Osama bin Laden's Fall and the Arab Spring

The true bullet through the eye of al Qaeda will be our courage to stand on the side of reformers in the seasons that follow


The country's military, clandestine services and commander-in-chief deserve our thanks for an enormous victory. But, if the United States remains bold, the death of Osama bin Laden will not only undermine al Qaeda, but also create greater space for the new generation demanding reform on the streets of the Middle East and North Africa. The president made clear that Americans see our missions through and work to ensure that justice is done. If we truly mean that, we must ensure that this operation is part of a sustained commitment to render al Qaeda irrelevant to the youth who will determine the future of the Arab and Muslim worlds. The true bullet through the eye of al Qaeda will be our courage to stand on the side of reform during the seasons that will follow this year's Arab Spring.

The impact of bin Laden's death should be understood in the context of what has already been a very bad year for al Qaeda. During my recent work in the region, I have watched with hope as reform movements have produced a popular-resistance on the scale bin Laden had hoped but failed to inspire. Instead, the online generation left him on the sidelines. Holed up in a secret lair as they braved the fury of the streets, he seemed hopelessly out of date and out of touch.

Al Qaeda knows that the critical battle is for the younger generation that makes up the mass of the Arab and Muslim populations and fills the ranks of the unemployed. Hundreds of millions are justifiably angered by the oppressive and corrupt leaders of the region and despairing over their bleak economic future. And al Qaeda has worked hard to target the younger audience with a message of empowerment and machismo based on violent jihad. But the real appeal, as the Arab Spring has revealed, was not virgins in the next life but the promise of overthrowing antiquated regimes and being "men" again right here on earth. In addition to leaving out half of their potential audience, al Qaeda just couldn't deliver. The call to extremism and a war on the West felled buildings in far-off lands, but it failed to topple a single regime back home.

This is why when the Arab revolution began, it was led not by jihadists trained in al Qaeda-linked camps but by courageous young people using new technology to demand a better future. When it comes to delivering reform and ending corrupt regimes in the region, we can say the score on results is Facebook Revolutionaries 2, al Qaeda 0. The pitch made by bin Laden came to sound as out-of-touch as the regional oppressors he promised to overthrow. And with the revelations of this raid, what could seem less relevant to the courageous, economically-depressed, and forward looking men and women in the streets of Cairo or Damascus than some rich guy sitting in the suburbs of Islamabad without an Internet connection?

Even so, the battle for those under 40 remains at best a toss-up. To prescribe a path forward, it is worth looking at how the Obama Administration has managed to support the Arab Spring, despite operating in a region where our association is sometimes counter-productive. During my recent conversations in the region, young people often expressed a tentative faith that President Obama understood their plight, even if they remained skeptical of the U.S. as a whole. As when facing previous protests, the regimes' playbook is to blame any discontent on outside intervention. Obama's Cairo address, biography, and understated style -- coupled with deft diplomacy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- left these old arguments from dictators falling flat. With that excuse removed, the people of Egypt and Tunisia did the rest. The heroes of Tahrir Square wanted the president to move more decisively at first, but ultimately saw him as standing with the future, and standing with them.

Killing bin Laden is a massive operational victory but its lasting effect depends on a sustained strategy to render al Qaeda irrelevant, cutting the network off from new recruits and popular support. As we might say on Facebook, we need this generation to "Like" the United States, and maybe even "Friend" us over time. This struggle will not be as politically popular as killing America's Most Wanted Terrorist. It will require a major investment in the democratic transition in Egypt, which has already lost significant ground; redoubled efforts at a Middle East peace deal, whose prospects were both improved and deeply complicated by the recent reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions; and commercial engagement that provides the ultimate political currency -- jobs. And back here at home, the ongoing budget negotiations should not take the politically convenient but strategically foolish step of balancing the budget on the backs of an already anemic soft-power budget at the very time that we are handed a once-in-a-century opportunity to reshape one of the most strategically vital regions of the world.

Hard power cannot dominate in the region, but it must remain an option. Even though the Libya intervention may not be popular in either party, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is right to champion not just the humanitarian cause but also the powerful signal that we are serious -- if sporadic -- about standing up to brutal regimes. And the next big test for us in the eyes of the Facebook generation is Syria, where the pro-democracy movement has perhaps the biggest potential upsides -- and faces biggest risks -- of any movement since Cairo. The courage of the popular resistance in Syria has already weakened the regime in Iran, and, while overt engagement could do more harm than good, if this resistance is crushed, it could send disillusioned youth back towards the al Qaeda pitch.

For decades, the Middle East has been defined by old divisions. With the fall of bin Laden and the spring of Arab reform, there is a chance for a new defining line, this time generational. Too often in the wars since 9/11 a small number of brave Americans have been asked to protect us. Those same men and women came through for us again in Abbottabad. Will the rest of us have the courage to support an America that makes the most of this historic opportunity to increase greatly our national security, while also bending the arc of history towards justice?

Image credit: Khalil Hamra (Associated Press)

Drop-down image credit: Reuters