Obama and Osama, two men separated by a mere consonant and united by destiny in a moment of history. One year later, the retelling of this story centres on vagaries of divine fate, which chose one to play the unlikely avenger who brings the other – the great villain – to justice.
“Any American, any thinking American, would have ordered the exact same thing,” said Mitt Romney. Hell, ” “even Jimmy Carter” – as in that terrorist-loving, lily-livered liberal — “would have given that order,” if he happened to be in the White House. Obama was just in the right place at the right time to rob the Republicans of their rightful prize.
In an odd coincidence, Abhijnan Rej in Open magazine makes almost the same argument about Osama himself:
The utter triviality of the operation, the lack of resistance from bin Laden’s side, and even its venue—more suited to landed Pakistani gentry than a terrorist mastermind with a $25 million bounty on his head—confirmed the proposition once and for all that for a larger part of the past decade, we have systematically overrated Osama bin Laden. The truth is that he was just another Salafi fanatic and self-styled emir-cum-saviour who just happened to ‘luck out’ through a chain of accidental encounters that inadvertently made him the poster boy of violent and suicidal Islamist radicalism.
Rej ropes in a high-brow “complex systems theory” to argue, essentially, that Osama too was in the right “terrain” – a chaotic Afghanistan overrun with large amounts of weapons, fighters and money – where he edged out other worthy contenders for Terrorist Numero Uno because of mode locking: “a phenomenon that starts by chance and because of its character keeps growing and growing, whereas a similar phenomenon with equal potential remains dormant simply because it wasn’t lucky the first time.”
In other words, he just got luckier than the rest. And his great good fortune primarily consisted of one, a serendipitous alliance with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri; two, a lax American intelligence policy; and three, meeting the right men: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the actual architect of the 9/11 attacks, and Mohammed Atta who carried them out.
“Reading and re-reading Osama bin Laden’s life story, one is struck not as much by his deviousness but by the sheer luck the man seemed to have been bestowed. Chance encounters, tenuous connections, ‘loose associations’ and ‘just being there at the right place and at the right time’ are all that made a merely dangerous fanatic the most infamous figure of the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” writes Rej.
Dear old Dame Fortune offers a fail-safe Theory of Everything. Her role is always key and undeniable, but also uninstructive. All events, good or bad, rely on an element of chance. Fate may offer us opportunities but it is human beings who decide how or whether to act on them.
As a recent cover story in Time magazine makes clear, once he received information on Osama’s whereabouts, Obama had to choose from a variety of options. And one of the key decisions was to go against the counsel of his vice president and secretary of defense who advised him not to mount the assault. The other was to put “boots on the ground” despite the reservations of his generals who preferred to rely on bombs. There was anywhere from a 40-60 percent chance that Osama was actually in Abbottabad – and therefore a 40-60 percent chance of getting it disastrously wrong. Obama also ordered the military to include additional helicopters for insurance, which turned out to be wise since one of them crashed during the operation.
It is impossible to guess what another president would have done in the same situation. Romney is “confident that of course I would have taken the exact same decision,” but as that cliché goes, hindsight is always 20/20.
And while we’re at it, let’s give credit to the “evildoers,” as well. Rej asks us to “imagine al Zawahiri never meeting bin Laden; imagine bin Laden dismissing KSM out of hand (as he often did with many enthusiasts); and finally imagine Mohammed Atta — alienated in Hamburg — finding solace in music or women or cinema, rather than suicidal extremism.” Yet the decisive element in the outcome of these scenarios is not luck but Osama: he not only met al Zawahiri, but chose to align himself with him; he chose to embrace and finance KSM’s 9/11 plan; as for Atta, Osama would most likely have found someone else to do the deed.
History is filled with seemingly random events that dictate its course. To focus on whether Osama or Obama got lucky is to lose sight of the proverbial forest. Would it matter if the great terrorist mastermind had a different name and made his mark by blowing up the Empire State Building? No, because these are mere details in the long march of global terrorism.
And does it really make a difference whether it was Obama or someone else in office when Osama was finally killed – long after he’d faded into relative obscurity? Yes, but only if his death helps Obama win a second term. And whether that would be good or bad luck for America remains open to bitter debate.