Osama Bin Laden’s death is the result of American persistence and American military professionalism.
For at least a century, America’s enemies and their propagandists have portrayed the United States as lacking the will to engage in an extended struggle. The roots of this myth actually extend into the 18th century, but with the 20th century and the global proof of America’s economic, political and cultural success, the accusations of spinelessness and fecklessness became more elaborate and insistent.
America can be blamed for giving its critics a basis for their argument. On a daily basis, an open society with freedom of expression offers domestic and international observers diverse, multifarious and totally contradictory images. The libertine and decadent are real enough. Jazz Age drunks in speakeasies morph to ’50s beatniks, ’60s hippies, then ’90s dot-com zillionaires on skateboards.
If your current vision of America is shaped by TV programs like “The View” or “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” it would be reasonable to conclude that America is an utterly decayed nation of sexually frustrated gossips and sado-maschists — in other words, an easy enemy that will cower and capitulate.
However, if your vision of America is shaped by the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, the building of the Panama Canal, the Battle of Belleau Wood, the Battle of Okinawa, the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program, the Internet and similar endeavors, a nation of genius, courage and persistence emerges — a nation to emulate, not injure and anger.
An interpretation of Vietnam informed Saddam Hussein’s February 1990 speech in Amman, Jordan, in which he sketched his vision of recent history. After World War II, France and Britain “declined.” Two superpowers arose, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Suddenly, the Cold War ended. Saddam then proceeded with a rambling proposition that America was “fatigued” and would fade, but “throughout the next five years,” the U.S. would be unrestricted.
He implied defeating the U.S. entailed exploiting the scar of Vietnam and threatening massive U.S. casualties. “Fatigue” and domestic self-recrimination would stall U.S. power.
Saddam miscalculated. America responded to his invasion of Kuwait with Desert Storm. Bin Laden’s America as a “weak horse” metaphor echoed Saddam. Bin Laden focused on America’s hasty withdrawal from Somalia after the Blackhawk Down fiasco.
Both men ignored the more telling lesson of Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall cracked. From 1947 until 1989 — despite the inconclusiveness of the Korean War, despite the existence of Cuba as a Soviet satellite 90 miles from Florida, despite draft dodgers and Weathermen terrorists, despite the American retreat from Vietnam, despite the Watts riots of 1964, despite Watergate, despite the humiliating 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran — the U.S. successfully contained and defeated the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War’s long and tedious struggle.
That took extraordinary persistence. It took resilient, adaptable, creative and able American military and security services. Most of all, it took the basic, consistent support of the American people, the ones who go to work, pay the bills, wear the police and military uniforms, and, to paraphrase John Kennedy, will “bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
As the Cold War ended, another twilight struggle began, one America didn’t notice and didn’t want. Al-Qaida attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. Al-Qaida operatives attacked U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The attack on the USS Cole was an al-Qaida operation.
America, however, did not ignore the horror of 9-11. Another long struggle for the terms of modernity had begun, one that would pit multifarious America and its radical experiment in liberty against murderous religious fanatics whose vision of the future linked 21st century technologies with 12th century feudalism, 20th century dictatorships and tribal misogyny.
The religious fanatics bet on their will to win, their will to persist.
The U.S. special operations team that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was the tip of a very long spear made of intelligence agencies, military services and police departments. It is a spear wielded by the American people.
The bottom line to bin Laden’s death is this: Don’t attack America. The line above the bottom line? Don’t underestimate America.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist.