Epilogue as Thesis

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda by Peter Bergen (2011)

“Getting Bin Laden.” by Nicholas Schmidle (August 8, 2011)

Published in hardcover in January 2011, Peter Bergen’s Longest War was released in paperback in late June. That update gave Bergen an opportunity to write in a short discussion of Osama Bin Laden’s death on May 2. An enormous strength of Bergen’s book is that it doesn’t suffer for the lack of a full synthesis of Bin Laden’s death into his analysis. Still, after the chaotic, shifting details in the days after Bin Laden’s death, it’s disappointing that Bergen couldn’t include a definitive recap. Luckily Nicholas Schmidle’s gripping article, which went live today, provides a fitting coda to Bergen’s account of the war against Al Qaeda.

Bergen’s book doesn’t have very much in the way of new revelations, though his own reporting provides the basis for many of its discussions. Yet the very existence of a one-volume history of the “war on terror” decade, culminating in the death of Osama Bin Laden, has real value. And Bergen’s nimble treatment of a lot of very complicated territory provides the opportunity to take in the whole, rich history of the last decade in a small enough space to connect and associate various events that the distance of time or the blinders of various policy focuses might otherwise obscure.

One welcome aspect is to reminder any reader that, no matter the preferred method to respond, terrorism has remained a very real threat to American citizens and interests since the September 11th attacks. It’s easy to wish it weren’t so, or to take solace in the dismantling of Al Qaeda’s operational capacities in the initial invasion of Afghanistan, but the worldwide reach and ongoing aspirations of a variety of terrorist groups hasn’t and isn’t going away. More cheerfully, as Bergen does an excellent job of noting, that doesn’t mean that Al Qaeda is a threat in the way many people conceptualize it. The “bad guys” are, at most times in our recent history, a constellation of actors with differing agendas and inconsistent strength, rather than a league of evil that poses an existential threat or threatens world domination.

Bergen makes an effective case on that front without either downplaying the actual threat or spending too much time haranguing those in the West with a cartoon view of the world, but he’s absolutely merciless to the Bush administration in the first half of the book. He takes Bush and his security team to the woodshed on pre-9/11 intelligence failures in particular, something of a third rail in polite discourse, and carefully connects how the very reasons why the administration was unable to anticipate or prevent an attack led it inexorably toward invading Iraq. While no one really comes out looking good, then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice has to look the worst, exemplifying how the administration was stuck in a state-focused mindset that totally precluded a real understanding of either terrorism’s actual threat or the best ways to respond.

Bergen is generous to Bush for his support of the architects of the 2007 surge, however, and the priority of the book is not to condemn historical actors. The value here is in the painstaking account of essentially every notable action at the intersection of the U.S. and Al Qaeda, including succinct background on the group’s intellectual origins and its relations to other Takfiri or Islamist organizations. That focus on providing details over advancing analysis has a real value, and while Bergen is by no means writing an “objective” account, he’s writing from the informed expertise of long-time beat reporter, and that’s a much more valuable bias.

Another benefit of this approach is to move past the misleading question of whether to “support” the war on terror as some kind of monolithic, yes or no project, and move to a more productive conversation about the methods used to attain an agreed-upon goal. By decoupling the national interest in going out and making sure terrorist attacks in the West don’t happen from an endorsement of the many debatable specifics of how Bush and Obama have pursued that end, Bergen clears out a space for exactly the kind of pragmatic debate we should be having much more often.

The end result is to put the focus on competence and efficacy, and that’s really the most productive way to look at the Abbottabad raid that Bergen accurately described as “the end of the war on terror.” There are many ways to make sense of Bin Laden’s death, and especially the non-existent “capture” part of its “kill-or-capture” advertisement, that try to fit it into a story of American values and priorities. But I think it’s ultimately unproductive. However much this felt like a cathartic “win” for people my age who’ve had very little to be happy about in American foreign policy since they became politically aware, killing Bin Laden was not, for a nation of 300 million people, a national triumph. Yet it wasn’t murder, either, and it doesn’t fit comfortably with a narrative about immoral American conduct.

What’s far more important and revealing than either, dead-end take is how the raid demonstrated a capacity that simply was not in place a decade ago, either in intelligence or operations. There wasn’t, as Schmidle recounts, the necessity of using imprecise, civilian-endangering airpower, nor a need to rely on an unreliable and unstable foreign ally, nor a requirement to commit major force in order to neutralize a threat we didn’t like. A new way was found, or more accurately, realized. And that allowed for the United States to close the first and hopefully longest chapter of the struggle against terrorism.

This evolution of capability, while we must be vigilant about its implications, is heartening. If we can start to turn that focus on developing purposeful, effective measures to the various other legacies of the past decade, then we’ll be in good shape. And the best way to do that is to re-establish that competence is an American value in its own right.

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