AEI visiting scholar John Yoo reflects on the death of Osama bin Laden, one year later, as a part of the Enterprise blog’s latest symposium.
Killing Osama bin Laden remains the Obama administration’s greatest—if not only—national security and foreign policy success. Obama’s agenda has otherwise met with setback after setback: Russian relations did not “reset” despite our unilateral withdrawal of an ABM system from Eastern Europe; Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons while it destabilizes the Middle East; China’s rise to great power status remains undeterred; we have rushed for the exits in Iraq and Afghanistan; Latin American countries slide back into authoritarianism. In the face of these challenges, Obama’s vast expansion of the federal government at home threatens to impoverish the U.S. military for a generation.
Even the administration’s counter-terrorism success represents more opportunities lost. As the recent memoir by retired CIA officer Jose Rodriguez reminds us, the operation that killed bin Laden was made possible by an intelligence infrastructure that Obama has tried to dismantle. Information from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda operatives identified the sole courier with direct access to bin Laden. Electronic surveillance eventually located him, which allowed the CIA to pinpoint bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad. Without the intelligence obtained years before, the deadly Seal Team 6 would have had nowhere to fly. Bin Laden’s death came as a dividend to all of the Bush administration’s investment in intelligence gathering, primarily the exploitation of information held by al Qaeda leaders.
Bin Laden’s death, in fact, may be the last payment from those investments for some time to come. It is true that Obama kept, and even enhanced, the operations capabilities built by the Bush administration: The special forces teams and drones that can strike with stealth and accuracy, half-way around the world, at a moment’s notice. But even as Obama has kept the gun, he has deprived himself of the ability to aim. He has tried to shut down Guantanamo Bay, move terrorists to trial in downtown New York City rather than special military courts, and ended the enhanced interrogation of al Qaeda leaders. Instead, the administration has relied on drone attacks that kill rather than capture terrorists. The Obama administration has not captured a single high-ranking al Qaeda leader since taking office, surely because it has nowhere to put them (the administration detained the only al Qaeda operative of any note it has captured onboard a Navy ship until delivery to a federal court for trial) and has ended the harsh Bush administration interrogations.
Al Qaeda has suffered a severe blow with the loss of bin Laden. The drone campaign has forced the terrorist group to disperse and decentralize, which deprives it of the ability to leverage its resources and organization as it had before 9-11. The Arab Spring has made al Qaeda’s political message increasingly irrelevant to the Middle East’s future. But these advances may be more rare as the Obama administration continues to live off the investments of the past rather than to make the difficult choices necessary to finish al Qaeda in the future.