Like most everyone, I have spent the past several days glued to accounts of the raid that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden. It is an extraordinary achievement on many levels. For the U.S. military and the intelligence community, it is a signal accomplishment. A decade of hard work made good. For President Obama, Sunday’s announcement was the peak of his presidency to date. He, too, made good on a commitment to the American people, particularly to those who lost loved ones nearly 10 years ago.
It has long been accepted that bin Laden’s role as al-Qaeda’s leader was a diminished one. He was no longer the master of operations. He had long since delegated the organization’s strategic thinking and planning to others, leaving himself with one main responsibility: to remain alive as a symbol, a symbol of someone who had struck the United States and eluded justice. He failed.
I, like most Americans, wish Sunday’s announcement could have come sooner. Ten years is a long time to wait, especially for a crime as indiscriminate as the one committed on Sept. 11. But I am also intensely glad that bin Laden lived to see 2011. Because, in the past several months, as he marked time behind the high walls of his compound in Abbottabad, he witnessed the failure of his ideas.
The Arab Spring was the ultimate refutation of his medieval vision of a holy war between the Islam and the West. Young Tunisians did not take inspiration from some grainy, low-resolution video smuggled out of the caves of Afghanistan. The young people who flooded the streets of Cairo were not following instructions from Ayman al-Zawahiri, a fellow Egyptian and bin Laden’s No. 2. They, and the people who rose up in one country after another, did not wish to trade secular repression with religious tyranny. Indeed, they left their homes and stared down a dictator’s police, military and hired thugs for precisely the opposite: the pursuit of lives marked by freedom, dignity, and choice.
We should remember that bin Laden and his high command have been calling on the Muslim world to overthrow their oppressive rulers since before the end of the Cold War. Who followed? No one compared to the millions, who in a matter of weeks, wrote a new chapter in the history of the Middle East. What’s more, they even ignored al-Qaeda’s call to arms, its methods of resistance. Their revolution came without guns, bombs or explosions. Their power came from an idea that was so attractive that their numbers grew and grew until the dictatorship could no longer stand.
I wonder, in these last months, if bin Laden could even understand the world he was now living in. Surely, his final years must have been a disappointment. His organization under siege, he watched as al-Qaeda’s ranks dwindled in Afghanistan, Asia and the Middle East. Its efforts to recruit slowed, as its newest members were either captured or cut down. But there is something far worse than being the leader of an organization in decline. Worse is to realize that there is no demand for your ideas, that your vision holds no purchase for the people you hope to persuade.
So I am glad that Osama bin Laden lived to see the Arab Spring. Watching revolutions spread through North Africa and the Middle East exposed how bankrupt his life’s work had become. He lived long enough to know just how alone he was.