‘Justice has been done.” That was President Obama’s succinct assessment of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special-ops forces, carried out at his direction on Sunday. “We will be true to the values that make us who we are,” he said. Those values are what led him to pronounce justice done — no trial and no court authorization, and, for once, “habeas corpus” really meant that our government had the body, a corpse to identify, not a defendant to process.
It is worth remembering that bin Laden had been under indictment by the Justice Department for 13 years when he finally met his demise yesterday. A federal grand jury in Manhattan had charged him with terrorism conspiracy in June 1998, after he had, yet again, declared war on the United States. He’d already been doing that for years. It was only a few weeks later, on Aug. 7, 1998, that his al-Qaeda cells in eastern Africa bombed the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — the first 224 of what became the thousands of innocents the master terrorist would murder in the ensuing decade-plus.
I argued in The Weekly Standard
at the time (“The Sudan Connection: The Missing Link in U.S. Terrorism Policy”) that “justice” for bin Laden and the global jihad backed by several rogue nations — Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, for starters — was to regard them as a national-security challenge crying out for a military response. They were manifestly not a crime problem to be managed by FBI agents and prosecutors like me.
Yet, prosecution of crime rather than war had been the Clinton-administration counterterrorism strategy, beginning with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It was maintained through a plot to bomb New York City landmarks later that year and a conspiracy to blow U.S. airliners out of the sky over the Pacific thereafter. The law-enforcement approach was even reaffirmed after jihadists killed 19 U.S. airmen in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia — an attack the Clinton administration soon learned Iran had orchestrated, the mullahs and their forward militia, Hezbollah, having had cooperative relations with al-Qaeda since the early nineties.
Still nothing changed — in fact, President Clinton stood idle as the Saudis obstructed the FBI’s fruitless effort to investigate Khobar Towers. The ’98 embassy bombings did briefly stir Bill Clinton to lob a few cruise missiles bin Laden’s way — including at a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that Clintonistas to this day maintain was a joint WMD venture involving bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But that moment of clarity quickly passed — the threat was growing by leaps and bounds as threats are certain to do when met with fecklessness, but the Lewinsky scandal was finally burning out and with it Clinton’s impetus to treat a war like a war.
By the end of 1999, the 9/11 Commission gingerly recounts, Clinton had so befuddled the CIA regarding whether covert agents had authority to kill bin Laden that several golden opportunities were lost. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda continued to plan stunning operations, including the bombing of a naval destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, in October 2000 — murdering 17 U.S. sailors as Clinton made his exit from the stage.
Prompted by the 9/11 atrocities, a new administration dramatically changed course. At least for a time, the government’s sense of “justice” was brought in line with the public’s: Pres. George W. Bush pledged that we would hunt terror cells down wherever they operated, and we would put the rogue regimes that abetted al-Qaeda to the test of changing their ways or feeling the wrath of the world’s lone superpower.
The Taliban, al-Qaeda’s hosts in Afghanistan, were driven from power, and bin Laden’s sometime-ally, Saddam Hussein, soon followed. Yet, bin Laden himself eluded our armed forces and intelligence services. Simultaneously, Iraq devolved from a spectacularly swift vindication of the Bush doctrine to a bloody, years-long misadventure in Islamic nation-building. The appetite for taking on the regimes that enable al-Qaeda to project outsize power was lost once the public saw that the price-tag would include precious lives and untold billions to be sunk into the dubious construction of sharia-lite democracies.