No human’s death is ever a blessing. But this comes close. Many modern revolutionaries have committed terrible crimes in pursuit of a vision that, at least in theory, had moral value. Osama bin Laden’s vision, by contrast, was both totalitarian and parochial. And he murdered freely in its pursuit. He was evil in both ends and means.
But we have more to be grateful for than this one villain’s demise. We must give thanks for something broader: The war on terror is over. I don’t mean that there is no threat of further jihadist attack. In the short term, the threat may even rise. I don’t mean that we should abandon all efforts at tracking terrorist cells. Of course not. But the war on terror was a way of seeing the world, explicitly modeled on World War II and the Cold War. It suggested that the struggle against “radical Islam” or “Islamofascism” or “Islamic terrorism” should be the overarching goal of American foreign policy, the prism through which we see the world.
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I remember how seductive that vision was in the aftermath of 9/11. It imposed order on the world and gave purpose to American power. But it was a mistake from the start. Even the Cold War was a dangerously overblown vision, which blinded American policymakers to the fact that much of what happened in, say, Vietnam or Angola, had little to do with Moscow or communism. But the war on terror was worse. It made East Asia an afterthought during a critical period in China’s rise; it allowed all manner of dictators to sell their repression in Washington, just as they had during the Cold War; it facilitated America’s descent into torture; it wildly exaggerated the ideological appeal of a jihadist-Salafist movement whose vision of society most Muslims find revolting.
Bin Laden’s death is an opportunity to lay the war on terror to rest as well. Although President Obama avoids the phrase, its assumptions still drive our war in Afghanistan, a crushingly expensive adventure in nation building in a desperately poor country whose powerful neighbor wants us to fail. Those assumptions fuel anti-Muslim racism in the United States, where large swaths of the Republican Party have decided they are at risk of living under Sharia law. And they blind us to the differences among Islamist movements, allowing Glenn Beck and company to depict Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as al Qaeda’s farm team.
Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem.
Even before the U.S. killed bin Laden, the Arab Spring had already rendered him irrelevant. President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.
Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.