Bin Laden Looks for an Exit Strategy
by Stephen Schwartz
Translations of this item:
Since 2001, each September we remember. Today, we first think of the frontline fighters in Iraq, Americans, Iraqis, and other members of the Coalition in combat, first against Saudi-incited, Wahhabi terrorism - miscalled a "Sunni insurgency."
But none of us forgets the terror inflicted on the whole world six years ago; the sudden appearance, after so many years, of a real sense of American national unity, and the equally-surprising commitment to change in U.S. policies in the Middle East. President George W. Bush, in vowing to promote democracy across the globe, brusquely abandoned the defense of the regional status quo that had come to define his party and even his family legacy. But as reported in The Washington Post on August 20, 2007, President Bush told the Egyptian opposition intellectual Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "You're not the only dissident. I too am a dissident in Washington. Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change."
The intervention in Iraq was a severe test for the doctrine of democratization. American solidarity in the face of terrorism disappeared almost immediately. Democracy became a term of derision among neo-isolationists and believers in the realpolitik that had led to 9/11 - expressing a contempt few Americans of the past could ever have imagined hearing. The Iraq war began in 2003, and four years later the president's opponents repeat the same disinformational charges they made then: mainly, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. But as I have said before, Nazi Germany had nothing directly to do with the Pearl Harbor attack on the U.S. by the Japanese in 1941. Yet Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism were allied in opposing the democratic West, and what might only have been an American war of retaliation against the Japanese in the Pacific almost immediately became a two-ocean war against fascism.
The war against Islamofascism - a term originating, in its present meaning, among Muslims, and referring to fascism acting with a religious pretext, not the whole faith of Islam as a variety of fascism - was similar to World War II from 9/11 on. To respond to Al-Qaida meant confronting all of its allies, enablers, and friends, from the Taliban in Afghanistan and radicals in Pakistan through the distorted universe of Saudi-organized extremist groups everywhere Sunni Muslims live - in the West, but mostly in the East. The enemy's central theatre was always in the Arab world, but it operated and operates inside the U.S. as well as in Britain, its European stronghold, and from the Balkans to ex-Soviet Central Asia, from Sudan to Southeast Asia. The war on terror was always a world war, although arguing over whether it is or is not World War IV seems a waste of time.
Saddam's Iraq was a prominent link in the chain of radical Islamic tyranny extending across the Middle East. In an irony of history, Iraq had briefly been seized in a pro-Nazi officers' coup in 1941, led by one Rashid Ali, and Saddam himself grew up under the influence of Rashid Ali's nostalgic supporters. Although Rashid Ali was quickly overthrown, the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq may be viewed as a long-delayed settling of an account left over for more than six decades. There was, then, no break between the second world war, the Cold War, and the War on Terror; 70 years of the last century and the beginning of the present one have been consumed by contests between democracy and antidemocratic ideologies. Future historians may elide both world wars and the conflicts after them into a single, long war, "the global war."
The enemies of democracy change their uniforms or their vocabulary, and modify their tactics, but they do not change their essential character as haters of liberty and usurpers of power over human beings. Hitler preached peace while committing acts of war; Stalin and his Soviet successors did the same. Both dictators subsidized "peace movements" in the democracies. Both declared their actions were driven by self-defense against Western imperialist aggression; today's Islamists employ identical phraseology.
Fascism created strong national states as protective shells for real power held by the party, as Soviet Communism did with its multinational empire. The state itself, as a central modern institution, began disintegrating in the mid-20th century, replaced by the structures of ideology. As was predicted even before World War II, wars between states became obsolete, replaced by wars between foreign ideological forces, disguised as civil wars inside states. Standing armies were challenged by guerrilla armies and then by terrorist conspiracies. Radicalism among Sunni Muslims, which has its most important roots in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, surpassed that country's borders and became a post-national phenomenon.
On the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the most pressing question for Americans is: are we winning in Iraq? I believe that democracy and pluralism now have the advantage over the Wahhabi incursion and Shia adventurism in Mesopotamia. We have all heard the news: Sunni tribal leaders who supported "insurgency" (an honorable and therefore inappropriate term for bands of murderers) discovered, when Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) showed up to "help" them, that the Wahhabi-Taliban regime AQI imposed was much worse than a U.S.-led occupation. And so the Iraqi Sunnis now turn to support for the elected government of Iraq, even though it is largely Shia and plagued with internal discontent.
Are we in America safer than we were before 9/11? Who thought this question would be answered immediately? Demand for instant gratification in the personal choices of Westerners has turned into demand for instant gratification in worldwide matters of life and death. Of course, the war in Iraq rallied jihadists against us; of course, the enemy's plots expanded in number and geographical range. After Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939, the Nazis succeeded in occupying most of the continent of Europe; after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded and held much of the Asian mainland. War is not a quick fix; politics produces quick fixes, and war is an admission that politics has failed, and that "other means" (in the famous phrase of the military strategist Clausewitz) are necessary.
The human, financial, and technological resources of Al-Qaida have diminished immensely since 9/11: it lost its Afghan base and then plunged into the Iraqi bloodbath, in which it is being defeated. Rather than a second Vietnam for the U.S. - comparing two wars that really have almost nothing in common - Iraq could be a fatal quagmire for al-Qaida. With the increasing failure of Iraqi Sunnis to rally to AQI, the enemy seeks to export the Iraqi jihad to the weakest area on the Western front: Europe.
But as became visible in the successive London terror conspiracies as well as the most recent investigation in Germany, Al-Qaida has been significantly degraded everywhere. In place of expensively-trained cadres driving airliners against the most famous buildings in the West, the enemy must have recourse to marginal fanatics using low-tech explosives. Superficial clichés about "homegrown terror" among Muslims in the West ignore two things. First, the conspiracies are never "homegrown," i.e. based in local grievances and organized spontaneously. They are always directed from the same nexus in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Second, the "terrorist movement" among European Muslims remains atomized and peripheral. Its criminal efforts require efficient detection, prevention, and punishment, but they are based in isolated cells, not in a network with ranks of volunteers such as Al-Qaida possessed in 2001. Cell operations cannot and do not replace mass movements in changing history.
Nevertheless, the Al-Qaida counter-offensive has weakened Islam in the West: it has, by intimidation, hardened the conformism of Sunnis in following the radical dictates of Saudi Wahhabi clerics, Pakistani radicals, and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which together control Sunnism in the U.S. and Britain. American Islam, in particular, is spiritually, intellectually, and organizationally stagnant in a way never before seen in a religion with a new and growing presence in this country. It produces no new leaders of substance, and none who effectively questions why radicalism was promoted in American mosques so long; it cannot change its idiom except to adopt perfunctory denunciations of terrorism. The leaders of American Islam before 9/11 remain in place, relabeled as "moderates."
Finally, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, an opinion on the latest video message from Osama bin Laden himself will be expected. Every expert on Islam, terrorism, and Iraq will have something to say about it. If one goes beyond the superficial and predictable rantings against American hegemony, the message of OBL now appears defensive. The tape released over the past weekend was apparently based on a script assembled by Adam Gadahn, or Azzam al-Amriki, the inept propagandist OBL and his cohort seem to have adopted as their media teacher, perhaps on the mistaken assumption that all Americans are media-savvy. But the tape is a mish-mash of historical gaffes, weird allegations and namedropping, and illiterate iterations of earlier messages. Reading the transcript, can we really believe Osama bin Laden sits and reads Noam Chomsky or obsesses about Richard Perle or imagines what it means for him to endorse the anti-Jewish pamphleteering of Michael Scheuer, the former "expert on Al-Qaida for the Central Intelligence Agency?" (Scheuer should not be pleased.)
These snippets in the OBL tape were obviously trolled from the internet and thrown together with "clever" gimmicks like the call for Americans to embrace Islam, plus jabs about taxes and the inefficacy of the Democrats. The old and aggressive Islamic idiom found in Bin Laden's discourse is missing. So is the fire. The tone is that of exhaustion, not exhilaration in jihad.br>