Why Kill Bin Laden Now?
Gareth Porter: Domestic politics dictated decision to assassinate bin Laden, not national security.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. One of the things that I’ve wondered about during all of this discussion and debate about the assassination of Osama bin Laden is why now. When one looks at the assessment of all of this by various experts and analysts, bin Laden had seemed to disappear, more or less, into the dustbin of history. Much of the Muslim world and everywhere else considered him obsolete. Apparently, operationally he hadn’t been active for six or seven years. He’d kind of become almost irrelevant, especially after the Arab uprisings that showed that the way to challenge these Arab dictatorships was not through extreme Islamic radical behavior or actions like al-Qaeda, but in fact mass actions on the streets, most of which turned out to be secular. Given all of that, why bring back bin Laden now and turn someone who was increasingly irrelevant into a martyr who in many ways gets back to the front page more powerful dead than alive? So I am going to pose that question now to Gareth Porter, who’s an investigative journalist and historian who’s been working on these questions. He joins me from our other Washington studio. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks, Paul. I think the answer to your question is really quite simple, and that is that the Obama administration had a very powerful political motive for wanting to claim credit for killing bin Laden, and that is that regardless of the reality of the situation in terms of global politics, which I think you are correctly stating, you have correctly stated that Osama bin Laden is really not the kind of gigantic figure in a global jihadist movement that he was ten years ago at all. But regardless of that political reality globally, the political reality in the United States, of course, is that Obama stood to gain enormously by being able to find credit for this. And, indeed, he’s reaped roughly a ten-point increase in his popularity, and even more important, I would say, has protected himself now against, really, Republican efforts to portray him as weak on terrorism. He’s really now in a very much stronger position politically because of that. And so I think that really this is all about domestic politics. It’s not about the fact that Obama–excuse me. It’s not about the fact that Osama bin Laden is the kind of threat that he’s being portrayed as being today. I think you’re absolutely correct that not only was he not the critical factor operationally in efforts to attack the United States, but indeed his popularity had declined throughout the Islamic world. There’s survey data that show that compared with 2003, when it was at its height, Osama bin Laden’s popularity had declined in one country after another by 60, 70, 80 percent.
JAY: Now, does it not also–again, this is a domestic political consideration, partly, but does he now not have the cover to do a withdrawal from Afghanistan? Instead of being depicted as the president who lost the Afghan war, he’s going to be the president that killed bin Laden, which means he can now start getting out of Afghanistan if they want to. And we know there’s been a lot of internal debate and struggle within his administration over this. But if he wants to do a more serious drawdown and just kind of have a minimal holding operation there–and even if much of Afghanistan gets retaken by the Taliban, I don’t know that US really cares about that. Maybe they just can protect Kabul and forget about the rest of the place. I don’t think they ever cared very much what happens to the Afghan people. But doesn’t this give him the cover to do this now?
PORTER: Oh, it clearly does. I mean, and this is what I think the proponents of the war, those who are continuing to support the war, are really afraid of right now. Definitely there are those within the Obama administration who want to move in that direction, who want to use this as an opportunity to accelerate withdrawal and to portray the president as the guy who is getting out of Afghanistan rather than the one who was winning in Afghanistan. But my problem with that hope that the Obama administration will move for the exit strategy now is that I’m afraid that even within the administration, and particularly the national security elite outside the administration, are still very much hung up on the idea that we must continue to have troops in Afghanistan, even after the formal troop–the combat mission of the United States is over. And as we now know, I mean, the Obama administration, both in Iraq and again in Afghanistan, plays around with the term of "combat mission". I mean, they will say that the combat mission is over when they still want to keep US troops there who will be, obviously, there to carry out combat. And so I think that what we’re looking at here is an effort to pare down the presence but not to end it. And I think that the real problem here is: will the administration–the question is: will the administration be able to or be willing to initiate negotiations with the Taliban, which require that it says to the Taliban, yes, we agree that we’re ready to withdraw all of our troops as part of an agreement?
JAY: And I wouldn’t put that off the table. The other thing I wouldn’t take off the table is are the–is the Americans–are US really going to get out of Iraq. I think that’s still a question mark, in spite of all the agreements and all the rhetoric to the contrary.
PORTER: Well, it’s a question mark insofar as we don’t know yet whether the Iraqi government is going to make the request. But we do know in fact that the Obama administration wants it to make the request. That’s very clear.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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