The End of Osama

As we all absorb the news of Osama Bin Laden's death, I think this morning of my kids, 10, 8 and 5.  We have been at war in Afghanistan for the entire lives of my two youngest.   Their entire lives.  For many young Americans the searing events of 9/11 and its remarkably violent, expensive and lengthy aftermath define so much of what they know, particularly for those heroic servicemen and women who have returned from battle forever altered mentally and physically by what they have experienced.  While there is much to celebrate today, we also need to think about the tremendous costs of this long war (so well described recently by Peter Bergen here at NDN).

9/11, the war on terror and the geopolitical and domestic strategies which came from those events changed America. As I wrote in an essay for Salon about a year ago, the greatest cost of this period in US history has been our inability to extricate ourselves from the strategy which viewed the answer to the problem of Al Qaeda and violent Muslim extremism as only war.  The cries for human dignity and the heroic fight for a better life we are seeing in the Arab world today remind us that life is always about guns, and butter.  What we missed during the "Age of Osama" was a more complete strategy, one which took into account the desire of regular people all around the world for a sense that their leaders were looking out for them, and creating conditions which could give them and their families a chance to make things a bit better for themselves.  

In looking back at the middle of the last century the United States fought a great war, but crafted an even greater peace.  Our investment in things like Bretton Woods, the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and in recent years the extensive liberalization of closed economies which followed the end of communism, and the classically liberal understanding of human affairs which undergirded this strategy, allowed the incredible military investment made by the United States in World War II and throughout the rest of the Cold War to win the day against the totalitarian enemies of the 20th century.  The Arab Spring we are seeing today would have been unimaginable without the Clinton era commitment to global economic liberalization, and the explosive growth we've seen in previously impoverished parts of the world.

There have been rumors for weeks that President Obama is about to give a big speech about the Arab Spring, and the fight for freedom we are witnessing in many nations today.  Perhaps he choose to hold that speech until the Osama operation took place, using his possible death as an additonal marker, a way to break with old paradigms in both the Arab world and our own nation, giving him even more ammunition to call for a new more liberal era in global affairs, and here at home too. 

To me there will be several early tests of whether the President can reinvent the historically successful liberalism of the 20th century for our new century.  The first will be how we handle our own domestic economic affairs, and whether a true agenda for investing in our own people after many years of struggle can emerge, an agenda required for America to meet the challenges rising global competition is bringing to our people.  The second is whether we can pull together a global alliance to invest in the rising Arab and Muslim worlds, spending perhaps 10 percent of what we have spent through our military in the last decade to help create liberalized economies and functioning states in a region so desperately in need of modernization. 

On this historic day for America let us salute the heroic effort of our armed forces and intelligence communities, the men and women and families who have given so much for so long.  And of course the very able leadership provided by President Obama and his team.  But let us also use this day to begin a new conversation about our future, where we can begin to talk, akin to the Allies who began meeting long before the Axis powers surrendered, about what kind of world we want to live in the 21st century, and to begin organizing, mobilizing, investing and building that world, swiftly.  For if we can get it right in the months and years ahead, I think we can replace this "age of Osama" with an historic "age of possibility," where so much can be possible now for us, our children and the people of the world. So I write excited about what can be done with this moment, and as a father more optimistic my kids will know a better and more hopeful world than the world they have known so far.

Update - Great closing language from the President's remarks last night:

Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete.  But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.  That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are:  one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.