Time.com’s Tony Karon, one of the most perceptive journalists in the American mainstream, writes that the US killing of Osama Bin Laden is all about symbolism and will do nothing to help the Western position in the Arab world:
Before leaving for a vacation in South Africa in December of 2001, my editor asked me to prepare an obituary for Osama bin Laden for TIME.com on the assumption that he might well be killed in Afghanistan while I was on the beach in Cape Town. Almost ten years later there was finally a reason to call up the old file: President Barack Obama said late Sunday that the al-Qaeda leader had been killed in a U.S. raid in the Pakistani city of Amadabad, and that the U.S. was in possession of his body.
But where killing or capturing Bin Laden might once have been imagined to be a decisive turning point in a struggle between the U.S. and its challengers in the Muslim world, today, the death of America’s erstwhile nemesis is little more than an historical footnote — a settling of accounts for a spree of ugly crimes and the elimination of a symbol of global jihadist nihilism, perhaps, offering justice and closure for the victims of 9/11 and other atrocities. But it does little to alter the challenges facing the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan or any other major country in the Muslim world. That’s because much to his chagrin, Bin Laden and his movement have achieved only marginal relevance to power struggles throughout the Muslim world. The strategy of spectacular acts of a terror had briefly allowed a band of a few hundred desperadoes to dominate America’s headlines and its nightmares, but on the ground in the Muslim world al-Qaeda had largely been a sideshow.
The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq put it in conflict with nationalist insurgencies in which al-Qaeda had a limited, if any role. By the middle of the past decade, already, the U.S. was talking of its prime adversary in the region as being an “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran and comprising Syria and non-state but nonetheless popular nationalist actors such as Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. And that “resistance” front had little time for al-Qaeda, while Bin Laden’s spokesmen reserved some of their most venomous rhetoric for Iran, Hizballah and Hamas.
Those groups remain far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever was because they’re rooted in national movements and conditions, and have built popular support bases over many years. Just as Lenin’s Comintern proved an unworkable model for global revolution, so did al-Qaeda prove to be a chimera. The center of gravity of opposition to the U.S. and its allies in the Muslim world remains with nationally-based movements who are confronting a specific enemy around a clear set of grievances and goals that are at least conceivably attainable. Hamas or Hezbollah are not much interested in restoring a Caliphate to rule from Spain to Indonesia; their goals are far more specific and localized. And in the end, while Bin Laden’s movement could blow things up, it failed to ignite any sustainable forms of struggle – like Che Guevara (also remembered more as a T-shirt icon of rebellion than for his rather unfortunate ideas of how it should be pursued), Bin Laden found that simply taking spectacular military action against even a hated foe would not necessarily rally the masses to join him in struggle or confront their own local tyrants. (Indeed, as much as they hated the U.S., many Arabs seemed unable to “own” 9/11, instead blaming it on the CIA or the Mossad, insisting that “Arabs could not have done this.”)
No decent people will grieve at Bin Laden’s passing. But nor will his elimination alter the challenges facing Washington in an Arab world that has found its own ways — quite different from Bin Laden’s — for challenging the writ of the U.S. and its allies in the Muslim world. Bin Laden may have desperately sought the mantle of champion of Muslim resistance to the West, and a traumatized American media culture may have briefly granted him that role in the months that followed the horror of 9/11, but where it mattered most, among his own people, Bin Laden was an epic failure.