Osama Stimulus

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

Celebration outside the White House on May 2 after President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. - MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

Celebration outside the White House on May 2 after President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. - MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

In most circles in the U.S. there is a sense that bin Laden's death is a political boon for President Obama and an economic boon for the country.

THOUSANDS of people gathered in public places across the United States to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. From the street in front of the White House to Ground Zero, to college campuses across the nation, cheering accompanied by the waving of the American flag set the scene for the news. After 9/11, almost 10 years ago, the American flag helped tell so much of the story. At half-mast, the flag looked forlorn, as if defeated by an attack it could neither predict nor prevent. At Ground Zero, a few days after 9/11, President George W. Bush carried a bullhorn to give a speech of resilience and then, standing beside a fireman, waved an American flag in defiance. Those who feared the full weight of a backlash, mainly immigrants whose olive skin or turbans marked them out as dangerous, wrapped themselves in the flag, sometimes literally, at vigils. It had become de rigueur to display flags in small shops, and even on the rear bumper of cars. No wonder, then, 10 years later, when the imputed mastermind of 9/11 had been killed, the flags made their riotous reappearance.

The White House had promised a late night announcement by President Barack Obama on Sunday, May 1. The rumour had it that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had been killed. This was plausible. The previous day a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) strike on the home of Qaddafi had killed his 29-year-old son and three of his grandchildren. The heavy airpower deployed against Tripoli might have killed Qaddafi. That was the general expectation. Imagine the surprise when Obama declared that the dead man was not Qaddafi, but bin Laden. In the past few months, bin Laden had become irrelevant in so many ways. No major terrorist plot had emanated from the core of Al Qaeda in many years, with most of the schemes concocted by franchises of the main branch (such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen) or by self-directed terrorists (such as Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up his SUV in Times Square). Indeed, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, and with Libya and Syria in turmoil, it was the mass struggle and the civil wars that had captured the imagination.

For three years before 9/11, the U.S. government and the Taliban government negotiated the handover of bin Laden to the U.S. The Taliban sought cover, aabroh, before it was willing to deliver a fellow Muslim to Washington. As a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief in Pakistan, Milt Bearden, put it, We never heard what they were trying to say. We had no common language. Ours was, Give up bin Laden'. They were saying, Do something to help us give up bin Laden'. The negotiations fell flat. The Taliban said to the CIA, We've lost him. But the CIA did not get it, or, as Bearden put it, They thought they were signalling us subtly, and we don't do signals.

After 9/11, the same miscommunication ensued. The Taliban first asked the U.S. to provide a dossier on bin Laden's guilt, and then transfer him to a third country (preferably to the International Criminal Court, whose jurisdiction the U.S. does not fully acknowledge). When the aerial bombardment began against the Taliban in mid-October 2001, the Taliban sent its Foreign Minister, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, to Islamabad, where he agreed to consider handing over bin Laden to a third country without seeing the evidence beforehand. Pakistani officials at the time suggested Saudi Arabia as a location for the trial. Writing in The Guardian (October 17, 2001), Rory McCarthy commented, The U.S. administration has not publicly supported the idea of a trial for bin Laden outside America and appears intent on removing from power the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and the hardliners in the regime. Bush's slogan, dead or alive, had been reduced to a simple fact: bin Laden would be taken by the gun, not through a negotiation. Diplomacy and international law were sure to take a beating as these opportunities slipped by.

In December 2001, bin Laden apparently escaped the U.S. net at Tora Bora and entered Pakistan. Not long afterwards, in March 2002, Bush said, I truly am not that concerned about him. A month later, Bush's head of the military, General Richard Myers, said, The goal has never been to get bin Laden. As the Iraq war captured attention and resources, and as bin Laden seemed to vanish, in 2005 Bush closed down the CIA team tasked with finding him. Bin Laden was gone, with rumours that he was in the Pakistani borderlands, or else dead from his kidney-related illnesses. Various Pakistani leaders had occasion to proclaim him dead (Pervez Musharraf told CNN this in January 2002 and Benazir Bhutto said this to David Frost in November 2007). It was wishful thinking.

As it turns out, bin Laden had not died, but had moved with members of his family to the now celebrated house in Abbottabad, after a sojourn elsewhere. After the house was identified in August 2010, the CIA and the Navy Seals proceeded to conduct surveillance and train for the operation, which lasted under an hour. Finally, on May 1, bin Laden was killed, shot in the head. The first accounts provided by the government suggested that bin Laden's bodyguards fired at the Navy Seals, who then shot him. But even early on there was a hint of the truth. Obama, a constitutional lawyer, provided a precise statement, telling the world: After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden, which suggests that the firefight was over when bin Laden was killed. Other parts of the story were also to be retracted, but this is of course natural it is hard to know exactly what happened during a military raid of this kind, and the narrative must be built up as the troops are debriefed and as the bin Laden entourage give their full stories (one daughter, aged 12, told Pakistani security officers that her father was executed after he was captured).

Initially, few wanted to question the mechanics of the raid or the outcome. Bin Laden had been killed. Why spoil the party? Soon serious questions were raised, even in the U.S. On May 3, The New York Times published a letter from Benjamin Ferencz, a former prosecutor to the Nuremberg War Tribunal (set up to try the Nazis who had killed millions of people).

Your superb report Behind the Hunt for Bin Laden' leaves key questions unanswered. Jubilation over the death of the most hunted mass murderer is understandable, but was it really justifiable self-defence, or was it premeditated illegal assassination? The Nuremberg trials earned worldwide respect by giving Hitler's worst henchmen a fair trial so that truth would be revealed and justice under law would prevail. Secret non-judicial decisions based on political or military considerations undermine democracy. The public is entitled to know the complete truth.

Ferencz raised all the important questions: Are extrajudicial executions permissible under U.S. and international law, and could a trial have been possible to reveal the truth and restore justice?

U.S. law allows killings only in a time of war (Executive Order 12333 from President Ronald Reagan in 1981 specifically outlaws assassination in peacetime). If the U.S. Congress had declared war on Al Qaeda rather than simply authorised the use of force, then by the standards of the order the legality might be assumed.

But there are of course international statutes against extrajudicial killings. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions categorically pronounced, in a 1998 report: Extrajudicial executions can never be justified under any circumstances, not even in time of war.

In addition, as the Pakistanis began to say, there are also questions of the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty in the conduct of the raid. Any attempts to raise alarms about the raid (including by this writer) were punished with a violent reaction: it had become not only unpatriotic, but also akin to treason to speak of international law in this context.

By May 5, a remarkable series of assertions by the White House deepened suspicions about the raid. Initially, it had been said that Obama's team watched the raid in real time. But it later turned out that the live feed was lost for 25 minutes, more than half the raid itself.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said, Once those teams went into the compound I can tell you that there was a time-period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn't know just exactly what was going on. The Seals were told that bin Laden was probably wearing a suicide vest, and that only if he were naked should they accept a call for surrender. It was unlikely that there was any plan, therefore, to take bin Laden alive. Panetta acknowledged that if bin Laden had verbally surrendered, and if the Seals had felt he posed no threat, then they might have taken him in. To be frank, Panetta said, I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything. Because the President lost video connection with the Seals, their prior orders stood, which was that they had full authority to kill him.

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken a position on these kinds of kill operations. Outside armed conflict zones, the use of lethal force by the United States is strictly limited by international law and, at least in some circumstances, the Constitution. These laws permit lethal force to be used only as a last resort, and only to prevent imminent attacks that are likely to cause death or serious physical injury. Such a programme of long-premeditated and bureaucratised killing is plainly not limited to targeting genuinely imminent threats. Any such programme is far more sweeping than the law allows and raises grave constitutional and human rights questions.

Certainly the death of bin Laden raises immense emotions. In such moments, laws are a valuable gauge of actions. That the questions raised over the manner of bin Laden's death did not evoke much reaction in the country is part of the unsettling reality that extrajudicial killings are now far more normal than one acknowledges. A few days after bin Laden's death, an unmanned drone flying over Yemen attempted to assassinate the suspected Al Qaeda terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki (who happens to be a U.S. citizen). Drone attacks are now routine in the Pakistani borderlands and have been so in Yemen for many years. The drones often make mistakes. They sometimes kill civilians, as they have done in Pakistan, or else they kill government officials (on May 25, a U.S. drone strike killed Jaber al-Shabwani, Deputy Governor of Marib, and his entourage as they negotiated to arrest a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

The Taliban is set to return to Kabul through some kind of a political settlement. Afghanistan might have been saved from a decade of destruction if the U.S. government had negotiated seriously with the Taliban in 2001, or even earlier. Iraq struggles to emerge out of its devastation. Civil liberties in the U.S. have taken a beating, as has the social spending by the government, whose own budget strains under the weight of the trillion dollars spent on these extraordinary and endless wars. This is a very high cost for the death of one man.

Obama's poll ratings have gone up. With his confidence buoyant, he hastened to make a speech about the need to finance infrastructure and went to El Paso, Texas, to restart the debate over immigration reform. Some even began to talk of an Osama Stimulus, with people feeling better about America. As political analyst Matthew Yglesias put it, would they start businesses and buy things?

Bin Laden's body is now in the ocean. The manner of his death might raise flags in some corners of the world (including in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury). In most circles in the U.S. there is a sense that bin Laden's death is a political boon for Obama and an economic boon for the U.S.

John Maynard Keynes' animal spirits have overrun morality and law, arcane subjects in the light of the events of early May.

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