Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Was killing Osama worth it?

Some food for thought.

Over at Carl Prine's blog, Line of Departure, I've gotten into a little conversation with Carl about the value, need and price of killing Osama bin Laden and I am reposting and modifying what I wrote there, here. Essentially the question he is wondering is what the strategic value in killing Osama was, especially when you consider the lack of organizational hierarchy in today's al-Qaeda and the relative lack of importance that bin Laden now has for the organization and its continued operation. Tied in to that is the price tag for killing him.

There was definitely a point where killing Osama would have had the utmost strategic value and would have had the maximum effect on his organization, their ability to finance themselves and to recruit. Is May 2011 that time? Probably not. Should his capture or death still have been a central component to our efforts in the War on Terror, that's debatable. Likely the most useful thing, strategically speaking, that may come out of this is a demoralizing blow to AQ's supporters and the intel (computers, hard drives, etc.) gathered during the operation.

What I would argue is that the greatest value in his death was in domestic political capital for President Obama. In this case, the killing of bin Laden, it's hard to disentangle the strategic need from the political one, especially when the orders for the operation are coming from a political figure who made a political promise: to find and kill Osama. What I mean by that is that the aims of the war are defined by those who order it and in this case Obama's aims, and his ownership of the war in Afghanistan, were based on a desire to finish off AQ and kill bin Laden.

Yet the issue that still remains is price. It is an issue that has implications for strategic policy as well as for political policy--how much is too much to do something. In this situation the price--billions of dollars, risking dozens, if not hundreds, of lives, and potentially damaging our relations (ahem) with Pakistan--probably did not make sense for strategic purposes, if those purposes themselves were not killing bin Laden as an ends all to themselves. If killing Osama was the aim, than politically this was a clear win for Obama. And it appears it was.

But then again, Israel's search for Eichman and other Nazis was also not about achieving strategic advantages--it was about bringing to conclusion (justice?) events that had both damaged a nation's--in this case the Jewish nation--psyche and killed its people. Other than Obama's political capital gained from this, that might be the essence to this assassination.

I guess the question to ask is at what price is justice, or maybe revenge, justifiable. And how much are you willing to spend for it--both in time, blood and money?

In that same vein, Ezra Klein makes some very interesting, and disturbing, points on how bin Laden and co. succeeded in a game plan to make us pay in terms of blood, treasure, freedom and even values. There is a price on everything, it seems, and in some cases you only get the bill after you've paid and paid.

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