by F. Grey Parker
The news of Osama Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Forces operating deep inside Pakistan may well define us in a way matched only by a certain bad September day nearly 10 years ago.
The motivation for intervention in the Middle East following the attacks of 9/11 was wholly legitimate. The mission against Al Qaeda, their hosts in then Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and the pursuit of their mastermind and benefactor was just. That we became consumed by the vicious misadventure of the Iraq War is equally tragic. It's worth remembering why we, as a people, agreed to fight in the first place. And with whom.
We were devastated. We were scared. We were also unified in the pursuit of a madman and his followers who had achieved the kind of attack most of us had previously thought so fantastic as to be the stuff of cartoonish, James Bond super-villainy. It was impossible to fathom at first but it was real.
It turned out our leaders had been warned.
On August 6th, 2001, having sought an audience for months with the President, terrorism expert and advisor Richard Clarke gave a briefing to George W. Bush regarding the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Clarke portrayed Bin Laden's organization as a clear and present danger saying "the FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives." EMPHASES OURS
W was visibly displeased. He didn't want to hear about these folks. He had been expecting to hear about Iraq. After all, they had tried to kill his dad. At the end of the presentation, W famously dismissed Clarke with the words "All right. You've covered your ass, now."
A little over a month later, thousands were dead on our own soil. We knew who did it. We knew where they were. So, as a nation, we supported military action to go get them. The mission ahead should have been simple, focused and clear. We needed to oust the Taliban, eliminate the Al Qaeda training structure in Afghanistan, seize their assets and accounts and kill Osama Bin Laden. End of mission.
A few weeks after the attacks, W famously invoked the "old west" and said he wanted Bin Laden "dead or alive." There was just one problem...
He didn't care. The Neo-Cons had never really cared that much about Bin Laden.
Before the 9/11 attacks, men like Rumsfeld, Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz were already planning for the full scale invasion of Iraq. As a matter of fact, it was "topic A 10 days after the inauguration." They came to power utterly disinterested in a man who had engineered dual embassy bombings and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. What's more, Iraq remained the new President's singular preoccupation even after the Afghan mission had begun. In retrospect, there were hints of this during the same late September 2001 appearance in which he had made the "old west" remark.
It became clearer and clearer as the months wore on that the capture or killing of Bin Laden was simply not important to the W. team. How do we know this? Because he said so. Repeatedly. He said so as early as March of the following year. It didn't matter to him even though it mattered to us.
If W had truly believed what he was saying in March 2002, that Al Qaeda was fractured and Bin Laden on the run and noneffective, it was time to declare victory and leave a limited Special Forces presence in Afghanistan with the heavy air support we could so easily have provided from Saudi and Afghani launching points. Instead, he was riding a tiger's tail while whipping it towards his real interests. In the coming years he demonstrated deepening impatience with questions regarding our failure to focus on Bin Laden. His petulance was staggering. It seemed to actually annoy him that it still mattered to us.
Occasionally, as time ground us all down, he would reveal unsettling truths. Amongst them, his frustrated admission that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 in spite of numerous calculated falsehoods from his team regarding a connection in the run up to the quagmire.
That we are ten years and trillions of dollars into a regional occupation without end speaks to the craven opportunism of the last administration. Indeed, the distractions and loss of blood and treasure which have served to cripple our readiness for other conflicts are hard to fully gauge. Our nation has been so terribly fatigued by nearly a decade of war that we have all but stopped serious discussions of an end to the conflict. To "always be at war" is nothing short of Orwellian. The totality of waste is immeasurable.
In the past few years, the most wanted man has been reduced to a prop by Republicans. Sometimes even a punchline. To ordinary U.S. citizens on the other hand, Bin Laden was like a whispered curse. The most hated figure in modern American history became a phantom and we were haunted.
Until yesterday. It was a weight lifted.
The outpouring of celebration in the late hours of a Spring Sunday night was not mere blood thirst. This was the villain who wronged us. Bin Laden was always our priority regardless and in spite of Neo-Con disasters in nation building. Most Americans never viewed 9/11 as the jump-off for some radical reshaping of the Middle East. We had simply demanded a reckoning.
At long last, we have one.
It always mattered to us. It also always mattered to the current President. What a difference this administration makes.