News that Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden had been killed in an American-led operation in the mountains of Pakistan will have come as a huge relief to many millions of Americans who were both scarred by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and who have had to live with the so-called War on Terror for nearly a decade.
In the wake of those era-defining attacks on New York and Washington, the US adopted a zero-tolerance-with-its-enemies policy. It found out that in Iraq it was easier to topple a dictator like Saddam Hussein than to nation-build, and yet despite the violence that followed Saddam’s downfall, Iraq is today a better place. Its people are free and have a say in who governs them. In Afghanistan it faced, and still faces, similar challenges, but the medieval Taliban that gave aid and sanctuary to Bin Laden no longer holds the reins of power.
It is symbolic that Bin Laden’s death came at a time when many Middle East countries are shaking off the chains of autocracy, rejecting the regimes that gave succor and support to the likes of Al Qaeda as well as the radical Palestinian groups that peddle murder and mayhem in the name of revolution and a warped sense of justice.
Bin Laden’s legacy is a throwback to a different Middle East. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and those taking place on the streets of towns and cities in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, are movements for good. The people do not appear to want to unleash apocalyptic attacks on the forces of imperialism. They want freedom of speech, they want transparency, they want democracy, they want jobs, and they want prosperity. In short, they want to take their place among the community of nations.
Now that Bin Laden is dead, the US must resist the urge to think that its role in the Middle East might be nearing its end. Now is not the time to begin the process of isolationism. Osama Bin Laden’s fiendish career might be over, but his influence lives on in a Middle East that still throws up a myriad of challenges.
The US and its allies must put their full weight behind supporting a region that serves both the interests of its people and the interest of the wider international community. It is unacceptable, for example, that they adopt a different position on Syria than Libya just for the sake of regional interests. The double standards are just too glaring to be ignored. Innocent civilians are being gunned down in the streets of towns and cities of both countries, and yet while the international community has moved to protect the civilian population in Libya, it drags its heels in Syria, a country that has undermined democracy in Iraq and Lebanon and which is a key ally of Iran. What is so stabilizing about that?
In 2005, the Bush administration supported the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people. There was no deployment of troops, no use of aerial firepower and no installation of a puppet regime in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal; just a steely message to the region that the Lebanese deserved to determine their own future using the tried-and-tested tools of democracy. The example of Lebanon 2005 is being set across the Middle East. Now that Bin Laden is dead, the message should not be “job done”; there is still much to do.