Setting the record straight – George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden

As the cable news outlets showed thousands of Americans gathering in different cities to celebrate the news that President Obama had ordered a successful attack on a compound housing Osama bin Laden, a host of former Bush administration officials called in or appeared to claim that capturing and/or killing the terrorist leader was their top priority all those years and that this weekend's events were really just a continuation of that original goal.

Unfortunately for them, this claim simply doesn't comport with the record.

In 2006, George W. Bush told the pro-Republican Party magazine Weekly Standard that going after bin Laden wasn't his top priority because it didn't fit with his anti-terrorist strategy. (See also here for more comments by Bush on why it wasn't important for him to go after bin Laden.)

Bush was under fire to explain why, at that point after 5 years, his efforts hadn't at least resulted in bringing the man who ordered or financed or backed numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, let alone in any significant military accomplishments in Afghanistan or Iraq.

He couldn't escape the criticism that military policy in Afghanistan may have allowed bin Laden to escape to Pakistan at a crucial moment in the war. Nor could counter the self-evident argument that his drive for war in Iraq based on lies about WMD and Saddam's connection to the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks distracted from the larger effort to bring the real people behind them to justice.

Indeed, with a growing American majority demanding an end to the Iraq war, Bush needed a bogey man to shake out of the closet on occasion to justify his resistance to the popular demand to get out.

He also need a rationale for his failures on his own terms.

It was a growing public opposition to Bush's foreign policy disasters – his two wars that stand as his major legacy – the cost in treasure and lives of those failures, his arrogant refusal to admit his error, that led in no small part to the political changes in 2006 and in 2008.

No wonder Bush and his surrogates are anxious to erase the historical record by joining the celebrations.

But are the celebrations of May 1st – which, with chants of "USA USA USA" and what seemed like a Stars and Stripes extravaganza, seemed more like the kind of thing you'd expect after one's favorite football team wins the BCS championship – warranted?

Don't get me wrong. Osama bin Laden was a guy who never hesitated to take a life in order to advance his political goals, the worst kind of villain imaginable. Because of his record of killing, for a person like myself who is a pacifist and an opponent of capital punishment, the President's decision to order bin Laden's death admittedly tests the moral certitude of my beliefs.

Still, I cannot see a celebration of these events as a moral good. Rather the events should demand of us somber reflection (I have no doubt that millions of Americans are doing just that though they make less interesting video footage for CNN's cameras.). Instead of chants and flag waving, we should stop to recall the crimes of September 11th and the members of our communities – of all races, national backgrounds and religions – who we lost that day.

We should pause not to pump our fists in the air but examine 10 years of war and waste when George W. Bush turned sorrow, anger and fist-pumping into a reason to start two wars, to expend the lives of tens of thousands of our own people and of people in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to make political capital of a crime.

We should wonder, is this justice? Did the search for justice begin on Sept. 12th., or does justice have a history longer than that?

For example, doesn't the search for justice (in contrast to amnesia-inducing "closure") demand an accounting not just for bin Laden's involvement in the 9/11 attacks or the bombing of the USS Cole or the US embassy in Kenya but also his support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Bin Laden supported and/or carried out terrorist attacks not against Soviet military targets but against institutions erected by the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan, such as hospitals and schools that allowed women teachers or doctors, or other organizations that in Bin Laden's mind seemed to violate extremist interpretations of Islamic religious values.

Bin Laden's activities at that time never earned the same international condemnation as his present day actions rightfully have, mainly because the mujahideen generally got the support of the U.S. as part of the Cold War against the Soviets. Terrorism in service of U.S. foreign policy objectives seemed acceptable and was rewarded.

Sadly, there is a long historical record of this sort of hypocrisy from the Philippines during the 1898 U.S. occupation of that country during which some historians estimate 1.4 million Filipinos were killed to the illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos by the Nixon administration to the mining of civilian trafficked harbors by U.S.-funded Contras in Nicaragua with President Reagan's explicit authorization in the 1980s.

What justice do the victims of these atrocities get? How can they get it? They have no Delta Force, no spy drones, no intelligence assets. In fact, when an international tribunal found the U.S. culpable for its role in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration simply ignored it.

I know it's not politically correct to criticize U.S. foreign policy in the particular context of the Sept. 11th attacks, but the search for justice requires a broader understanding of history and the perspectives of people in other countries affected directly and indirectly by the choices U.S. leaders and U.S. based corporations make.

Regardless of one's personal or political views on these matters, bin Laden's killing will be generally attributed as a major political victory for the Obama administration. It will be characterized, correctly, as a huge intelligence success in sharp contrast to the manipulated intelligence failures of the Bush era. More fundamentally, however, the killing suggests a massive foreign policy "success" that began with the transition from Bush's myopic view of the "war on terror" to the Obama administration's engagement with the regional actors in ways other than militarily, especially Pakistan.

Perhaps the greatest positive, though, will be the increased volume of the call to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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  • @M Sorry, I don't buy the conspiracy theory. If it was so easy to manufacture an assassination for political gain, Bush would have done it for his own purposes. The price of exposure is too high – and too easy.

    Posted by Joel Wendland, 05/03/2011 3:46pm (7 years ago)

  • Thank you, by the way, for mentioning the parallels with the Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine Insurrection. I'm a historian by trade, with an interest in military history. I've often felt that there are eerie similarities between the way things unfolded during that period, particularly when compared to the war and Iraq and the insurgency that followed. History does indeed repeat itself...

    Posted by Chris Woodson, 05/03/2011 2:56pm (7 years ago)

  • I'm glad that we got Bin Laden. I guess like others, I wanted a measure of payback...that was my only real interest in all this, regardless of how shallow it seems.

    But regardless of who gets the credit, it is - at best - a hollow victory in many ways. Countless lives US lives have been lost since Sept. 11, as well as our allies...entire regions of the world are in a shambles, as is our economy. And to add insult to injury, we've been paying billions of dollars to an "ally" that may have well been helping shelter Osama bin Laden.

    We got our guy...it's time to come home

    Posted by Chris Woodson, 05/03/2011 2:48pm (7 years ago)

  • Great article , I have to agree with you Bin laden will not be miss but why do run throught he streets as if we just saw the Super Bowl. We should take it as it is and move on.

    Posted by Steve K, 05/03/2011 1:14pm (7 years ago)

  • Thanks for your honesty in sharing your reflections on bin Laden's death. I find all the flag waving and chanting a little disturbing, but at the same time, I do not think it's a bad thing that bin Laden is dead. Compared to the number of people that US imperialism has killed, bin Laden was a drop in the bucket, but he always escalated the conflict and has changed all our lives in negative ways.

    Posted by Jim, 05/03/2011 11:37am (7 years ago)

  • SorryJoel, I don't buy the killing as a major intelligence success for Obama. It's all so seems so scripted--defies common sense intelligence I'd say. How could the U.S. hyper-spy penetration into our daily existence not capture this guy...not trace his money transfers, like they do ours??? Makes no sense except to win back support for the O's man's next election. And pointing to Bush as the endpoint to blame for the two wars, then to merely mention the drone attacks without tagging Obama to it as well--seems like a switch and bait to distract anger away from the O guy.
    Well much of what you had to say I do agree with, I find it difficult to sidestep the O bypass and his so-called success. Common sense defies one to accept at face value anything that spews out from lying-imperialist puppets.
    _______Thanks for listening.

    Posted by M., 05/03/2011 11:24am (7 years ago)

  • When u gonna stop hiding behind a bush?

    Posted by hakem, 05/02/2011 12:19pm (7 years ago)

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