Does Mickey think bin Laden is the same as Saddam in the American psyche? OBL attacked ths country; Saddam didn’t. Osama began this hideously divisive bait of a war. Saddam just couldn’t cop to not having any WMDs.
I’ll have more to say about this in my next column, but I will say a few things right now. Kaus’ point was that “we thought finding Saddam would turn the tide in Iraq.” A lot of pro-war Americans did think that, because they incorrectly subscribed to Rumsfeld’s notion that the insurgency was driven by nothing more than regime “dead-enders” who fought on only so long as Hussein remained free. They assumed that the insurgency would grow weaker once Hussein was captured. Once he was dead at the hands of his enemies and the insurgency and bombing campaign intensified, it was all supposed to change once Zarqawi died. Each time such a claim was made, it was discredited by subsequent events. It’s not as if this is the distant past. It all happened in the last five to seven years.
Likewise, Beitullah Mehsud’s death was treated as a major turning point or a “very big deal” in the words of the late Richard Holbrooke. Two years later, the Tehrik-i Taliban hasn’t been significantly weakened by Mehsud’s death, and if anything the group has intensified its campaigns under the leadership of his brother. As I said when Mehsud’s death was announced:
Our tendency to personalize the enemy, identifying a cause with particular leaders, encourages us to conclude that their deaths are pivotal events. But the causes of insurgency are usually deeper, and more resistant to attempts to uproot them by force.
Obviously, losing prominent individual leaders hurts insurgencies and terrorist groups, but in the way we talk about these figures we tend to exaggerate greatly how important they are as part of the larger conflict. We have seen the latest version of this in the recent “accidental” assassination attempts on Gaddafi, as if Gaddafi’s death would force his sons to surrender rather than fight on. Indeed, the more that Americans come to believe that killing individual leaders is a ready-made solution to policy problems, the easier it will be to sell supposedly low-risk, promiscuous interventionism facilitated by missile strikes or special forces. It also helps to keep people from thinking very much about any of the other things that stoke jihadism and insurgency, and it encourages the false comfort that we just need to kill enough of the right people to prevail.
Update: Bruce Hoffman makes some of the same points:
Another piece of conventional wisdom that must now be left an open question is how effective decapitation is in terms of ending a terrorist campaign. Historically, the record is not a good one. During Algeria’s war of independence in the late 1950s, the French seized the entire leadership of the National Liberation Front, yet they discovered that the FLN was much more networked than they thought, and that even the decapitation of the entire group leadership did not have had much of an effect. The FLN, of course, went on to triumph and attain Algerian independence just four years later. In 2004, the Israelis delivered a one-two punch against Hamas’ equivalent of Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when they killed in succession Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of Hamas, and then a month later Abdel Aziz Rantisi, his deputy and successor—yet Hamas is stronger today than it was seven years ago.
Second Update: Andrew responds:
But we are not supposed to be glad that this monster is dead? Please.
I didn’t say this, and I wouldn’t say it. As I wrote in my column this week, bin Laden’s death is very welcome news. That’s no reason to overstate his actual significance or the significance of killing him. Paul Pillar makes sense here when he writes:
But the national reaction to the operation has been of a magnitude that would be appropriate if it involved something or someone bigger than what Bin Ladin really was. It would be appropriate if it had meant, say, the bumping off of a dictator whose demise would mean the introduction of an entirely new political order, or the elimination of a wartime leader whose death would mean the end of a war. Bin Ladin was neither of those things. An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth.