Anne Applebaum
Columnist May 2, 2011

The U.S. Air Force, with its extraordinary range and flexibility, is the best in the world. The U.S. Navy, with its vast aircraft carriers and global reach, has no real rivals. In technological sophistication and sheer firepower, the American military doesn’t even have close competitors, and no wonder: The American government spends more on its military forces than the governments of China, Russia, France, Britain, Japan and Germany — combined.

Yet it was not our sheer military or technological strength that finally finished off Osama bin Laden on Sunday, but human intelligence, careful preparation and patience. We don’t know the whole story yet, and we might not hear it for some time. But according to first reports, an intelligence tip led U.S. analysts to bin Laden’s trusted courier; observation of the courier then led Special Forces to bin Laden’s compound, which has been under surveillance for many months.

Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. She is also the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London. View Archive

In other words, the killing of bin Laden did not take place in a hail of bombs and bullets, or after a shootout involving hundreds of troops. It was the result of careful preparation, followed by the competent execution of a plan. We missed him during the chaotic storming of Tora Bora. We caught him while he was at home in bed. Apparently, the whole operation took 40 minutes, and no Americans were killed.

It’s a good lesson to remember: Too often, the American reaction to any challenge is a knock-out blow. In our determination to win, we tend to throw men and money at problems, and then worry about how we’re going to use our enormous resources — and pay for them — later on.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, our approach to internal security was in this sense absolutely American: Create new agencies, employ more people, spend more money. In the 2010 budget, we allocated $55 billion to the Department of Homeland Security; the Transportation Security Administration, which didn’t exist in 2001, now employs 60,000 people. Since its creation, millions of people have stood in queues, sacrificed their nail scissors and removed their shoes in the name of security.

Yet the terrorists who have been stopped are almost always caught, thanks to intelligence work — or because of somebody’s quick reaction. The “underwear bomber,” the “shoe bomber” and the “Times Square bomber” were all stopped by alert passengers and wary bystanders. The Heathrow airport plot of 2006 was foiled by an intelligence tip. So was a recent al-Qaeda attack on a cargo plane, and an attempt to bomb Times Square in New York. It’s the quality of our security, not the quantity, that keeps us safe.

The same has been true in foreign policy since Sept. 11. Emotionally, the Bush administration — and the country — felt the need for a major military response after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But although Iraq may still come out all right in the end, was it the best use of our money and resources? Afghanistan may eventually become stable, too — but haven’t we just learned, if we didn’t know it already, that the real and more complicated threat now comes from Pakistan? In 2008, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul told me, in effect, that Pakistan was none of his business. Perhaps it should have been.

Over the next few days, a lot of people are going to point out that bin Laden’s influence has been waning for some time. The revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa over the past few months have already made him and his organization in one sense irrelevant: When the infamous Arab “street” finally rose up in anger, it was to oppose their own corrupt dictators, not to join al-Qaeda’s fanatical war on the West. Though some branches of the al-Qaeda franchise are still in operation, it’s not even clear whether bin Laden was still running them.

Not least because this operation was so beautifully timed — we are just approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after all — it feels like a moment of closure nevertheless. It’s a good time to reexamine the past decade, to ponder what we’ve done right and what we might have done better. Our outstanding servicemen and women have performed with skill and bravery in many unexpected places over the past decade. Think what more they could have achieved if they’d been given clearer goals and sharper targets from the very beginning.

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