Sanford Panel Discusses Implications of Bin Laden Death

The future of al Qaeda, U.S. relations with Pakistan, the conflict in Afghanistan and other issues arising from the death of Osama bin Laden were addressed during a panel discussion Wednesday at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

A trio of Sanford professors with security and foreign policy expertise addressed “Now What? Counterterrorism and American National Security in a Post-Bin Laden World.”

Moderated by Seth Cantey, a political science graduate student, the panel included Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, and David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice of public policy. 

David Schanzer, who is also director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, highlighted the failures of al Qaeda and its ideology.

“Ironically, 9/11, while a tactical success, was a strategic disaster,” he said. Bin Laden thought it would cause the US to leave the Middle East, which did not happen. It also resulted in the loss of al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan. The al Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia led to aggressive action in the kingdom, which shut down funding sources and limited the export of the Al-Qaeda ideology. Also, the al Qaeda “brand” has degraded over the past 10 years, Schanzer said.

“The Al-Qaeda ideology was flawed from the beginning,” Schanzer said. It was about death and a rejection of the modern world. In 2007, the Jihadi clerics abandoned al Qaeda. This year’s Arab Spring uprisings offered young people another path to change. The site of bin Laden’s death also hurt his appeal, since it was clear that while asking followers to martyr themselves for the cause, bin Laden himself lived comfortably in hiding. Schanzer doesn’t expect large attacks to follow, but for groups affiliated with al Qaeda to begin focusing on their domestic concerns.

Jentleson, who served as a special advisor in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to early 2011, recalled the fear, shock and uncertainty on 9/11. Despite the weakened status of al Qaeda, bin Laden’s death has powerful symbolic meaning, and not only for Americans, he said.

The death of America’s enemy number one has “a Wizard of Oz effect, when the curtain is pulled back, to reveal an ordinary man,” he said.  The recent Arab Spring uprisings provide a different narrative for change, which is not necessarily anti-American.  

Jentleson said the United States will need to figure out how to deal with the different forms of political Islam, which is here to stay. Issues that have gotten little attention since 9/11, such as the end of the Cold War and the financial crisis, still need to be addressed.  

The spike in President Obama’s popularity is “a weather report, not climate change,” said Jentleson.  To use the strike force rather than bombs was a risky call for Obama, but it should “take off the table the notion that this president doesn’t understand how to use force,” he said. “It’s a turning point for him as Commander in Chief.”

Feaver, who served as a special advisor on the staff of the National Security Council during the Bush Administration, agreed.  The raid also signals a significant reshuffling of the national security team, he said, noting that CIA director Leon Panetta led the operation.

“Gates was overruled on Libya and also on this operation. The era of Gates is over,” Feaver said.

The raid offers a fleeting moment of bipartisanship for Obama, however much he would like to extend it. But it will be followed by “a hardening of the underlying debates in national security and foreign policy.”  For example some will see this as a chance to declare victory in Afghanistan and go home, while others will press harder to stay, Feaver said.   

On the question of the U.S. taking action without the knowledge of the Pakistani government, Feaver noted that Obama campaigned saying he would take such action, so it’s no surprise that he did so. It is hugely controversial in Pakistan, and has made Europe nervous, however. Jentleson argued that the situation is unique enough that the unilateral action could be interpreted as a very limited precedent.