Osama bin Laden’s demise came after President Barack Obama restored counter-terrorism operations to America’s top national security priority, reversing President George Bush’s decision — before and after the 9/11 attacks — to deprioritize the effort to destroy al Qaeda.
Bush may have coined the phrase “global war on terror,” but that was simply political cover for a strategic decision to prioritize “regime change,” overthrowing leaders of “rogue states” with unilateral military actions, over the multilateral pursuit of stateless terror organizations.
Bush’s decision was a costly one: in lives, in money and in moral authority.
Let’s review the record.
In his second term, President Bill Clinton furiously tried to take out bin Laden, but was not taken seriously by Republicans. A failed missile attack was scorned as an attempt to shift attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And congressional Republicans helped block a series of Clinton-backed counter-terrorism measures.
In 2001, the Bush administration retained Clinton’s top counter-terrorism aide, Richard Clarke, then proceeded to ignore him. Clarke later recounted that while “Bill Clinton was obsessed with getting bin Laden,” the Bush team “thought I was a little crazy, a little obsessed with this little terrorist bin Laden. Why wasn’t I focused on Iraqi-sponsored terrorism?”
In the months before 9/11, the Bush administration and their conservative allies were pushing Congress to spend billions more on national missile defense. Democrats repeatedly countered that our primary national security threats came from nuclear and biological weapons smuggled in suitcases by terrorists, not missiles from dictators.
The Bush administration response, argued right up until the 9/11 attacks, was that we already spend enough on counter-terrorism. On September 9, 2001, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rebutted calls to increase counter-terrorism funds instead of missile defense by saying, “the United States spends so much money…on terrorists. We spend a $11 billion trying to deal with terrorism and force protection.”
After 9/11, the Bush administration did not seriously recalibrate its national security strategy. Instead of organizing a broad multilateral response to extinguish al Qaeda, President Bush only chased Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was able to escape at Tora Bora because Bush outsourced to job to unreliable Afghan warlords.
No matter. The Bush administration soon returned to its Iraq obsession and held back from aggressively pursuing bin Laden.
The Pakistan government, then led by military dictatorship, refused to allow American military forces cross the border. The Bush administration acquiesced.
In 2005, an operation to capture Al Qaeda’s second-in-command is aborted in deference to Pakistan leaders. In 2006, President Bush literally blesses a “peace deal” between the Pakistan government and tribal militants that support al Qaeda, and further argues that hunting al Qaeda is “not a top priority use of American resources.” In 2007, top Bush adviser Karl Rove defended the policy by saying:
The United States has concerns about taking unilateral action in a sovereign nation without their approval, and uh, so this has always been the difficulty we have with, uh — unless, of course it’s Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars were lost on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was sold to the public as a battlefront in the “global war on terror” but had nothing to do with terrorism at all.
More importantly, President Obama made a strategic decision to prioritize the dismantling of al Qaeda’s leadership, and to act even if Pakistan wouldn’t.
His pledge to do so in the presidential campaign was mocked by conservatives at the time. But the successful bin Laden operation shows that an effective counter-terrorism strategy need not alienate allies, require jingoistic rhetoric, costs hundreds of billions of dollars or end the lives of thousands of innocents. The globe’s most wanted terrorist organization leader was felled by diligent intelligence gathering, thoughtful military planning and a small strike force.
Similarly, Egypt’s dictator was ousted, and the cause of democracy was advanced, by nonviolent protests alongside strategic, skilled diplomacy. Neither a full-blown unilateral military invasion or a costly military occupation was required.
For America to be fiscally sound and economically prosperous over the long haul, we can no longer allow rhetorical bombast to mask dangerous foreign policy adventures that worsen our national security and waste taxpayer funds.
We have experienced two contrasting foreign policy visions. One was a bust. The other has had clear successes in only two years time.
Let’s stick with what’s working.