Why Bin Laden's Death Feels Like a Triumph, Says Political Scientist Dominic Tierney

Alisa Giardinelli

Why Bin Laden's Death Feels Like a
Triumph, Says Political Scientist Dominic Tierney


by Alisa Giardinelli
5/5/11

Dominc Tierney
"Skewed perceptions of success and failure," says Dominic Tierney, "have never been more evident than in the war on terror."

The death of Osama Bin Laden continues to elicit praise and elation across the country. However, Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney says his death may not be the clear cut victory it seems to be. Tierney and Dominc Johnson, the co-authors of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics, state in The Atlantic:

"Bin Laden had long ceased to direct the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda. We have not cut off the head - only the figurehead. The State Department immediately warned that the chances of a terrorist attack had risen, not fallen. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban are hardly likely to give up - they have their own agenda, independent of Al Qaeda."

In Failing to Win, Tierney found that throughout history, beliefs about victory and defeat in wartime have often been in the eye of the beholder. Skewed perceptions of success and failure, he says, have never been more evident than in the war on terror.

It is true that Bin Laden's death could spark a leadership crisis for Al Qaeda, and the computer disks and hard drives found in Bin Laden's compound might also prove significant. But the death of Bin Laden feels like a victory "less because of any strategic gain on the battlefield," he says, "and more because of symbolism. Politics, after all, is often about emotion - a matter of the heart as much as the head."

As a result, American and foreign audiences may think the death of Bin Laden is a U.S. victory. However, Tierney says future events - such as if the U.S. public renews its commitment to Afghanistan or sees this as the signal to leave - may ultimately determine whether it really is a victory.

Tierney received a Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford University and has held fellowships at Ohio State University and the Olin Institute and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Failing to Win (2006) won the International Studies Association best book award and was nominated for the best book of the decade. Tierney is also the author of FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (2007) and How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (2010).