Osama bin Laden, the GWOT and the Arab Spring: what has changed?

The lack of reaction to the apparent killing of Osama bin Laden is in some ways more telling than the reaction. For starters, thank goodness, the feds have not issued a terror alert. Politico notes on May 4:

When President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, there was no color-coded chart in the corner of the TV screen to alert Americans that the government had raised the threat level from yellow to orange.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no heightened alert… Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced she wouldn’t issue a terror alert—even as the White House raised the possibility that extremists might retaliate after bin Laden’s death. Napolitano said in a statement that she would put out an alert “when we have specific or credible information.”

The Homeland Security Department recently dropped the color-coded terror alerts inherited from the Bush era, However, The Hill notes a sinister aspect to the new system:

The oft-criticized color-coded threat advisory system was replaced in April by the new National Terrorism Advisory System, which functions from a baseline understanding that the U.S. is always under the threat of attack and therefore always on alert.

If a specific threat emerges, however, the alert level can be raised to an “elevated” status, or, judging by the specific threat, an “imminent” status. The system does not require that a threat be considered “elevated” before being designated “imminent.”

So while at least the Bush-era system had a theoretical “low” threat category (even if they never instated it), today all we get is “imminent” or “elevated.” Reminds us of the old Cold War joke that the Pentagon was to rename “peace” as a “permanent state of pre-war.” Similarly, when the Obama administration abandoned the Bush-era phrase “Global War on Terrorism,” it was replaced with the dryly clinical and antiseptic “Overseas Contingency Operation“—arguably a switch from a hubristic and bellicose rallying cry to an Orwellian euphemism.

But critics of the US empire have also been engaging in kneejerk Cold War-style Manichean thinking. Some “left-wing” commentators can barely contain their glee as they predict that the bin Laden killing will breathe new life into al-Qaeda. E.g. Radley Balko on The Agitator, in a piece sickeningly entitled “He Won”:

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

Worse still is Santiago Alba Rico on Cuba Debate, in a screed dubbed “Kill Bin Laden, Revive Al-Qaeda”:

We don’t know if bin Laden has really been killed; what is clear is that the effort to resuscitate al-Qaeda at all costs is an attempt to snuff out the processes of change that began four months ago in the Arab world.

If there is any such insidious scheme, we don’t think it has much chance, again thank goodness. Where are the huge protests in anger over bin Laden’s killing? Nowhere. The few that have been held in Pakistan have been puny. A May 4 IPS report notes the distinctly underwhelming response to bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan:

Taj Muhammad, local political activist from the Awami National Party (ANP), said people now feel disdain toward Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, citing the suicide and bomb attacks in bazaars, mosques and funeral ceremonies by these groups, besides blowing up schools and other government-owned buildings. The ANP was itself at the receiving end of attacks for opposing the Taliban.

“The victims of Taliban’s attacks in most of the cases happened to be innocent and poor people, including women and children,” Muhammad said. “Seldom have they targeted Americans or Europeans whom they considered enemies of Islam. It is the poor Pakistanis who end up suffering after every attack.”

Bin Laden has “achieved all he set out to achieve”? He has not achieved a single Islamist regime taking power anywhere. Al-Qaeda has been utterly left behind by the Arab Spring, which has already overturned two authoritarian regimes (Tunisia and Egypt), with more almost certainly on the way. While there have been few and small Islamist protests over Osama’s killing, basically secular and progressive protests against dictators are mounting throughout the Arab world, the greater Middle East and beyond. Al-Qaeda has been relegated to playing catch-up, hoping that continued terror attacks can transform the struggles in Yemen and Morocco from popular civil revolutions to jihadist civil wars. It hasn’t been working.

Admittedly, as we have argued, the Libya intervention holds the potential to change this, and is probably aimed in large part at controlling the political trajectory of the Arab Spring (far more so than the killing of bin Laden). But this demonstrates that imperialism has also been relegated to playing catch-up as the Arab masses themselves have, at long last, seized the initiative.

Only those who fetishize Osama bin Laden because he fetishized America could fail to get it.

See our last posts on bin Laden, the GWOT and al-Qaeda, and the new regional revolutions.

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