Obama’s Birth and Osama’s Death

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Politically speaking, the Obama administration's double feature in the last week — first, the revelation of the long-form birth certificate and now the announced killing of Osama bin Laden — could not have come at a better time. The president's approval rating was sinking. His entire approach to domestic central planning was falling under scrutiny. His wars were unpopular, especially among his own party. But now two points of detraction, one rather superficial and the other cutting more to the heart of the regime, have seemingly been swept aside. Most folks are fairly sure Obama was born in the USA. And it's harder for anyone to question his credentials as a war president or, more fundamentally, the warfare state in general.

Most Birthers missed the big picture. First of all, I'd be just as inclined to trust the private newspapers that announced Obama's birth as I would a government birth certificate. More important, a president who wages unjust wars, bankrupts the country, detains and tortures innocents, and cracks down on liberty in a thousand ways, becomes no less or more "legitimate" depending on his country of origin. Constitutionally he does, perhaps, but the entirety of Obama's agenda runs against the Constitution, and that would seem to be more pressing.

Yet the scrutiny of Obama's presidential legitimacy was good theater, and the mainstream protectors of the presidency's honor did seem too eager to end the fun. They also accused the Birthers of racism, when really they were essentially the latest manifestation of the technicalitarian movement — often well-intentioned folks who think that the problem with government is that someone high up isn't following the written law.

Many hardliners were still not satisfied by last week's release of paperwork, which also failed to endear the president's more mainstream detractors to him. Indeed, the drama over it as well as the accusations of racism appeared to harden the anti-Obama right. The declared death of Osama bin Laden, however, may prove to be different.

To mainstream opinion, Trump seems quite the chump indeed, now that the circumstances of Obama's birth and Osama's death make the billionaire appear to be a goofy TV megalomaniac, compared to the homegrown commander in chief who nonchalantly dismisses his critics' claims and then, only a few days later, tells the American people on a Sunday night that he hunted down and killed the alleged terrorist ringleader behind 9/11. This will of course hurt the Republicans, who for some reason tend to win centrist votes on national security issues. Bush promised to find and capture bin Laden over nine and a half years ago — although, only months after 9/11, he did say, "I truly am not that concerned about [Osama]. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban." It was around then that Bush diverted his and the nation's attention to Iraq.

The death of Osama, whose body has reportedly been dumped at sea in accordance with Islam's doctrine that the body must be buried within 24 hours and in supposed fear that a burial site would become a shrine, will draw suspicion from many who doubt even the basics of the establishment line on the war on terrorism. Some might find it odd, even if the administration's account is completely accurate, that it chose to get rid of the evidence so quickly. Perhaps the administration knows this and has chosen this route merely to assert its prerogative, to show that it is boss, and to ruffle the feathers of the skeptics.

And I'm guessing some conservatives will take the reports at face value and complain that Obama has ordered that the body disposal follow Muslim rules. How dare Osama get to pass into the next world this way! It makes the Ground Zero Mosque look positively red-white-blue-and-Christian by comparison. Yet moderate conservatives can be heard all over talk radio cheering on the chief executive and the military for the great success.

Most Americans, in any event, are simply glad that Osama is dead. There was widespread cheering outside the White House. "USA! USA!" — the anthem of an uninspired generation of youth. Flag-waving that harkens back to 9/11 itself, if not the pre-Vietnam Cold War.

The talking heads will say this vindicates the war on terrorism for the last decade. It does not. I wrote for LRC five years ago: "Osama has still not been found — not to suggest that even his capture would make the last five years of death and destruction worthwhile. Although even antiwar Americans were quick to say some organized response was appropriate to apprehend the 9/11 culprits, it now appears that we would have been better off had the government done absolutely nothing at all."

And of course, this is still true. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have died years before their time. Tens of thousands of American soldiers have been killed, maimed and psychologically scarred for life. Priceless liberties have been trashed. The United States has waged military operations, major and minor, in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya. Trillions of dollars in resources have been squandered and destroyed.

Obama describes the operation that finally caught bin Laden: "[T]he United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."

This sounds like a relatively limited exercise, although if anyone innocent was shot in the crossfire, we can object on those grounds. But why did it take nine years for the U.S. to carry out a narrowly focused mission to find and kill Osama? The smarter liberal media are playing this up as a repudiation of the Bush approach to the war on terror. Yet this only makes sense if Obama himself had actually repudiated that approach. He has instead tripled down in Afghanistan, continued the war in Iraq, multiplied the drone attacks many times over, and continued to treat international law as well as the U.S. Constitution as flexible rules in the waging of war and enforcement of national security. Insofar as Obama is implicitly admitting none of this was necessary to catch Osama, he should be criticized for persisting in it, not hailed as a hero of foreign policy restraint.

Indeed, Obama promises more war: Osama's "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. . . . The cause of securing our country is not complete."

So how on earth is Obama different from Bush? Bush soon revealed that finding Osama was tangential to the central goals of the war on terrorism, the vast majority of which were policies that had nothing to do with tracking him down. Indeed, the Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden in October 2001, but Bush didn't like the terms of the deal. Obama, for his part, has said the war must continue even though the "death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda." If this isn't about Osama, what is it about?

At least when bin Laden was reportedly on the loose, there was hope he would finally be killed and our political masters would end the wars and invasions of our rights. Yet when Obama triumphantly but coolly took credit for smashing public enemy #1, he did not declare the TSA was closing up shop, that Guantánamo was no longer needed, that the Patriot Act should now expire, that the NSA would stop spying on our telecommunications, that he no longer needed the presidential authority to order the summary execution by drone attack of anyone in the world, including American citizens. The terror threat level is the same as it has been for years. No, nothing has changed. The U.S. has gone abroad to slay the monster, killing hundreds of thousands in the process, and now that the monster is dead the "cause of securing our country is not complete."

Of course, this means the whole war on terrorism is every bit as phony as its sharpest critics have always said. If we were really supposed to tolerate endless wars and domestic depredations to catch Osama, then how come we don't get full relief now that the government says he's dead?

Moreover, we are still no closer to addressing the principal question that should have been raised on 9/11: Why did they attack us? Even according to the government, blowback played a key role. The most conventional of accounts would imply that we should, at a minimum, rethink the whole of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world before 9/11. Obama correctly calls Osama a "mass murderer of Muslims" because al Qaeda has "slaughtered scores of Muslims." What does this make the U.S. government, which has slaughtered scores of thousands? This mass killing, obviously, has long enraged the Muslim world. If the U.S. continues to bomb and occupy and rule by proxy Muslim nations as it has for decades, there will always be more Osamas to come. How many terrorists were created in the ten years it took to kill bin Laden? By drawing the U.S. into perpetual, debilitating, counterproductive war, is Osama not the most effective suicide terrorist of all?

Despite these nagging questions, Obama will likely succeed in having it both ways. It is a huge political win for the president. He caught the boogieman that the Republicans didn't. And now he vows the conflict will continue. We are not yet safe. We are still a country at siege. We are the greatest country on earth, but we can never be free or at peace.

Our Hawaii-born law professor proved himself tougher than the conservatives — and he will prove himself tougher than his fellow Democrats who naively think the war will finally end now. He is also as good at doublespeak as any of them. A lot can happen from now to the election, but it will be hard for the Republicans to overcome the perception that the Democratic president they all accuse of being soft on Islamic terrorism beat them at their own game.

There is more to the story, but here is the politically relevant narrative: It's lights out for bin Laden. It's a bad week for Donald Trump. And it's springtime for the regime.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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