Transcript

Obama vs. Osama

Nick Bisley
Email: n.bisley@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 14.6MB].

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Transcript

Matt Smith:

When the World Trade Centre in New York fell to a terrorist attack on September 11 2001, few realised that what would follow would be a decade-long war on terror campaign. Until recently, the face of terror was al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, but that isn't the case any more. A successful raid on his hiding place in Pakistan resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, an act which President Barack Obama is giving much of the credit. I'm Matt Smith, and welcome to a La Trobe University podcast.

My guest today is Nick Bisley, a Professor of the Politics Program at La Trobe University. Like many in the world, he has been following the events as they unfold and describes the situation as this:

Nick Bisley:

The first reaction was one of just total surprise. This has been something which people have been expecting, waiting for, anticipating, dreading, depending on your point of view, for a long time. And then bang, it happens. No warning, no pre-announcement, very swiftly. Another thing for a lot of people – about time. This is ten years, a lot of money, and as time went on, it was like, hey, hang on, he's in a city, he's in Pakistan, he's not far from Islamabad if he's not in a cave, he's not in Afghanistan, he's not in the lawless parts of Pakistan. And then quickly people started to sort of ask these questions about, well, what did the Pakistani government know? So that was the kind of immediate reaction I think. This is a slowly unfolding sense of surprise, expectation and then sort of puzzlement as to what was going on. Then we saw those in some cases distasteful responses in America, the immediate quite jingoistic – people on the streets hollering "USA" and this sort of stuff, although this didn't last all that long. And then within America of course we've seen this as an event that's fundamentally transformed Obama's personal poll-ratings, his personal approval, and most people think has now set him on train for what is probably likely to be a re-election in 2012, from a situation in which, across the board, he was looking very vulnerable.

Matt Smith:

Since the announcement, details of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's hideout have been released and there was quite a big surprise that he was in, for the area, quite a rich house. What did you think of the operation? Was it all above board and did it kind of play out the way everybody thought it would.

Nick Bisley:

We tend to remember when you look at these things, the things that go wrong. The most obvious point of contrast was the effort by the Carter administration to have a helicopter attack on Iran to free the hostages that had been taken by the Iranian students in 1979 that went catastrophically wrong, with something like five of the seven helicopters crashed and the whole mission was aborted. So we tend to think of the things that go wrong. This seems from all operational points of view, to have been a spectacular success, you know, no American injuries, let alone fatalities. One helicopter crashed but they blew it up so the technology didn't get into enemy hands, as they put it. They got their prime target. They minimised civilian casualties and demonstrated the capacity of America's military to do certain things very, very well. You know, this was a precise raid, in enemy territory, in hostile terrain, to get the world's most wanted man. And they pulled it off very successfully – in another country, that they haven't told that they're doing it. This is a tricky thing to do. So from an operational point of view, I think it worked really well.

From a PR point of view, within America, hugely successful. Internationally I think there's been more a sense of unease about a targeted killing. As some people have put it, this is a drive-by shooting. I mean, it's a little bit more than that, but nonetheless it's a summary execution in a way. And this leaves some people feeling a little bit uneasy. An international lawyer's gone so far as to say "This is illegal". I'm not sure that's quite true in the sense that Bin Laden was clearly a commander of a military organisation that was seeking to inflict significant damage on the American populous and American military so I think the argument that he's not a legitimate target's probably not strong, but there's still something about a raid to go and kill someone which I think liberal society's feel a little uneasy about.

Matt Smith:

Osama Bin Laden being quite a big figure in the war on terror, there was some sort of debate about which would be better – whether it was preferable to have him alive or dead at the end of this. If he was captured alive, do you think that would have been a better or worse outcome for America?

Nick Bisley:

They wouldn't admit this publicly, but I suspect that amongst the administration there would have been some people saying it might have been useful to take this guy alive and not just for, let's torture him and get information out of him. But if you've got him, you can publicly display him and say, we've got him. Whereas, forever more there will be doubts. Did they really kill him? Did they really get him? Is he really running free? What's going on? There's this kind of – the doubters of Bin Laden will be with us. On the other hand, I think the Americans were absolutely right to think that "OK, well you've got Bin Laden, then what do you do with him?" From America's point of view, you've got to put him on trial and that trial would make the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton look like a country gathering, from a global media point of view. It just would have been a complete circus. You can see why having him dead is more useful. There's also, curiously enough, I think, something in having Bin Laden dead that's useful for al-Qaeda – he's now a martyr to the cause, he is now someone who they can argue was murdered in cold blood in front of his children, in front of his wife. This is what America does, this is grist in the kind of propaganda mill that al-Qaeda will propagate. It's almost a weird situation which both America's interests and al-Qaeda's interests are probably best served by him being killed rather than him being put on trial. Having said that, I think Bin Laden on trial would have scored quite significant PR coups along the way.

Matt Smith:

Osama Bin Laden wasn't exactly hiding in a cave. How did he escape attention for so long?

Nick Bisley:

There can be no doubt that someone, somewhere, or probably, a significant number of people, within the Pakistani military or the intelligence service or possibly even the Pakistani government, knew he was there and were protecting him, or providing some services to facilitate him being there. There's no question of that. What is a question, is who knew what? And where, and how much? Informed opinion seems to be that the ISI Intelligence Service within Pakistan was providing him with protection and in the longer run, thinking of him as the ace in the hole, which they can turn to when they need to and would have coughed him up at some point, at which it would have been particularly useful for them. Precisely where in the chain of command that is, we don't know. I assume we'll eventually find out, but it may be a while. But you can tell by the remarks that very senior administration officials in the US have made, the Deputy National Security Advisor for example, saying publicly "Someone in the Pakistani government had to know", to be saying this publicly, they are putting pressure on Pakistan. You know, if you look at the uneasy relationship that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani intelligence service has had with terrorist organisations over a long period of time, they've danced with the devil many times. It would almost be odd if they hadn't. Having Bin Laden is a very significant trump card for them, particularly given the double game they're trying to play – on the one hand, they're helping America fight the Taliban and other jihadist types of organisations in Afghanistan, whilst they themselves are supporting these groups in India and in Cashmere to try and advance their cause in that part.

Matt Smith:

What does the death mean for the Presidency of Barack Obama now, and could it have come at a better time for him?

Nick Bisley:

The better time would have probably been about twelve months, in a way, because we're far enough from the election that I suspect the big bump that he's had in his polls will probably ebb away over time. This is not the event that will get him re-elected. But my sense with Presidential elections is that they're a lot about momentum. Single events don't win you or lose you, or very rarely win you and lose you an election, but momentum, building up that sense that this is a story, that's it's compelling, that people are going to go out and vote and support, is really crucial, and Obama didn't really have a lot of momentum recently, up until very recently. Negative opinions about his leadership, about foreign policy, about the war on terror, as well as catastrophically bad numbers about the economy – this has turned around those numbers quite significantly in all areas except the economy – that hasn't been affected, not surprising. But if you look at the big indicators, Pew polls, the CNN polls, every poll that has been done since this occurred has shown a very large turnaround. I think for Republicans, what this event has done, has basically said "Foreign policy, defence policy, security, terrorism, that's a no-go area now". What I think this has done from a Presidential point of view is (a) given Obama a momentum going into 2012, which is very, very important. He now doesn't have the stench of death about him any more. Which he had a little while ago. And (b), it cleared the decks for the election itself in the sense of what the issues are that this election's going to be over and it is now very clear that this is going to be an economy election. This is an election about the recession in the United States and his handling of it. And the extent to which the Republicans can capitalise on any negative sentiment that is very strongly held in the electorate towards Obama for his handling of that. If he can offset that negativity, particularly if the Republicans put up a crazy candidate, a Donald Trump, a Sarah Palin, or someone who's palpably unelectable, then he's fine. If they put up a more moderate person, if he can't get traction on the economy, if unemployment numbers are still very bad, then I think the benefit he'll get out of this from a foreign policy point of view will be offset. It's very clear in American political history that no matter how important the foreign policy issue, these things almost never shape election results. It's always about domestic issues. With very, very few exceptions. George Bush senior, a big victory in Iraq in 1990, voted out in '92. Whereas his son, after the catastrophe of Iraq in 2003, gets re-elected in 2004. The correlation between what happens outside America's borders and what Americans actually do at the ballot box on Presidential election day is pretty ambiguous and I think that will probably be the case for Obama.

Matt Smith:

Barack Obama's been getting a lot of trouble from Donald Trump recently, kicking up claims that he's not an American citizen by birth, that he wasn't born in Hawaii. During the announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden the new episode of Celebrity Apprentice was interrupted. Do you find that a bit uncanny, or was that a planned interruption, a planned timing on Barack Obama's part?

Nick Bisley:

There are some things in life which are just serendipitous and I think that's one of them.

Matt Smith:

Really?

Nick Bisley:

Yes. There are a couple of serious points there though. One is, Obama has tried to position himself as above the fray with the things like the birth certificate stuff, saying "This is a trivial issue. Serious people don't worry about this and if I respond to them, I'm stooping to their level." But what Trump did, he's the guy who politicised the issue to the point where the Obama administration felt they had to say "Look, you guys are crazy". But if you look at the press release, they basically say, we've got more important things to be doing than this by the way. You children kind of get over it. But the interesting thing was less to do with interrupting Celebrity Apprentice but more to do with the fact that the operation was going on to kill Osama at the same time that an annual White House press dinner is going on. During that dinner, Obama's standing up, giving the speech. He knows what's going on. So he's got to give this public face that's kind of relaxed, funny, poke fun at himself, poke a lot of fun at Donald Trump – meanwhile he knows what's going on and the risks that are happening. I don't think that Obama is concerned about Donald Trump as a serious candidate. In fact I would imagine if I were sitting in the White House planning the Obama re-election of 2012, I would be praying like crazy that Donald Trump is nominated by the Republicans. That makes your life very, very easy. Ditto with Sarah Palin.

Matt Smith:

Does Osama Bin Laden's death mean an end to the war on terror?

Nick Bisley:

No. Firstly, al-Qaeda's bigger than one man. It's been very badly damaged by the past ten years. It's much less effective. But it hasn't gone away. There's certainly within Afghanistan, within Pakistan, within India, within South-East Asia, certainly in parts of North-East Africa, there's activity of this kind going on, that's either directly or indirectly related to al-Qaeda. It will be more fragmented, it will be more diffuse than in the past, as with any organisation there are questions about succession and what will come after it, but they've demonstrated an effective model of insurgency of a kind, of an ability to leverage fairly small amounts of capital to fairly high levels of effect. Having said that, what people often forget about al-Qaeda that in its first instance, so before September 11, when it was first established in the late '90s, and in fact to this day, their main aim has been the seizure of power of significant states in the Middle East and in particular in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. Now what I think has gone, not entirely unnoticed, but I think hasn't received enough attention, is the irony that around the same time as Bin Laden was killed, we have Arab uprisings, but they're not jihadi uprisings. These are good old fashioned, social movement, liberalish, not necessarily democratic but certainly fairly orthodox kinds of coalitions of, you know, students, left wing activists, business people, who are throwing off the shackles of outdated, corrupt, authoritarian regimes. And this is what al-Qaeda actually wanted. They wanted to be able to capitalise on popular discontent with Arab authoritarianism, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, and to cede power, because they knew that the populations of those states was very frustrated with corrupt, kleptocratic rule, and that they saw this as the sentiment they could harness to achieve their kind of caliphate-type goals. Terrorism as the method, but the goal was regime change and radical transformation of the state. What I see in the Arab uprising, faced in the context of Bin Laden's killing, was the declining resonance and efficacy of al-Qaeda as a vehicle to achieve state change in the Middle East. And that's actually really important because it's separate from the war on terror. And in fact I think that's where al-Qaeda's going to find life most difficult. It will continue to do these violent acts wherever they can, but I think their capacity to harness that violence to achieve their goals as in the seizure of state power, at the moment, looks to be in decline. And I think that's a really interesting confluence of events. That the Arab spring happens and then they catch Bin Laden, and al-Qaeda's taken a double beating, from two distinct sources.

Matt Smith:

It depends what happens in the future, but will this event be the one thing that defines Barack Obama's Presidency?

Nick Bisley:

That's a good question. We have to wait and see, but I suspect it will be, from a public media point of view, it will be the big telegenic event of his first term. From the administration's point of view, you know, if you said to Obama during the election of 2012, "What have you achieved?" I suspect getting Osama will be probably top five or top ten, but not number one. From his point of view, particularly the story he's going to be telling to the American people, I still think for him, things like health care reform, hopefully seeing off a recession in the United States, these are bigger ticket items within the US and things on which longer term legacies are held. Having said that, for a President, this is political gold and he's not going to not cash that chip in.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Nick Bisley, thanks for your time today.

Nick Bisley:

Thank you, Matt.

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.