Insights and Analysis

Will Arab Revolutions, Bin Laden’s Death Distract U.S. from Asia Commitment?

May 4, 2011

By John J. Brandon

From my hotel in Bangkok, I watched on CNN as President Obama announced to the American people and the world that “justice has been done,” shortly after Osama Bin Laden was killed by an elite group of U.S. forces in Pakistan. Killing the “world’s most wanted man” represents a psychological victory for the American people and thus far a muted response from the Muslim world.

Obama and Biden await news of Bin Laden's Death

President Obama and his staff await news of Bin Laden. Photo by Pete Souza (Official White House photo)

Over the years, Osama Bin Laden’s appeal in the Middle East has been weakened as some say is evidenced by the democracy movements that have spread recently across the region. Protesters on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Amman, and elsewhere have been expressing deep-seeded grievances and dissatisfaction with the social, economic, and political conditions of their countries. Even before his death, Osama Bin Laden was rendered largely irrelevant to the larger demands of the protests this “Arab Spring.”

As spontaneous, celebratory rallies formed at “Ground Zero” in New York, a number of people interviewed (including some who lost loved ones in the Twin Towers on 9/11) talked about how Bin Laden’s killing had “brought closure for the United States.” But what exactly constitutes “closure” to this now? Bin Laden’s death may have weakened al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but his death does not represent al-Qaeda’s demise, nor does it spell an end to terrorism.

Indeed, the U.S. has been entangled in wars over the last decade, in Afghanistan and Iraq, spending $8 billion per month in Afghanistan alone. Such investment has caused significant strain on the American economy and has contributed to unprecedented debt and budget deficits. President Obama has promised the American people that U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan beginning in July, but how significant these withdrawals will be remains unclear. Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but Afghanistan still faces considerable obstacles in its effort to become stable. Women’s rights continue to be threatened and abused; education and health care, while improved, remain inadequate; economic conditions are poor; security is weak; and with rampant corruption, governance is sorely challenged. Despite U.S. budgetary constraints, the nation still needs to be committed to improving economic and social conditions of the Afghan peoples.

Meanwhile, some Asian policymakers have recently expressed concern over whether uprisings in the Middle East will cause the U.S. to pay less attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Thus far, the Obama administration has done a very credible job in increasing its attention to Northeast and Southeast Asia by strengthening its alliances with Japan and South Korea and prioritizing its engagement with Southeast Asia in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion beyond the uni-dimensional prism of counter-terrorism. While the level of strategic trust between the U.S. and China is questionable, leaders on both sides are seeking to bridge differences and emphasize common interests.

But as the world digests the news of Bin Laden’s death, and continues to watch unrest unfold in the Middle East, it’s important that governments, leaders, experts, and the public stay focused on the role that solid delivery of social services like health and education, opportunity for gainful employment, access to justice, and intolerance of corruption can play to mitigate and defeat extremism. When countries can provide good governance, no extremist ideology, be it religious or secular, can successfully compete.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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