Interview with the Ithaca Times on the Death of OBL

Posted by Barry Strauss under on May 5, 2011

Cornell expert: Risky Bin Laden operation ‘great achievement,’ but terrorism remains – Ithaca Times : News

By Rob Montana | Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:21 pm

Like many Americans late Sunday night or early Monday morning, the news that Osama bin Laden was dead – and at the hands of U.S. forces – came as a shock to Cornell professor Barry Strauss.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure if bin Laden was still alive,” said the chair of Cornell University’s Department of History, adding that he’d moved past everyday thinking about the face of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. “Things had moved on from bin Laden.

“Frankly, I think there’s a danger now of people saying ‘We got bin Laden, now it’s over,'” he added. “He’s part of a genuine ideology.”

Strauss, whose interest in military battles and strategies have led to his publishing trade books “The Spartacus War” and “The Trojan War,” said that the islamism promoted by bin Laden was much different than Nazism under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.

“It’s part of a movement of fascism, but it’s hard to imagine Nazism without Hitler,” he said. “It was so idiosyncratic, so much the invention of one man and a reflection of his particular qualities.

“Although bin Laden was very effective, he was just one man. It’s not even clear he’s the guy,” Strauss added, noting that many different groups fall under the al Qaeda umbrella that don’t necessarily work together. “Islamism has many different factions and movements. For example, I don’t think people in Iran were taking orders from bin Laden, they were moving on a very different track.”

It’s important to note the distinction between Islamism and Islam; simply put, one refers to a movement, the other a religion. Islamism is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “an Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life,” while Islam is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “monotheistic religion characterized by the acceptance of the doctrine of submission to God and to Muhammad as the chief and last prophet of God.”

While Strauss doesn’t think the death of bin Laden means an end to terrorist actions by members of al Qaeda, the action taken on Sunday that resulted in the elusive leader’s demise is a big deal for the U.S.

“It is a great achievement for the U.S. Symbolically, perhaps more than pragmatically, it is a very big deal,” he said. “Symbols matter in politics, in war, symbols matter a great deal. Bin Laden, at the height of his fame, was the symbol of terrorism.

“It makes a big difference if someone can thumb his nose and say, ‘You can’t catch me,’ or if you can say, ‘Oh yeah, we caught you and we killed you,'” Strauss added. “It’s a very powerful symbolic message.”

Months of preparation went into planning the specific actin that took place on Sunday, based on years of searching for bin Laden and the intelligence work behind that effort. Though the result came as surprise to most people, it’s clear the U.S. did not rush into its attempt to capture bin Laden. Strauss said despite the cautious approach, the mission was an extremely risky proposition.

“It’s funny, on one hand, it seems we were exceedingly, overly cautious in our approach to this,” he said. “On the other hand, you could say we took a big risk in this operation because there wasn’t a guarantee we’d get bin Laden and certainly no guarantee it would work.”

Strauss referenced then-President Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 that led to the deaths of U.S. troops and an Iranian civilian as an example of what could have happened on Sunday’s mission.

“What an utter failure,” he said of the 1980 incident. “You could say we were less likely to fail, that the military has learned a lot of lessons since then, but there were still risks. We know one helicopter went down. It was a risky operation, a gutsy move.

“President Obama could have used a cruise missile to destroy (the compound). That would have been safer, but it wouldn’t have been able to prove that we had gotten bin Laden,” Strauss added. “He took a risk to send in the U.S. military, but the risky operation was more likely to prove that we had gotten him.”

Symbolically, though, the action that Obama decided to take was much more powerful than sending in a guided missile.

“It’s a much more powerful symbol to take somebody out face-to-face, in a very primitive form of combat,” Strauss said. “It’s much more powerful to do that than use missiles.

“The whole premise of modern warfare, the deam is to limit war as much as possible and take the heroism out of it,” he added. “It’s not about manhood, it’s about machines, and it’s not personal. In an operation like this, we turned the clock back with a very elemental form of warfare. That will have a very powerful symbolic impact and perhaps a practical impact as well.”

Strauss said there are plenty of unanswered questions – which will likely remain unanswered – about how the operation went down and what kind of involvement Pakistan had in the matter.

“My guess is that there’s a lot of winking and nodding going on here,” he said. “Pakistan is a very complicated place; there are people who are genuine allies who want to pursue a Westernizing agenda and there are others who are not interested in that at all.”

As news reports continue to come out about the action, Strauss’s perspective seems to be dead on. On Sunday night, it was mentioned that Pakistan knew about the operation, but Monday brought the news that the country’s leadership was only informed about it after the mission had been conducted and U.S. forces were back outside of Pakistan’s borders. That means had something gone seriously wrong, such as finding out the occupants of the compound did not include Osama bin Laden or the death of uninvolved citizens, it would have been a big issue.

“If things had gone wrong, there would have been howls of diplomatic protest,” Strauss said.

There are not just unanswered questions about the mission itself, but more importantly about what this means for the state of affairs in the Middle East.

“Just as in American politics, people from the mideast will spin it different ways,” Strauss said. “Some will say this proves America is a pretty strong country, you don’t want to mess around with them and maybe we should be friendlier with them.

“Others will say this just proves the U.S. is really the enemy and is implacable,” he added. “And others will be somewhere in between.”

Strauss does feel this will increase the pressure on Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who is waging war with an uprising there. Just last week, a NATO airstrike on a home in Tripoli, where the colonel was staying with his family, resulted in the death of Gaddafi’s son and three of his grandchildren, while the Libyan leader was apparently unharmed.

“If I were Gaddafi, I’d be nervous,” Strauss said. “They tried to assassinate him last week and I think the chance of another attempt has gone up.”

Proof of bin Laden’s death has been a hotly-debated topic since news came of his death on Sunday night. Many are calling for the release of photos of his corpse, wanting to see with their own eyes that the al Qaeda leader is – in fact – dead. The Obama administration is still considering the requests and hasn’t made a decision yet.

Strauss isn’t sure what is the best course of action.

“It’s a tough call. There are advantages either way and disadvantages either way,” he said. “The advantage is you can show a picture of Osama bin Laden dead, but people can say they are just doctored images. Also, the images will be inflammatory, they will be distressing and no decent person can jump up and down for joy looking at photos of a corpse.

“There is a certain advantage of mystery in not releasing the photos. It shows power, it shows strength,” Strauss added. “I think holding the photos demonstrates a certain power. But, it’s a real tough call, and to me there’s no obvious thing to release or not release.”

For more from Strauss, visit his website at, where he has been blogging about how military history relates to modern day affairs.

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