So apparently, Osama Bin Laden is dead. You know, that Osama Bin Laden. The Osama Bin Laden who was definitely behind the 9/11 attack, most likely, so far as we can tell. Or who, at least, was probably involved somehow, or approved of the attack after the event.
And this is great news. Not because an individual is dead, but because Bin Laden’s death is the perfect pretext to announce that George W. Bush’s oh-so-stupid War On Terror is over — that it has been won! And that America can therefore start recovering all the liberties that it sacrificed in the name of the WOT that was, ironically, being waged to protect those very freedoms.
My impression is that most people recognise the WOT as a horrible, horrible mistake, but no-one’s been able to find a way to back out of it without losing face. They can’t just say “we reacted out of fear and anger after 9/11, and didn’t think it through; it was dumb and we’re not going to do it any more”. But now they don’t have to say that: I think we can dare to hope that America’s intelligent politicians will jump on an opportunity like this.
And of course, after the mind-numbing Bush years, we do actually have an intelligent politician in the White House. (I say “we” even though I am British, because American politics is so globally important that the choice of president is hugely important to everyone everywhere.) And I am not making a party-political comment — I am not arguing that Democrats are necessarily more intelligent in general than Republicans. But it’s clear that, while Bush was as dumb as a barrel full of turkeys, Obama is smart and sharp and actually understands what he’s talking about.
That’s why I am urging the president (and, come on, we all know he reads The Reinvigorated Programmer) to do the right thing, step up, and grasp this opportunity to end the War On Terror. It’ll take a while before Americans are able to live in the same atmosphere of freedom as before 9/11, and probably even longer before we non-Americans are once more welcome guests on US soil rather than grudgingly tolerated interlopers; but right now there is an opportunity to at least start that process. To get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, observe the process of charge and trial, and so on. It may seem like a beautiful dream, but this is what presidential legacies are made of. Obama needs to grasp this opportunity while he can.
But then of course you have the naysayers — whether cynical or wise, we can’t tell yet. My boss Sebastian Hammer (quoted without permission but I assume he won’t mind) says “I don’t think anyone is going to say the WOT is over. The WOT is a massive industry and a crucial political tool. They desperately needed something to replace the cold war.”
This distresses me (not least because I fear it may well be true). But: who are they in this scenario? I can see why the Bush administration wanted there to be an ongoing WOT, if only to stop them from looking dumb for starting it in the first place. But does Obama need it? As a Cold War replacement? Doesn’t he have a recession he can play with? If he fixes that, he can be FDR instead of Truman/Eisenhower — wouldn’t that be a better legacy?
So will he do it? I guess we will find out soon enough. Depressingly, maybe we have already found out — as I write this Bin Laden has been dead for a few days, and there’s been time for Obama to make a game-changing announcement if he was going to. *sigh*
Sebastian thinks Obama is trying to gradually recast the WOT as more of a global police effort. But it can hardly have escaped Obama’s attention that all the Middle East states that are going over to democracy are the ones the USA has not “policed”. Just like all the old iron-curtain countries, in fact. Back in the 1980s, all the communist countries overthrew their repressive governments because we played them our Billy Joel CDs. Now the Arab countries are overthrowing their repressive regimes because they’ve seen our iPads. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the most effective policy is just to let them get on with it: provide them with a model of freedom to aspire to. Because, for some reason, invading them doesn’t seem to get the job done as one would expect it to.
I feel in suspense now as I did in the 48 hours after 9/11 itself, when it felt like there was a real chance Cheyney would just lose it complete and nuke Kabul. Back then, it was a relief to get through those 48 hours with nothing dramatic happening. This time, it’s a disappointment. Come on, Obama — make us proud to be Western Democracies!
People will say that it’s not that simple: that it takes time to withdraw from Afghanistan, to close down Guantanamo Bay, to decommission all the TSA’s nude-o-gram X-ray machines, to get the police used to the idea that citizens are allowed to observe and record them as they go about their duty. Of course, all that is true. No-one expects it to be done overnight. But that’s not the president’s job anyway. His job is to see far and clear, and to show that vision to the nation, and the world. Right now is the time.
I leave you with two pie-charts, both from Wikipedia. [NOTE added later: these are misleading — see the first few comments below.] First, the UK’s 2009/10 budget (from here):
As you can see, Defence at £38 billion, gets 43% as much money as Education at £88 billion. Now let’s look at the corresponding chart for the USA (from here):
Can you even find Education?
It’s the thin gold slice up around 11 o’clock. It accounts for 1.32% of the budget, compared with 18.74% for the Department of Defense. So in the USA, Defense gets 14.20 times as much money as Education.
In other words, the Education:Defence ratio is 32.88 times as good in the UK as in the USA. Now let’s admit right up front that these figures are a bit misleading — a much larger proportion of American kids are privately schooled than in Britain, for example. But even when you take that into account, that factor of 32.88 is pretty astonishing, isn’t it?
A strong president can change that. Right now.