Osama bin Laden and America's long journey from 9/11 to 5/1

The killing of Osama bin Laden means that, for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

In the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I walked to my office in the Old Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. It was a cool, sunny day with a crystal-blue sky. As director for NATO and Western European Affairs at the National Security Council, I was en route to a staff meeting where we planned to discuss, among other things, the agenda for the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, Czech Republic.

Passing a television screen on the way, I saw one of the World Trade Center towers in a smoky fire, and a secretary explained it had been hit by an airplane. Strange. When I stepped out of the meeting, I stood and watched as another plane hit the second tower. This was no accident.

I went to my desk, and an e-mail from the security office blasted in red letters – “Leave the building immediately.” In the stairway, colleagues talked about a plane having hit the Pentagon. The rest of the day was a mixture of shock and struggle: watching images of the collapsing buildings; realizing I was alive only due to the heroism of passengers on the fourth aircraft, which crashed in Pennsylvania; trying to communicate with my wife through jammed cellphone lines; gathering our young children.

Anger and overreach

The events of that day changed the world. Americans felt vulnerable and fought back. We showed our great patriotism, but also our susceptibility to anger and overreach.

A new Bush administration, which had hoped to focus on domestic policy and reducing America’s role in the Balkans, suddenly found itself in a major war on terror. The administration dusted off underground bunkers and revived cold-war plans to assure the continuity of government in case of a major attack on Washington. The skies above America were closed to airplanes for nearly a week, and subsequent air travel would never be the same.

Sept. 11 opened a gateway to an unexpected future: The war in Afghanistan, which threw NATO’s previous reluctance to go “out of area” out the window; bombings in London and Madrid; the war in Iraq, which descended into brutal sectarian warfare and divided the West; Guantánamo; the surge in violent Islamist extremism globally; and even, most recently, the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring.

For a time in 2001-02, it looked as if the effort to defeat the terrorists would go quickly. The Afghan Taliban – who had sheltered Al Qaeda – fell from power in a matter of weeks. The siege of the caves at Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden had fled, promised to bring about his demise and a strategic defeat for terrorism.

Instead, it turned into an extended conflict, which tore at the fabric of our own conscience as much as it made gains against the terrorists. Despite years of efforts to track Mr. bin Laden, he proved elusive. Fears that Saddam Hussein could supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction – ultimately based on wrong intelligence – led to the war in Iraq. But miscalculations there – combined with a diminished focus on Afghanistan – meant that we were soon faced with two wars going badly. A controversial surge in Iraq turned the tide there, but a more modest surge in Afghanistan has yet to prove successful.

By late 2003, the Bush administration had learned that “killing the terrorists” was a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. With President Bush’s November 2003 speeches to the National Endowment for Democracy and at London’s Royal Banqueting House, he articulated the need to promote freedom, democracy, and human development as the means to undermine the appeal of extremism. To paraphrase his message: “For 60 years, we sacrificed freedom in the Middle East in the name of stability, and got neither. Now we know the only path to real stability and security is through freedom.” This gave rise to the Broader Middle East initiative and the Forum for the Future, both launched at the 2004 Group of 8 Summit in Sea Island, Ga.

But with bin Laden at large, the war on terror was never far from consciousness. Mr. Bush had vowed never to allow a second attack on the United States as long as he was president. Terrorist scares continued to crop up over the course of years.

On top of all this, the financial crisis and recession hit America hard and sapped self-confidence. The cost of the wars – compounded by the costs of the financial bailout, economic stimulus, and new legislation – has left America with unprecedented levels of deficits and debt. Under President Obama, the near-successes of the “underwear bomber” and the “Times Square bomber” have reminded us that the terrorist threat has not receded. The toll on America’s psyche was palpable.

But this brings us to May 1, 2011. It is on top of this 10-year history, and this deep sense of frustration and weariness, that news of bin Laden’s death came to the American people. A long, dark chapter is at an end.

The impact of bin Laden’s death

It will take months if not years before the impact of bin Laden’s death is fully understood. But we can offer a few ideas for starters:

•Islamist terrorism will not end overnight. But it may no longer be seen as a monolithic menace. We may again be able to distinguish the subtleties.

•Some extremists will vow to fight on, and new terrorist attacks may occur as a result. But for the majority of Muslims in the world, bin Laden is no longer some folk hero, but a radical extremist whose violent ways ultimately led to his death. That is no inspiration.

•By contrast, the real inspiration comes in the form of peaceful protests across the Arab world, by people who do not demand an extremist Islamic caliphate – but instead demand fundamental human rights and political freedoms.

•Americans may begin to come out of their self-doubt and anxiety, and restore that quintessential American determination and optimism that in years past made it the envy of the world.

Pakistan, which appears to have harbored bin Laden, will have to come to reckoning with its role in the world.

•And Afghanistan, already on a path to assume responsibility for its own security in 2014, must know that the reason for America’s involvement there in the first place has now been eliminated. More and more voices will now say it is time to move on – so Afghanistan had better be ready.

Many more lessons have yet to be learned – from 9/11; from our long war on terror; from our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. But for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Kurt Volker is a former US ambassador to NATO. He is now senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

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