Is Bin Laden Winning?
Is Bin Laden Winning?
Robert Wright Sep 11 2012
If in 2001, a few hours after the 9/11 attacks, you had described toOsama bin Laden the world that would exist exactly 11 years later, howwould he have reacted?
There's one aspect of the current world we know he would frown on--thepart about his bones lying at the bottom of the sea. And he'd probablybe disappointed that there have been almost no successful radicalIslamist terrorist attacks on American soil since the one heengineered. Still, there's a lot for him to like, and it's far from clear thatAmerica is decisively winning the war he started 11 years ago today. Consider:  America launched two wars in response to 9/11, and both haveboomeranged, providing enough jihadist propaganda to help fuel whatsuccessful and near-successful attacks on American soil there havebeen. And both countries we invaded remain in turmoil to this day,providing arenas where al Qaeda and other radical Muslim groups canfind purpose and build franchises. What's more, the turmoil in one ofthese countries has helped destabilize Pakistan, raising the specterof nuclear weapons falling into dangerous hands.  Though during the early Obama years America regained some esteemin Muslim countries--esteem that had been eroded partly by thosewars--Muslim opinion of America has been dropping lately, somethingthat would please bin Laden. Between 2009 and 2012, in the five Muslimcountries included in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, America'sfavorability rating dropped, on average, from 25 percent to 15percent. Why? For one thing, while it's true that President Obama hasgotten our troops out of Iraq and seems to be getting them out ofAfghanistan, it's also true that:  Obama has become the drone strike president--he uses lethal dronesin Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia--and drone strikes may prove as prized byjihadist recruiters as those two wars were. Look at this graph fromPew, and note which nations are clustered near the bottom:  War-by-drone shows signs of becoming a permanent condition. Youcan see its appeal not just to this president but to pretty much anypresident: Drone strikes disrupt the activities of enemies andwould-be enemies, reducing the chances of a terrorist attack in theshort run. Of course, if you want to take a longer view, these strikesare planting the seeds for future blowback by (1) expanding Muslimhatred of America and so expanding the terrain for jihadistrecruiters; and (2) taking people who are already jihadists, but whosefocus had been on local or regional grievances (in, say, Yemen,Somalia), and turning them into anti-American jihadists. Butpoliticians aren't known for taking the long view.  Also in response to 9/11--or, more precisely, in response tothreatening forces nourished by the aforementioned ill-advisedresponses to 9/11--America has betrayed its values. President Obamaclaims the prerogative of assassinating American citizens abroad if hedeems them threatening--without giving them anything that resemblesthe due process of law supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.And American Muslims at home are targeted in a different way;undercover agents, not content to just spot terrorist plots, sometimescreate them, posing as jihadists and trying to get young, alienatedMuslims to cross the line into actual conspiracy. (In a kind ofunintentional tribute to bin Laden, these agents lure their jihadistrecruits by using the standard propagandist tropes--American troops inAfghanistan, drone strikes, etc.--that were created by ouroverreaction to 9/11.) Not all undercover operations areill-conceived, but enough of them have been--at both the local andfederal level--to raise real questions about costs and benefits; theaggressive surveillance of American Muslim communities could,obviously, alienate more Muslims, generating exactly the homegrownterrorism it's supposed to pre-empt. All told, if bin Laden were alive to survey the field of battle, Ithink he'd feel far from defeated. He could plausibly imagine a futurewhere America keeps doing what it's done so far: overreact to the(wildly exaggerated) threat of terrorism, doing things that buyshort-term security at the expense of long-term security--sustainingif not increasing the terrorist threat, to which it can then overreactagain, and so on. To be sure, things haven't worked out the way they did in bin Laden'sdreams, which no doubt featured a more glorious place in world affairsfor both him and al Qaeda than either has wound up enjoying. But he'dget some satisfaction from having mired America in a vicious circle offear and hatred--a circle that could well grow more intense anddestructive over time if we don't find a way to break it.