Channelling George Washington: What Bin Laden's Death Means

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

Who killed Osama bin Laden?”

I had a feeling you’d be following this story, Mr. President.  I also suspect the answer you have in mind isn’t an obvious one.”

“Bin Laden was killed by President George W. Bush.  President Obama more or less recognized this fact when he telephoned Mr. Bush on the night of the raid to tell him the good news.  But that’s not the real answer.  That requires us to think beyond the obvious and ask:  how did Mr. Bush do it?”

“I’m wide awake and listening closely.”

“On the disastrous day we call 9/11, President Bush found himself facing a horrendous defeat in the war on terror.  Over three thousand innocent Americans were dead in New York and Washington D.C.  A large piece of the Pentagon was smashed by a terrorist-flown plane.  What did he do?” 

“I’d like to hear your version.”

“Mr. Bush asked himself—and his advisors—how this happened.  Contrary to current media opinion, 9/11 was not the start of the war on terror.  We had been fighting this war for the previous two decades—with the wrong strategy.  The enemy had blown up two of our embassies, attacked an American destroyer, and murdered two hundred fifty sleeping Marines in Lebanon.  The presidents who were in office during these catastrophes saw the war as a defensive operation, best carried on by the FBI with some help from the CIA.”

“I never realized this was a suspense story.  What did President Bush do?

“He changed the strategy of the war.  This is the most important thing a commander in chief can do in a war.  I’m sure he got the idea from his military advisors.  That’s how generals and admirals think about war.  Their first question is always:  ‘What’s our strategy? Is it working?’”

“How did they change it?”

“They did the most important thing a commander can do in a war.  They abandoned the defensive strategy and went over to the offense.  They seized the initiative.”

“The initiative!  I don’t think many people understand what that means.  Could you explain why it’s important?”

“The side that has the initiative has a huge advantage in several ways.  Their morale is better.  They see themselves on the way to victory.  They can despise—or at least feel superior to—the passive, defensive enemy.  More importantly, they can decide where to hit next.  The defenders, especially in a war involving terrorism, are left frantically trying to cover ten dozen different possibilities.”

“Can you give us an example of the importance of the initiative?”

“In World War I on the Western Front, Germany held the initiative for four years.  They could attack in the British in the north, or the French in the center and the south, always massing enough troops to give them a big advantage.  In 1918, they attacked in the center and were soon about to cross the Marne River, only forty miles from Paris.  That’s where the Americans, in their first battle of the war, stopped them.  Then we did something totally unexpected.”

“Now I’m really listening closely!”

“A few days later, two American divisions and a French division came roaring out of the nearby forest of Soissons and forced the Germans to retreat a dozen miles.  They were thrown on the defensive for the first time.  After the war, a member of the German general staff wrote:  “In three days, the history of the world was changed forever.”  Why? The Germans had lost the initiative.  Within six months they asked for an armistice.”

“How did President Bush seize the initiative in 2001?”

“He invaded Afghanistan.  That country had been seized by the Taliban, which was committed to terrorism, and was sheltering bin Laden and his top followers.  Taken by surprise, the Taliban was routed and lost control of the country.  Simultaneously, Mr. Bush ordered the CIA and our other intelligence agencies to launch operations against terrorists all over the world.  Hundreds were seized and shipped to our Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, which became a prison camp.  All over the world, bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban were thrown on defensive for the first time.”

“Does that explain why there hasn’t been another terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11?”

“It does for me—and everyone else who knows how to think in military terms.  Unfortunately, a great many Americans allowed their hatred of George W. Bush to muddle this achievement.  In spite of our success, they and their friends in the media wrote articles claiming we overreacted to 9/11.  They STILL maintain we should have left the whole business to the FBI and local police forces!”

Was the invasion of Iraq part of this new strategy?”

“No.  That war was a separate enterprise.  I’ll be glad to discuss it with you some other evening.”

“Does the death of bin Laden mean the end of the war on terror?”

“That remains to be seen.  It’s certainly a huge symbolic victory.  For the present, it will be vital for us to maintain the initiative against his followers, with the help of our allies.  A great deal will depend on how the upheavals against long-reigning rulers in various Moslem countries turn out.”

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