No ‘Boogeyman’: Why the Bin Laden Raid Might be the Last Unifying Moment for US Foreign Policy
The changing threat facing the country and a growing political divide means there’s no common enemy around which Americans can unite.
When Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, crowds gathered at the White House with American flags, chanting “U-S-A!” to celebrate the successful Navy SEAL raid that killed the leader of al Qaeda and mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Ten years later, America and the threats it faces are fundamentally different. Some of the greatest dangers to the country, such as cyber security attacks from China or election interference from Russia, don’t have a face and a name that people see every night on the evening news, analysts say. And with a country that’s more divided than ever, it can be difficult to get Americans of different backgrounds to agree on who the enemy even is.
Because of this, analysts predict, it’s unlikely America will pursue another foreign policy goal that the entire nation can get behind, that, like the capture of bin Laden, unites the country and sends people flooding into the streets.
“We don’t have a single boogeyman in the way that bin Laden really became this FBI most wanted figure,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, a former State Department official who is president of the Truman National Security Project. “It becomes harder to unify around a single threat, because the nature of the threat has changed and is more diffuse. We have this low-level warfare really playing out through disinformation and persistent hacking that just doesn’t look like kinetic action in war as we know it.”
The U.S. effort to find and kill bin Laden was clear cut in a way foreign policy today is not. The government calls China its biggest threat, and while both political parties agree, Democrats and Republicans often feud about which party is the most anti-China while asserting nobody wants direct conflict. The same can be said for Russia, about which politicians have “wildly different” views,” and North Korea, said Mick Mulroy, a former paramilitary operations officer at the CIA who became the deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East in the Trump administration.
“On North Korea, are they a friend we have summits with, or our biggest threat?” said Mulroy, who is an ABC national security analyst and non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“Every other element seems like it’s got political aspects to it,” continued Mulroy, who is apolitical. “Bin Laden attacked the United States, and it was very definitive too. He did it. We killed him.”
The national emotional crescendo that ended when American troops killed bin Laden began on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans. In the days after the attacks, Americans hung flags, donated blood and sent water to the first responders searching through rubble for survivors. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans gathered together on the steps of the Capitol the evening of the attacks to sing “God Bless America.”
“Where was that on Jan. 6?” Ben-Yehuda asked, comparing the national outpouring of support on 9/11 to the reaction following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, where pro-Trump supporters overtook police to break into the building.
While the two attacks are different—only five people died in the insurrection attempt at the Capitol—Ben-Yehuda said that Americans in both events watched a televised stream of important buildings being damaged by extremist groups. But after the Capitol Hill incident, Democrats and Republicans argued over whether former President Donald Trump was to blame for the riot and whether President Joe Biden’s election victory was legitimate.
Nearly four months later, lawmakers still can’t agree on whether to establish a commission to look at how the Capitol was overrun and why it took the National Guard three hours to respond. In contrast, bipartisan members of Congress agreed to investigate how 9/11 happened.
“It doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence that we’re in a place as a country where we can have that kind of shared rallying point,” Ben-Yehuda said.
A uniting moment doesn’t have to include killing an enemy, analysts say, as demonstrated by the unenthusiastic American response to the deaths of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in 2020 or Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.
“That … was kind of just met with a shrug for most people,” said Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “For most people, ISIS is a bad thing, but ISIS wasn’t considered by the population as a direct threat to the homeland.”
Because of that, some experts predict it would take another direct attack on American soil for the country to coalesce around a common goal, and a common enemy.
“The raid that killed bin Laden was not the uniting moment. It was the culmination of a groundswell of rallying around the flag that began with the 9/11 attacks themselves,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University and former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. “...To have the impact of the bin Laden raid, it would likely need to be preceded by a galvanizing moment that dramatized the threat. Such a moment is not to be wished for, since it would be a great national tragedy.”
Feaver speculated a “dramatic gesture” to end the Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons program forever could elicit a celebration across America akin to that felt after the bin Laden raid, but acknowledged such an operation would also likely have a high death toll.
Still, others wondered if America could unite over something positive.
“What about people celebrating the moment in time when the world is rid of Covid?” Ben-Yehuda said. “Or of celebrating a billion Covid shots sent from the U.S. to the developing world. This country is capable of greatness.”