Saturday, October 16, 2004

The war Bin Laden wanted? 

Paul Schroeder makes the case that by invading Iraq, we played right into Al Qaeda's hands. It's an excellent piece; don't be deterred by the rather strange forum in which it appears, the Buchananite magazine "American Conservative". (Despite being an anti-Semitic wacko, Pat Buchanan seems to have pretty reasonable views on a lot of foreign policy issues.) Although it takes him a while to get to the point, Schroeder proceeds from the logic that we should spend less time demonizing our enemy and more time analyzing him. If Osama Bin Laden is rational, then why did he attack the United States, knowing the harm the American response would surely inflict on him and his organization? Bin Laden surely must have considered the possible consequences: that the United States would take down the Taliban regime, disperse his training camps, kill or capture many of his men and chase his remaining followers into hiding. Saying "he's evil," "he hates America," and so on is not really an answer. There is little doubt that Bin Laden hates America, but why attack in such a way that is not strong enough to cripple America, but is likely to provoke a crippling American response?

Here's Schroeder:

The second reply is that the 9/11 operation was intended as only one step in a long campaign against the United States, a kind of dress rehearsal for worse blows, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction┬Śnuclear, biological, or chemical. Once again, this argument makes no sense. If one intends to start a long campaign to destroy the enemy, one does not begin with an action that can be expected to galvanize rather than cripple the enemy and make him more prepared to anticipate, prevent, and counter new attacks....

The only sensible answer, once the foolish and inadequate ones are discarded, is that Osama bin Laden anticipated the American reaction and wanted it.

Schroder argues that Bin Laden is rational, but that the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not to cripple America, but rather to provoke the United States into declaring a global "war on terror." Bin Laden's ultimate goal, Schroder says, is a united Muslim world "ruled by true Islamic law and teaching, purged of all evil, materialist, secular, infidel, and heretical influences." The fractious divisions within Islam stand in the way of this goal, and Bin Laden hoped to eliminate these divisions by providing all of Islam with a common enemy: the United States. The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, along with its perverse insistence that Iraq is part of the war on terror, have played into Bin Laden's hands by broadening the conflict. No longer limited to disrupting the al Qaeda organization, the "war on terror" has become dangerously close to a general conflict between Islam and the West. Secular governments in the Middle East, such as Pakistan's, are increasingly unstable. And Bin Laden is one step closer to uniting the Middle East under his radical banner.

Schroeder's argument has some weaknesses. For one thing, we cannot know for sure whether Bin Laden is rational in the traditional Western sense of the word. Perhaps he believes he is doing "God's will." Perhaps he is just unhinged. It is difficult to get inside the extremist mindset. Are suicide bombers "rational"? Were the 9/11 hijackers acting in their own self-interest? A lot of people had to act "irrationally" to make 9/11 happen in the first place; perhaps Bin Laden was one of them.

Secondly, it is hard to take seriously Bin Laden's supposed goal of uniting and "purifying" the Islamic world, given the seeming impossibility of this task. Schroeder would have us believe that Bin Laden's attacks on America are merely a means to this end. But if uniting the Islamic world is not Bin Laden's long term goal, then what is? Is it not an equally impossible goal to singlehandedly take down the most powerful country in the world using only a few terrorist attacks? The goal that Schroeder proposes is plausible, if only because it is difficult to come up with any rational motivation for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks.

Thirdly, Bin Laden cannot have known that the United States would invade Iraq in purported response to the 9/11 attacks. The vast majority of Muslims were sympathetic toward the United States in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It is only because of a series of mistakes on the part of the Bush administration -- invading Iraq in the first place, botching the occupation in general, and Abu Ghraib in particular -- that we have come this close to igniting a general conflict between America and the Middle East. Since Bin Laden could hardly have predicted those mistakes, he could not have known with any certainty that his plan to precipitate a broader war would work. All things considered, given the almost certain negative effects both to his personal safety and to the well-being of his organization, it seems an enormous risk for Bin Laden to take.

Finally, if Bin Laden really got what he wanted when we invaded Iraq, is he actually better off today? Doubtful. It's unclear how much control he can really have over Al Qaeda while he's on the run and hiding out in the mountains on the remote Afghan-Pakistani border. And the Middle East is still an enormous distance away from Bin Laden's unified, purified vision. There's a better case to be made that Al Qaeda is better off today. Despite the killing and capture of many top leaders, the rank-and-file may be gaining new recruits as foreign fighters flock to Iraq. The potency of Abu Ghraib is almost impossible to underestimate. It will be a stain on the United States' image for at least a generation, and a major impediment in any effort to convince the Muslim world of our goodwill. Bin Laden succeeded admirably in making a demon out of the United States, and Al Qaeda may be better off for it. But Bin Laden himself is almost certainly worse off.

On the balance: A thought-provoking piece, very debatable on the specifics but rock-solid on the premise that we should demonize less and analyze more. Know thine enemy.

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