The killing of Osama bin Laden says a lot about the United States at war. It occurred almost a decade after 9/11, contradicting the notion that a democracy can’t fight a long war. It demonstrates that our presence in Afghanistan, without which the raid would have been impossible, is our main point of leverage on Pakistan.
The mission says a lot about our government’s ability to carry out its most fundamental task: providing for our security. Al-Qaida has had some successes since Sept. 11, 2001, but nothing remotely on the scale of that terrible day. Our law enforcement, domestic intelligence agencies and even the Department of Homeland Security have been more successful than anyone would have guessed.
Our foreign intelligence efforts have been transformed. By the end of the Cold War, the CIA’s ability to conduct covert operations was in shambles. Eastern bloc spies had penetrated its innermost circles. Our technical intelligence capabilities were unmatched — but those were focused on Soviet missiles and the Red Army. Now, if press reports are accurate, the agency can run an undetected safe house while scouting the bin Laden compound for months.
Most of all, though, last week’s mission was a snapshot of a superb military. The nearly flawless raid stands in stark contrast to the Desert One tragedy of 1980. The big difference between 1980 and 2011 is that President Barack Obama is blessed with an infinitely more capable set of military tools. Today’s force stands at the end of a 30-year trail of investment in recruiting, retaining and training the best people and providing them with world-class equipment.
The fighting in our long war against global terrorism has been varied and exhausting, but the force has been sharpened to the cutting-edge. The SEALs who killed bin Laden were well prepared to succeed.
The irony, of course, is that Obama is leading the charge to cut defense spending. His most recent proposal to eliminate $400 billion from future Pentagon budgets essentially doubles the cuts from his first two years in office. The long-term result will be a smaller, less-well-equipped and less-well-trained force that will be more rapidly run down.
And the final irony? The president’s boldness in launching the bin Laden raid is one of the best arguments against his proposed defense cuts. On May 1, an important mission was accomplished with astonishing success. Now we must prepare for the missions to come.
Thomas Donnelly is a research fellow in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.