Monday, May 02, 2011

Chronicle of a death announced

A few matters of tone and message in Obama's speech announcing the death of bin Laden:

Carefully defined enemy: Obama long ago eschewed the phrase "war on terror." Tonight he carefully delineated whom the United States is at war against -- and whom we are not:
For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies.  The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.  There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.  We must –- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad.
As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam.  I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.  Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.
We are at war with al Qaeda, full stop. Fallows hopes that this news might help diffuse the mindset of a "war on terror"; Obama's language suggests as much. Note too that there's no mention of those who harbor and ally with al Qaeda, e.g., the Taliban.  Does that suggest some mite of hope in talks with them? 

Careful treatment of an "ally": The president did not exactly fold Pakistan in a warm embrace. Nor did he exactly warn that country to stay in whatever remains of alliance. The thanks, such as they were, were thin. And the threat, such as it was, was a level below implicit:

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was.  That is what we’ve done.  But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.  Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.
Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts.  They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations.  And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
"...Cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us" is a few steps removed from, say, "close partnership with Pakistan brought us..."  And the point is made that bin Laden declared war against Pakistan -- with no assertion that the reverse is also true. And the fact that the president has to tell us that Pakistani officials "agree that this is a good and historic day" does not exactly signal wild enthusiasm on the part of our "counterparts." There is also a harking back here, as Sullivan notes, to Obama's campaign promise to take the counterterror fight into Pakistan when necessary.

"Justice" and deterrence:  Revenge is primal; perhaps its underlying biological function is deterrence. Obama sublimated any hint of revenge to multiple assertions that "justice has been done," as almost any president (except pistol-looting W.) would.  But the underlying message is basic and indispensible: don't tread on me:
as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed.  We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies.  We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror:  Justice has been done.
And note too, the moderating chord in there: "we will be true to the values..." -- the real tragedy of 9/11 is that it induced us to betray them. Obama does not go there. But he does of course remind us of the unity the country experienced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  And here he picks up an earlier thread in the speech: no civilians killed in this operation.

Postscript: while listening to the speech, I thought Obama was quite muted in taking credit.  Fabius Maximus, in marked contrast (a cluster of bloggers all of whom have extended military experience), flags repeated use of the first person and finds it grating: "It's as if Nixon took personal credit for Apollo 11."   In support of that response, I must note that Bush, announcing Saddam's capture, took no personal credit.

Next post:  A continuity in Obama's thought (re counterterror)

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