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True significance of bin Laden’s death

William Miller | Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Late Sunday night President Obama appeared before the nation and announced Osama bin Laden’s death. This announcement sparked exuberant celebration across campus and the entire country. Students ran cheering through LaFortune and crowds gathered in Times Square. There is nothing wrong with celebrating this moment. One of America’s greatest enemies has been brought to the end he so justly deserved.

Unfortunately, the celebration over bin Laden’s death misses a larger point: Osama bin Laden hasn’t mattered in the global war on terrorism for several years.

The President certainly seemed to think that bin Laden mattered. In his speech he proclaimed, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida.” However, overwhelming evidence from the security community suggests otherwise. As Dr. James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, “Al-Qaida long ago ceased to be a centralized operation. For the last decade bin Laden has been [more of] a figurehead than a mastermind.” Bin Laden was found in a compound with no telephones or internet; security was so tight that trash was burned in the courtyard rather than being disposed of outside. Bin Laden clearly posed little or no operational threat — regional cells assumed that role long ago.

Nevertheless, many American leaders have argued that Osama’s death is a large symbolic blow to al-Qaida. This is once again incorrect. As Dr. Lindsay writes, “Men die, symbols don’t. In death, bin Laden will continue to inspire jihadists as much as he did in life.”

This goes to the heart of the fundamental point: American bullets don’t really threaten al-Qaida. For every terrorist killed, more will rise up to take his or her place. What really threatens al-Qaida are the rapid changes taking place across the Middle East. From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, average citizens are calling for civil rights, representative democracy and greater economic openness. They are rejecting the oppression and stagnation of the status quo in favor of a world that looks much more like the West.

This scares al-Qaida — not a single major figure from al-Qaida has spoken out since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Al-Qaida’s philosophy of hatred and spite sits awkwardly alongside the demands of protesters, and al-Qaida’s leaders now realize that their beliefs have not taken root in the population at large. Bin Laden’s death does not change the basic dynamics of the Middle East. In Egypt, the most important state in the region, 80 million citizens are waiting for economic growth and democratic change. Egypt has the power and influence to help transform the region, but only if Egypt herself can become a true democracy. Economic growth would give a nascent Egyptian democracy time to grow and mature, but if this growth fails to materialize, protesters may demand more radical change, which could only benefit al-Qaida.

The West has the power to prevent this from happening. Egypt needs an investment program similar to the Marshall Plan, which used massive investments in infrastructure to rebuild post-war Europe and prevented the continent from turning towards communism. Such a plan would give Egypt’s democracy time to mature, and would help sustain the type of movement toward liberalization and democracy that will one day sweep al-Qaida away altogether.

It is highly ironic that bin Laden’s death coincides with the greatest changes the Middle East has seen in 50 years. Bin Laden’s true legacy will be the utter rejection of his philosophy by the people he sought to turn against the West. It is now clear that bin Laden himself has lost.

However, it is far from clear that the West has won. Frustrated protesters across the Middle East may not be so moderate in the future if they have to endure another generation of broken promises. The U.S., in conjunction with her allies and the international community, has the power to prevent this. How appropriate would it be if the U.S. announced a major aid program to countries seeking freedom in the same year that bin Laden was killed?

Americans do not like fighting wars in the Middle East. Nevertheless, we will find that more wars and interventions are the only way to protect our interests unless we have the collective will to invest the resources necessary to make the region forever inhospitable to al-Qaida.

Will Miller is vice president of the International Development Research Council and a double major in Arabic and political science. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.