If the death of Osama bin Laden marks the beginning of the end of the "global war on terrorism," as Michael Cohen argued in a WPR briefing this week, it will have profound consequences for U.S. national security policy. For the last decade, the fight against international terrorism, as personified by bin Laden, was one of the central organizing principles of American foreign and defense policies. Preventing another Sept. 11 was the rationale for the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as for a whole host of programs in dozens of countries around the world, ranging from security cooperation to improving governance and social services. It was also cited as one of the reasons for seeking improved relations with other major powers including Russia, China and India.
One month after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a forum sponsored by the National Interest and the Nixon Center in Washington, columnist Charles Krauthammer opined that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United States used a "holiday from history" to kick pressing global problems "down the road." The fight against al-Qaida, he argued, might be the 21st-century equivalent of the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union during the second half of the 20th century. Peter Bergen's recently released tome on the war on terror is even explicitly titled, "The Longest War," and posits an "enduring struggle" in the years to come.
But the logic of the "war on terrorism" was about more than just combating a single organization, al-Qaida. It was also about providing an overarching narrative that knitted together a number of discrete, regional problems -- from Chechen separatists and Colombian narco-traffickers to Somali pirates and North Korea's nuclear program -- into a global strategic view. It provided a unifying template by which U.S. engagement in different regions of the world could be portrayed as combating the same threat in multiple guises and locations. Bin Laden's demise could be the catalyst that scatters the assembled pieces of this jigsaw puzzle, particularly if al-Qaida, having lost its effective founder and guide, breaks into smaller regional franchises with less global reach. That could return terrorism to its pre-Sept. 11 status as a "law enforcement" rather than a "national security" problem.