As far as the real American war on terror goes—the war that we have been waging under two presidents since Sept. 11, 2001—finding Bin Laden was never the issue. The question is what ideas do you use to wage a successful cultural war in the Middle East?
Essentially there are two different tactics. The first is to inject our own ideas of democracy, women’s rights, and minority rights into Arab politics, the downside being that such ideas will only appeal to a minority of people in the region. It’s hard work winning a cultural war if you keep telling the people you’re trying to convince that their values are wrong. If Bush believed that the only remedy for the failures of Middle Eastern political culture was democracy, his fault was in failing to see that sick political cultures are not immediately susceptible to remedy. The other approach is to temper some of your own values, to make room for the ideas of your interlocutors.
Obama appears to believe, not incorrectly, that his predecessor was too dogmatic, and that sometimes you can get more done by listening than speaking. His problem is that the more he is willing to bend on American values, the more he is going to be tilting toward the political culture that gave us the figure whose death we’re now celebrating. Bin Laden’s death, which was celebrated by Americans in Times Square, Detroit, and baseball parks, was publicly mourned by the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, with the elected Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, referring to the dead al-Qaida chief responsible for the murder of more than 3,000 Americans as a martyr. “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior,” Haniyeh told reporters. “We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.” If dialogue has limits, then this should be it. And if it isn’t, it is unclear what we are fighting for.