Already, American politicians scramble to claim credit for Osama Bin Laden's demise. Democrats say Bin Laden's capture vindicates Obama's strategy, while Republicans say President George W. Bush deserves recognition for laying foundations in the war on terror. That Bin Laden survived almost 10 years after his attacks on New York and Washington should be an indictment of both parties and, more broadly, the American way of diplomacy.
Bin Laden has been public enemy number one well before 9/11. In 1996, after the Clinton administration pressured Sudan to expel the Al Qaeda leader, the Taliban embraced him. What followed was not the State Department's proudest moment: On more than two dozen occasions, senior American diplomats took tea with their Taliban counterparts. Declassified documents show the Taliban bamboozled Americans. Their promises to expel Bin Laden were empty, but they offered enough hope for the State Department to believe diplomacy might work. All the while, the clock ticked and Bin Laden expanded his network and grew more entrenched. Hindsight shows talk was not cheap.
Bin Laden's high security and swank compound in Abbottabad, a town favored by Pakistani army officers, highlights Pakistan's complicity in protecting he Al Qaeda leader. Pakistani officials knew, however, that American diplomats prioritize conflict avoidance. Even though American officials long suspected Pakistan's duplicity, American diplomats and generals embraced the fiction of Pakistani cooperation.
Bush and Obama sang Pakistan's praises. Not only did Bush in 2004 designate Pakistan a "major non-NATO ally" allowing it to receive advanced military technology but, four years later, he declared, "Pakistan is a strong ally and a vibrant democracy." Obama initially was no better. Even as Pakistani officers encouraged attacks on American supply convoys last October, the White House declared Pakistan "a strong ally" in the fight against extremism.
Somewhere along the line, however, Obama recognized that success precluded diplomacy. Reports suggest Obama's team briefed Pakistani officials only when the operation was complete. Had American officials been less trusting and perhaps less multilateral, Bin Laden might have met his demise years ago.