Skewed perceptions of success and failure have never been more evident than in the war on terror.
Victories have been exaggerated. The Bush administration celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 as "Mission Accomplished" when the real battle had barely begun. Meanwhile, successes have been ignored. By 2008, the United States had turned the tide against the Iraqi insurgency but Americans didn't celebrate. Church bells didn't ring at home. Instead, many people simply forgot about Iraq. And the secretive nature of the shadow war against Al Qaeda means that many triumphs and tragedies are completely unknown.
So what about bin Laden's death? Do the heady perceptions of success in the last few days reflect real gains on the battlefield?
In part--yes. Bin Laden's death could spark a leadership crisis for Al Qaeda. The computer disks and hard drives found in bin Laden's compound might also prove significant.
But how much of a tangible victory was this? Bin Laden had long ceased to direct the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda. We have not cut off the head--only the figurehead. The State Department immediately warned that the chances of a terrorist attack had risen, not fallen. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban are hardly likely to give up--they have their own agenda, independent of Al Qaeda.
A poll taken shortly after the raid found that nearly 90 percent of Americans considered the killing of bin Laden to be a victory in the war on terror. But a large majority believed there was a heightened risk of terrorist attack in the short-term, and the public was evenly split on whether the long-term terrorist threat had decreased or increased. Only 16 percent of Americans said the killing of bin Laden made them personally feel safer.
The death of bin Laden feels like a victory less because of any strategic gain on the battlefield and more because of symbolism. Politics, after all, is often about emotion--a matter of the heart as much as the head.
Bin Laden personified the 9/11 attacks. After 10 years in the seeming quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, suddenly and unexpectedly, Americans experienced a cathartic moment.
Bin Laden's death also satisfied a powerful desire for retribution and justice. For many, it felt good whether or not it served U.S. interests. The no. 1 bad guy in the world deserved to be punished--period.
And the way bin Laden met his fate furthered the sense of triumph. The months of painstaking spy work, the lightning raid by Navy Seals on a secret compound under cover of darkness, the fierce firefight that ended when bin Laden was struck by an American bullet to the head--it was straight out of Hollywood.
The killing of bin Laden would have seemed less of a victory if his charred body had been found in the rubble of a British airstrike or a Polish mortar barrage in Afghanistan.