Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden Arabic Editorials, Post 2 of 2

Arab reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden is only in its infancy less than 48 hours after President Obama announced the event itself to the world. To draw conclusions about how the strike will impact US-Arab relations or the future of Islamist terrorist groups would be premature. However three major Arab media reactions have appeared thus far in response to the strike on Osama bin Laden.

1) Reaction is not monolithic. "The Arabs" have a diverse range of opinions on the strike, as do their editorialists. Admittedly, editorialists are often more sensational and radical than those who read their articles. But a sweep of the Arab press reveals reaction ranging from approval to ambivalence to disdain. It will be critical in the coming days and weeks for policymakers not to assume that "Arab public opinion" represents a unified opinion. Those monitoring press coverage should be wary of those who opine about Arab public opinion in sweeping generalities.

2) Osama Bin Laden is widely seen as a symbol rather than a threat. Editorials across the political spectrum discuss Osama Bin Laden's role as a symbol which the US used to prosecute the War on Terror. This is a critical difference from the Western media, who portray Bin Laden as a "terrorist mastermind." The Western narrative is that Bin Laden was marginalized as a combination of physical isolation as the result of US action in Afghanistan, and his deteriorating health condition. The Arab narrative is that he was never really that powerful in the first place and that al-Qaeda is much bigger than just one man.

3) The strike evokes a fear of American power. Many editorials are cynical about the way in which the US used Osama Bin Laden as an excuse to prosecute the War on Terror. At the heart of this cynicism is a fear of the ease and impunity with which the US executed the strike. US Navy SEALS under CIA authority flew undetected into Pakistani territory, raided a compound with two helicopters and a 40-minute firefight, and left into the night. The strike was 31 miles outside the Pakistani capital Islamabad, about the distance between Hoboken and White Plains, NY.

Policymakers must be very careful to understand the nuance at play. The Arab media largely does not support Bin Laden, but they hesitate to commend the use of American power which was required to kill him. While necessary, the force used in the strike was something out of an action movie. For some Arabs, this hearkens back to the cowboy-ish rhetoric and policies of the Bush administration, evoking fear and a mistrust of the West.

This is not to imply that objectively, the force used was inappropriate. Nor is a great crisis in US-Arab relations is looming. It does suggest, however, that the US must be deliberate in its engagement over the next few months with the Arab world. In particular, it should:

1) Clearly express a differentiation between Muslims and violent terrorists.
2) Reiterate its stated commitments to leave Iraq and Afghanistan.
3) Continue to exercise sensitivity regarding all recordings of the strike, and towards Islamic custom.