The hunt for Osama bin Laden was always a sideshow. President George W. Bush even said at one point that he wasn’t much concerned with finding him. He probably meant it. Still, bin Laden played a useful role for the U.S. foreign-policy elite: he was still out there plotting, necessitating a vigilant “war on terror.” And if he were eventually caught and killed, whoever was occupying the White House would score a point with the American electorate.
Now it has been done. What’s next? Don’t look for any big change. American foreign policy was formulated long before al-Qaeda came into being, and its decapitation (if that’s what it is) won’t make much difference. Not that there won’t be surface changes. President Obama may well get the remaining troops out of Iraq as required by the agreement Bush signed with the Iranian-backed government the U.S. military helped install (although the State Department may succeed in maintaining a private army there). And Obama will probably make a big show of drawing down the 100,000-troop force in Afghanistan. The American people are sick of that war (to the extent they are paying attention), and Obama is up for reelection next year. He’d probably like to be rid of the Afghan albatross if he can do it in a way that won’t let the Republicans portray him as a wimp. The bin Laden hit helps him out in that regard.
But assuming those things happen, what has really changed? Will the U.S. government have renounced its global policeman role? Hardly. It will still be bombing Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, and it continues to claim the authority to intervene anywhere, with or without the blessing of Congress, NATO, or the UN Security Council. (Who cares what the American people think?)
So it’s imperative that we not be fooled by appearances. The policymakers will not be using bin Laden’s death as grounds to dismantle the thousand U.S. military installations around the world, to stop supporting torture-loving dictators when they serve “American interests,” to end the violations of Americans’ civil liberties, or to defund the trillion-dollar-plus national security state. That gravy train, which gives prestige to “statesmen,” shapes the global order American-style, and lines the pockets of contractors, is not going to end merely because one man was shot by Navy SEALS.
It took no more than a few nanoseconds after the killing of bin Laden for the government to inform us that this is no time to let down our guard. The Bush Perpetual Motion Machine is intact. Every move to counter terrorists creates its own grounds for further moves. For every terrorist killed, ten more arise. (Gen. Stanley McChrystal said that.) Demand creates its own supply. It’s an empire-builders’ dream come true. The 9/11 attacks were monstrous crimes, but they were not out of the blue.
If we Americans are to free ourselves of the burdens of empire, we have to go to the root. Government must not be allowed the role of shaping the world to the policymakers’ liking. Even if their goals were entirely wholesome ? individual liberty and free markets ? a superpower global policeman would be impotent to bestow them on the world’s people. Government is a blunt instrument that works in top-down fashion. Freedom is something that must bubble up from the grassroots if it is to be genuine and enduring. Oppressed populations will not have decent nations built by outsiders. They will have to make their own nations decent.
Anyway, having wholesome goals is not enough. The policymakers would also have to know what they are doing. Yet the complexity of any society puts the relevant knowledge beyond the reach of even the brainiest social engineers. If they are incapable of planning the domestic economy, they certainly will not be able to reconstruct a foreign society.
Of course, it is unrealistic to assume the policymakers have wholesome goals. Behind the pretty window dressing we consistently find an agenda that serves particular political and economic interests. American foreign policy has long been the tool for arranging the world in just such a way as to ensure power and wealth for the right people. Just a coincidence? Not likely.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation and and editor of The Freeman magazine.