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In Overseas Contingency Operations Truth Is the First Casualty?

May 8, 2011

The death of Bin Laden is the type of event that people all over the world hear about and, more importantly, like to talk about. Everybody has an opinion on it. You like to speculate on background facts and details, you comment on the decisions made by persons involved (and often come to the conclusion that you would have done better), you use whatever little information you may have and invest all your common sense to explain to your peers that you have a much better grasp of how things must have been than they do. It beats talking about the weather, apparently. The French Cowboy was surprised to hear water-cooler conversations on the (faked) photograph of Bin Laden’s body and to watch the shaking of heads over Americans’ celebrating the kill on the streets of New York (‘Isn’t it disturbing how the Americans glory in the death of a human being?’).

The Old Continent, as you know, is quite fond of Obama. The speculations on his birth among some Americans were something that we loved to deride with a smug smirk while remarking that, whenever Americans have elected a good president, they like to give him trouble — it was the same with Bill Clinton! Ah oui, le pauvre Bill! Such a noble creature and the silly Americans give him hell for no good reason whatsoever. (Note the explicit non-mention of W — the Orwellian-trained mind does not waste capacity on Bushitler posters, those have been sent down the memory hole a long time ago. After all, we are talking about good American presidents here.)

The reason the French Cowboy mentions all this is that, however the average European Joe’s sense of superiority towards ‘the Americans’, we are keenly interested in what the USA do. And when they kill a rather mysterious bearded figurehead of some terrorist organisation then we certainly feel entitled to follow the news on that story with half an ear and to have extensive conversations on it with our neighbours. And — surprisingly — everything we learn about the event fits our view of America.

The prejudices strongly confirmed in the killing of Bin Laden are as follows:

1) Americans have this stone-aged notion of eye-for-an-eye justice: one man kills 3k innocent Americans and the Americans think they have to hunt him down and kill him in return! They are so hopelessly belligerent!

2) The CIA just goes about, indiscriminately killing people all around the world. If you live in the same household as an internationally wanted mass murder, you may just get shot in your own bedroom!

3) You can’t believe a single word of what comes from the Pentagon.

4) Obama is such an awesome president, he’s too good for the American people.

Obama is a lucky guy: the shooting of Bin Laden is going to help him politically within the US (although I doubt that it will have a strong enough effect to materially help him in his reelection bid) and — at least for now — it looks like it does not hurt him politically outside of the US. Somehow, the criticism of the kill is directed against the abstract concept of “Americans” not against the very concrete person of Obama.

And yet I can’t shake the feeling that all that confusion over the actual circumstances of the raid on OBL’s compound is trouble, potentially very big trouble, and even trouble that could have been prevented. Sure, Obama must have been very happy to have the good news to announce to the American public on that Sunday evening. But wouldn’t it have been smarter to get the official story straight first? For most Americans it may be irrelevant whether OBL had a weapon or not, even whether he looked like he was willing to surrender or more like he was about to blow everyone to smithereens. But for the international stage those are key details, and the mutually contradicting versions of the accounts coming from public channels make things only worse.

For the not-so-attentive eye, which most people cast on the news, it looks like the American government has killed a guy, knew that its way of doing it wasn’t entirely kosher (no pun intended) and therefore tried to give a — ehm… modified account of actual events and even added some propagandist details (like OBL using his wife as a human shield). Here I have to say it: Imagine Bush had done it!

If Obama wants to be taken seriously — by Americans and internationally — then he should stand by his way of doing things. If the story isn’t clear, then people will assume the worst anyway and disrespect you for not admitting it. If some things are better kept undisclosed then, fine, keep them undisclosed. But don’t allow different versions of one story to be labelled as official, especially not when they include invented elements worthy of a nutty third-world dictator.

In that context, the French Cowboy thinks that the publication of the photographs of OBL’s body would help Obama politically. Assuming there is nothing seriously wrong with the pictures, they would help to seal the story in a version of Obama’s choosing. On the other hand, I have strong doubts that it will help America as a whole because it certainly would be a useful propaganda item for the bad guys. They may not need it, but that still isn’t a good reason to give it to them.

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