Symbolism matters, and the symbolism of Osama bin Laden's death was not what his followers might have expected of him. His was not a glorious death.
It was not for lack of trying that bin Laden was not killed or captured much sooner. But, in one sense, it is good that he lived so long—long enough to see the defeat of so many of his satanic dreams. Most of all, there is profound justice in the fact that he had a chance before he died to witness the overthrow of so many Arab dictators, overthrown not by his followers but by men and women who were lovers of freedom (and of Facebook).
One of the most extraordinary features of the protests that have swept the Muslim world has been the courage of the demonstrators. The great bravery of Tunisians and Egyptians has been exceeded by that of the Libyans and Syrians, while Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi have joined the ranks of bin Laden as killers of the defenseless.
One of bin Laden's followers wrote that the trouble with democracy is that it encourages people to love life too much and fear death, and to become unwilling to perform jihad. What bin Laden and that writer fail to understand is that there are people who do love life but who love freedom more and are willing to risk their lives for it. It is that love of life—not a hope for paradise—that motivates the brave Americans who have defended their country through the generations. And we now see the same brave love of freedom demonstrated by thousands of Arabs.
When Mahdi Ziu, a 48-year-old Libyan oil executive and the father of two daughters, filled a car with propane canisters and detonated himself in it, he did so not to kill innocents but to save people by blowing open the gates of the Katiba military barracks in Benghazi and help the anti-Gaddafi rebellion in that city. "He said everyone should fight for the revolution," his daughter Zuhur said. "He wasn't an extreme man. He didn't like politics. But he was ready to do something. We didn't know it would be that." Unlike bin Laden, Ziu died a hero, as have so many others in places like Misrata and Deraa.
It is much too early to tell where the change that sweeps the Arab world will end. But if one had to pick a "strong horse" (to use bin Laden's own metaphor) it would be the Arab freedom fighters, not his jihadists.
President Obama's decision to order the strike on bin Laden also required courage; not the bravery of the battlefield but the courage to live with the consequences of a risky decision. Since the mission went well, he is being justly praised, and his political standing has risen. But there can never be a guarantee that a mission of this kind will not go tragically wrong. We are all the beneficiaries of Obama's decision, but in the end the buck stops at one man's desk.
For some reason, the president has so far held back from other decisions that would involve no risk to American lives but that could save the lives of Libyans whom we have committed to protect—like recognizing the provisional government in Benghazi, providing them with military assistance, shutting down the propaganda broadcasts of the Gaddafi regime. None of these actions would guarantee an opposition victory, but they would reduce the risks of a prolonged stalemate that would cost more Libyan lives and increase the risk that the U.S. would eventually be drawn in deeper than we need to be. For the sake of the Libyan people and for America's reputation in the Arab world, one has to hope that President Obama has learned the value of boldness.
Paul R. Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.