Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces on May 2, 2011. This event was, without a doubt, a physical victory for America over al-Qaida.
However, an analysis of America’s strategic shift with respect to foreign policy will show that when it comes to the broader strategic war of civilizations, bin Laden himself had a decisive victory.
In a famous open letter to the American people in November 2002, bin Laden explained his motivation for attacking America and the changes that he demanded be implemented before he would refrain from attacking the country.
These changes include some more ridiculous demands such as mass conversion to Islam, but we will limit our analysis to the actual strategic demands bin Laden made from America. We will then see how US President Barack Obama’s administration has been implementing every single one these demands.
Retreat of American forces from Muslim lands One of the demands was for the immediate retreat of American troops from Muslim lands: “Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctities,” bin Laden argued. “We also advise you to pack your luggage and get out of our lands. We desire for your goodness, guidance and righteousness, so do not force us to send you back as cargo in coffins.”
Of course, one of the main issues to come up in the 2008 election was the question of the presence of American troops in Iraq. Republican candidate John McCain argued that troops should be left for as long as needed in order to provide stability, “maybe even 100 years.” Obama, on the other hand, promised the immediate withdrawal. Obama won the elections and began the withdrawal in 2009, completing it by 2011.
On June 2011, Obama announced a change in strategy in Afghanistan, calling for the “drawdown” of troops at a steady pace. The current plan calls for the complete withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. “The tide of war is receding,” he said.
Some troops are set to remain after 2014, but until today, it is unclear how many troops this would entail.
The military is arguing for a more significant presence, while the Obama administration wants a very small presence. As a result of increasingly frustrating dealings with President Hamid Karzai, Obama was even giving serious consideration in early July 2013 to speeding up the withdrawal of forces, and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after 2014.
Bin Laden’s legacy lives on.
Non-intervention as foreign policy Bin Laden’s other strategic demand in his letter was for America to stop meddling in the business of other countries: “We call upon you to end your support of the corrupt leaders in our countries. Do not interfere in our politics and method of education. Leave us alone, or else expect us in New York and Washington.”
The Obama administration has made this its strategic plan. On the one hand, Obama has stopped supporting strategic allies, such as Hosni Mubarak. When the people of Egypt rose against him, Obama pressured him to resign.
On the other hand, Obama has stopped showing strong opposition to America’s enemies. While clearly stating that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a redline that would force American intervention in the conflict, when President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, Obama did not intervene – and Assad still rules over Syria.
Iran is no longer treated like a real enemy. Sanctions have been lifted, negotiations are under way, photo shoots are even taken between John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. What has Tehran given up to deserve this treatment? Nothing.
Iran still calls for the destruction of Israel, it still reserves the right to nuclear technology and still says it will refuse to reverse its nuclear program.
With such treatment for America’s enemies, Mubarak probably wished he would have been considered an enemy rather than a friend. In fact, there is clear incentive nowadays for US allies to look for other allies, rather than to rely on American support.
This new strategy of non-intervention is the complete opposite of the strategy which bin Laden opposed.
Before bin Laden’s victory over the American spirit, the US saw itself as a moral beacon in the world, a messenger of freedom and liberty; part of the American mission was to spread this liberty. This bothered bin Laden, since his message was one of submission to Islam and support of dictatorships, not freedom.
Now, while America has of course not submitted itself to Islam, it has clearly shown that it is not bothered by others being coercively and forcefully submitted to it. America is also not bothered by tyrants and dictatorship. All that matters is that America not be bothered. “Leave us alone in New York and Washington, and we will not interfere in your affairs” – this is the new American message.
America went from being leader of the free world, bringing good, to being just another country.
Stop supporting Israel Of course, one of the central demands of bin Laden was for America to stop supporting Israel: “Palestine, which has sunk under military occupation for more than 80 years... The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation. The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel.”
He added: “We also advise you to stop supporting Israel.”
It would be an exaggeration to claim that bin Laden’s victory on this subject has been complete. After all, his claim was that the occupation by “Jews” in “Palestine” started over 50 years ago. In other words, he is opposed to the very existence of Israel.
However, there is no doubt that on this issue as well, bin Laden did score some valuable points.
In 2010, US Vice President Joe Biden spoke in very clear terms: “There is absolutely no space between the US and Israel – none, none at all.”
In private conversations, however, the tone was very different. This is clear from a private meeting between Obama and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the US is right next to them,” Hoenlein told the president.
“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Today, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, America has made it clear to the world that there is a lot of daylight between the two countries. Kerry pressures Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to more and more concessions, even after Netanyahu already endorsed the two-state solution, had a settlement freeze and released violent murderers from Israeli prisons.
At the same time, he has not asked for any concession from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has still not recognized Israel’s basic right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In effect, Netanyahu keeps moving towards Obama and Obama keeps taking a step back towards Abbas, keeping a lot of daylight between the two countries.
Yes, America still recognizes Israel’s right to exist, but America is not Israel’s closest ally. Bin Laden is probably smiling in his nonexistent grave for this additional victory.
Leader of the free world? The Obama administration has taken a clear stand against being the leader of the free world. In doing so, it has clearly submitted a large part of its worldview to that of bin Laden.
Those of us who cherish freedom and want its success, and who believe in America’s contribution to the world, should urge the American people to ensure the next administration reverses this strategic shift. Then, America will be able to declare victory not only against bin Laden’s physical body, but also against his legacy. The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.