tendency to personalize foreign threats.

From Kaiser Wilhelm on, and for reasons that respond to needs unrelated to national security as such, we’ve always pinned the blame (and credit) for mass movements on their most visible spokesmen. Tojo, Milosevic, Saddam, and, on the flipside, Yeltsin or Aristide—George Kennan was right to lament the power of the bogeyman in American foreign policy. The persistence of nasty and divisive political impulses runs counter to our progress narrative, and also tends to be more difficult to explain. Rather, in accounting for the obduracy of certain countries and ideologies, presidents have advanced the proposition that, were it not for a handful of men like Saddam Hussein, the late Mohamed Farah Aideed, and Osama bin Laden, their supporters would eagerly sign on to the American program. “You think the Germans would have perpetrated the Holocaust on their own without Hitler?” President Clinton asked in reference to the bestial conduct of the Serbs in Kosovo. “Political leaders do this kind of thing.”

Now, on the face of it, this sort of personalization of contemporary history may seem to be in sharp contradiction to the belief that the world has improved in recent decades. But there is an escape clause: for, while these villains are blamed for the world’s current troubles, it is also insisted that they are essentially anachronisms, a residue from a rapidly vanishing past. Indeed, their very existence offers proof that hitherto intractable dilemmas of politics and ideology have been solved.

The war on terror has provided the clearest illustration of this thinking. From the first shot, President Bush declared the American campaigns as battles against lone evil men: Saddam in Iraq, Bin Laden in Afghanistan. That their ideologies were soon revealed to have energized a seemingly infinite supply of suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed impolite to point out. “Islam is peace,” President Bush famously insisted. But what the West ran up against in Al Qaeda was, finally, not a man but a creed. To judge by the foreign policy priorities of both President Bush and President Obama, there are in the world today only two sources of political legitimacy—democracy and capitalism. But there is a third, one often declared to be passé but to which modern states and ideologies repair with ever greater frequency: that is fanaticism. Those who discount this ideology as the preserve of anachronistic cave-dwellers do so at the cost of discounting the true essence of our enemy. For, whether in the Middle East or Central Asia, fanaticism has been sustained an exacerbated not by what President Clinton has dismissed as “fourteenth-century values,” but by the same progress he and his successors routinely champion—the very dislocations that have characterized the modern era and that have only intensified in an era of globalization.

The danger here is obvious. Unlike President Obama, President Bush all but declared the war in Iraq over when U.S. forces captured Saddam (having already declared it all but over the previous year). “In the history of Iraq,” he exulted, “a dark and painful era is over.” But, in 2003, the worst was still to come. Saddam, it turned out, was not the only problem in Iraq. So, too, in the broader Middle East today. “Terrorism before Bin Laden was often state-sponsored,” The New York Times pointed out, “but he was a terrorist who had sponsored a state… a multinational enterprise to export terror around the globe.” Bin Laden was a sick bastard. But he also created a generation of sick bastards. They’re still here.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.

Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Heather Hurlburt on the reasons the U.S. was able to kill bin Laden; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Jonathan Kay on the emergence of conspiracy theories; Paul Berman on the symbolism of bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy; Sean Wilentz asks if bin Laden's demise will loosen the grip paranoid politics has on America; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Louis Klarevas asks if the loss of bin Laden will hasten Al Qaeda's demise; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.

TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.