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Did Osama bin Laden Win?

Radley Balko wonders today if, notwithstanding his death, Osama bin Laden hasn’t actually succeeded in achieving much of what he set out to do:

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

Balko also notes that, in response to the course of events that bin Laden set in action, we have fundamentally altered our country in several ways by restricting civil liberties, enhancing the power of the Presidency, increasing the suspicion of Americans who happen to be Muslim, pandering to religious bigotry, making the once fairly uncomplicated process of taking a trip on an airliner nearly unbearable, and engaging the nation in an amorphous “War On Terror” that sees no signs of ending any time soon. All of this, Balko notes, because of one man:

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

Indeed not. In fact, regardless of what impact bin Laden’s death might actually have on al Qaeda’s viability as a terrorist organization, its ability to carry out attacks against Western targets, or the future of organizations that are inspired by if not directly controlled by al Qaeda, it’s quite clear that we’re unlikely to ever go back to the way America was on September 10th, 2001.  The powers that have been assumed by the Federal Government in the name of fighting “terror” will remain in place, the Presidency will not surrender its newly acquired powers, and the inconveniences to daily life created by what often merely amounts to security theater will still be there.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but for a guy who lived in some of the world’s poorest countries and spent most of the last decade  in seclusion and cut off from the outside world, he  sure managed to have a huge impact on the United States and, like Radley said, we let him do it.

So did bin Laden win? I’m not sure I’d agree with Balko on that part, but I’m not sure that we’ve won anything either, unless we’re able to reverse the worst of the things he made us do to ourselves.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Chad S says:

    I’d buy the premise more if we were at war with Saudi Arabia. I don’t buy for a second that Osama did 9-11 to try and draw the US into a long war in afghanistan. AQ would have moved somewhere else before the attacks.

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  2. PD Shaw says:

    bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

    I don’t believe I agree that was his motivation; his motivation was to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East, particularly the Arabian peninsula. The number of troops in Saudi Arabiat today is no longer what it was, but the U.S. footprint in the Middle East has grown exponentially larger, from Pakistan to Yeman to Libya. What did he think about the Arab League approving a Western attack on Libya?

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  3. Larry says:

    We’re at war with Islam? Since when? Last I checked, both President Bush and Obama have gone to great lengths to distinguish our war against the terrorist organization known as al Qaeda, from regular Muslims against whom we bore no ill will. In fact, Obama did this very thing again yesterday, by rightly pointing out that Osama bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, but rather a murderer of Muslims.

    As for other things mentioned, yes, we have restricted civil liberties, but that happens any time we go to war, just look at the Civil war and World Wars I and II.

    That said, killing bin Laden is only a step in a larger process, the conflict will not end so long as jihadists continue to try and perpetrate attacks against us. However, events in the Muslim world are dealing a bigger blow to bin Laden, and belie the lie that he got everything he wanted, since most of the movements that make up the Arab spring are calling not for Islamist leadership, but rather for democracy, pluralism, and other ideas anathema to OBL.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    Chad, PD and Larry have it right. It’s bull.

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  5. mantis says:

    He won a first class trip to sleep with the fishes.

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  6. Ignacio says:

    Maybe Bin Laden just lent America a mirror.

    If he won it was just because he showed America what her ugly face.

    So we have the options of denial or owning up to the previous mistakes. Guess which one Obama has been trying to pursue.

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  7. Brett says:

    making the once fairly uncomplicated process of taking a trip on an airliner nearly unbearable,

    That seems to be the cruel joke of airport security: it’s great at stopping yesterday’s attack. The 9/11 attacks, for example, might have been stopped if the passengers and crew had swarmed the hijackers.

    But maybe I’m being too harsh. We don’t know how many attacks have been stopped by new precautions.

    @PD Shaw

    I don’t believe I agree that was his motivation; his motivation was to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East, particularly the Arabian peninsula.

    That’s his ultimate goal, which also includes toppling the regimes of the arab countries and replacing them with Talibanesque Islamic fundamentalist regimes. But Obama’s fight for this goal has always included attacks on the “far enemy” – the United States – as a means of weakening us, and thus weakening our ability to support allied governments in the Middle East.

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  8. Brett says:

    Sorry, change that to Osama.

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  9. Dave Schuler says:

    author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

    This is confusing strategy with objectives. Those may have been the strategy but the objectives had very little to do with us. As I understand it his objectives were to call Muslims to his banner, promote his own, radical form of Islam, and re-establish the Caliphate. Are any other those objectives closer now than they were in August, 2001? I don’t think so.

    I think those who characterize OBL as among the world’s greatest bunglers are closer to the right of the matter.

    It’s not all about us and it was never all about us.

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  10. michael reynolds says:

    Dave’s got it. 9-11 was similar to Pearl Harbor in that both provoked a response that, to put it mildly, did not work to the advantage of those who launched said attack.

    Don’t poke the bear.

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  11. ponce says:

    “We’re at war with Islam? Since when? Last I checked, both President Bush and Obama have gone to great lengths to distinguish our war against the terrorist organization known as al Qaeda, from regular Muslims against whom we bore no ill will.”

    That may be so, but the Republican Right is full of out of the closet Muslim haters, and almost all of the Republican presidential contenders bow to them.

    Just look at Michelle Bachmann’s comment on bin Laden’s death that rants about “Sharia compliant” terrorists for proof.

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  12. The thing is that if you ask people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other parts of the Muslim world, they think we’re at war with Islam. That may be all that matters

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  13. Wiley Stoner says:

    Yes he won, 72 virgins and a seat at the right hand of satan.

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  14. Larry says:

    Doug,

    It may be that some think that, the problem with the hypothesis is that most have not acted upon that belief like Osama bin Laden wanted them to. Remember, he always argued that his main task was to awaken Muslims to the war between Islam and the West. Given events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, that is far from the case. The US is not popular, to be sure, and some hold suspicions about our motives, but only a small minority is taking up arms against us, and when they do, they antagonize their own populations by killing and maiming them in purported attacks against the West.

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  15. Wiley Stoner says:

    I do not think we are at war with Islam, but I think Islam is a war with us. I say that because hey seem to hate everything we do. They don’t like our laws, our foreign policy and they have no gratitude for our acts in there behalf. Islams goal is to covert the world to Islam. The word Islam mean submit. I want to see Reyolds submit. I understand those of us that do not will get the Danial Perl treatment. Reynold first. I would buy the video.

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  16. matt says:

    As for other things mentioned, yes, we have restricted civil liberties, but that happens any time we go to war, just look at the Civil war and World Wars I and II.

    A never ending war against a tactic amorphous organizations and even loners vs real wars which involved standing armies and nations..

    I don’t see the two as comparable at all and the current stats of civil liberties is a disgrace..

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  17. matt says:

    tactic used by amorphous

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  18. As I said at the end of the post, I don’t know that I agree with Balko on this point although it is an interesting question.

    The more important question is whether we’ve won anything or whether we’re just going to accept this new world as the status quo from now on.

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  19. Ben says:

    It may not have been in his explicit objectives, but I’m sure Al Qaeda feels some sense of satisfaction from the fact that our government claims the ability to kill and torture American citizens whenever they want with no oversight, and to tap into all our communications at any time with no warrant or probable cause.

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  20. Ben says:

    As for other things mentioned, yes, we have restricted civil liberties, but that happens any time we go to war, just look at the Civil war and World Wars I and II.

    That said, killing bin Laden is only a step in a larger process, the conflict will not end so long as jihadists continue to try and perpetrate attacks against us.

    This would be a worthwhile point, if the current war we are in has a articulable endpoint, as the civil war and world wars did. And you admit right here, it doesn’t. It will continue forever because there will always be a group that is able to talk a wacko into blowing himself up to take a few hundreds others with him. Thus, this time, these civil liberties restrictions are permanent.

    However, events in the Muslim world are dealing a bigger blow to bin Laden, and belie the lie that he got everything he wanted, since most of the movements that make up the Arab spring are calling not for Islamist leadership, but rather for democracy, pluralism, and other ideas anathema to OBL.

    None of us yet know what the government will look like that will replace the toppled regime (or regimes if more fall). The downside to democracy is that if you get enough fundamentalists together, then their brand of wackoism becomes legitimate law. So although democracy may be beginning to spread in the region, I am as yet unconvinced that civil liberties and human rights will necessarily follow.

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  21. Tlaloc says:

    As I understand it his objectives were to call Muslims to his banner, promote his own, radical form of Islam, and re-establish the Caliphate. Are any other those objectives closer now than they were in August, 2001? I don’t think so.

    Really? I think he’s a hell of a lot closer. We have the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in Egypt, our former ally. That alone is a very big swing in events. Add to that Turkey, the uprisings all over, Iraq’s now essentially theocratic government, and the list of clerics openly eulogizing OBL in the press and i think it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t made huge strides towards their objectives.

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  22. Tlaloc says:

    However, events in the Muslim world are dealing a bigger blow to bin Laden, and belie the lie that he got everything he wanted, since most of the movements that make up the Arab spring are calling not for Islamist leadership, but rather for democracy, pluralism, and other ideas anathema to OBL.

    Bull. have you read any of the polling after these uprisings? Democracy is not the motivation. Theocracy is. The Muslim Brotherhood is not all about democracy.

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  23. PD Shaw says:

    I’m sure OBL smiles a little inside when he hears about a tornado hitting the U.S. or a little American girl skinning her knee on the playground, but he made his objectives and world view clear in his 1998 Fatwa. He wants the U.S. out of the Middle East and he wants Muslims to understand that they are under attack and rise up in jihad.

    All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. And ulema have throughout Islamic history unanimously agreed that the jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries.

    Why would he not say this today?

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  24. PD Shaw says:

    “Why would he not say this today?”

    Er, he’s dead?

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  25. ponce says:

    “That may be all that matters”

    I think it’s just as important to expose the fact that a large percentage of Republicans, perhaps a majority, are religious bigots and zealots.

    It’s why I stopped being a straight-ticket Republican back in 2003.

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  26. Davebo says:

    I’m sure OBL smiles a little inside when he hears about a tornado hitting the U.S. or a little American girl skinning her knee on the playground, but he made his objectives and world view clear in his 1998 Fatwa.

    Actually Osama has no standing to issue any type of Fatwa.

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  27. An Interested Party says:

    I understand those of us that do not will get the Danial Perl treatment. Reynold first. I would buy the video.

    ZR III…there really can be no doubt…

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  28. Pete says:

    Ponce, what event back in 2003 changed your opinion of Republicans?

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  29. Hey Norm says:

    We’re not at war with Islam? Do I have to remind you of the Muslim Community Center in lower Manhatten? The one that became the scary Ground Zero Mosque?
    We invaded and occupied another nation that had absolutely nothing to do with 9.11.
    Republicans just voted to abolish Medicare in part because of the debt that two un-paid for wars has caused.
    We institutionalized torture. We suspended habeus corpus. We spied on US citizens without warrants. Someone outed a CIA undercover operative.
    He wanted us to over-react…and over-react we did. In spades.
    But he’s still dead.

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  30. Dave E. says:

    Don’t be such a twit, Norm. Everything you just wrote is a giant overreaction.

    Osama wanted a true war of civilizations between the West and Islam. You tremble at thousands of dead in Iraq while bin Laden dreamed of tens and hundreds of millions of dead across the globe. Iraq was just a skirmish in his mind. He never got close to provoking what he really wanted.

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  31. Davebo says:

    As I said at the end of the post, I don’t know that I agree with Balko on this point although it is an interesting question.

    Shorter Doug….

    You mean libertarianism is more than just whining about taxes?

    Or Sarah Palin (who is totally irrelevant but Doug likes to use for his street cred)

    Seriously dude, you’re like a less viewed Sullivan. Ignorant of your own ideology.

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  32. Davebo says:

    Don’t be such a twit, Norm. Everything you just wrote is a giant overreaction.

    Seriously? I mean really, seriously?

    How many hundreds of thousands dead and trillions of dollars wasted does it take exactly?

    You tremble at thousands hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq while bin Laden dreamed of tens and hundreds of millions conned 19 guys with box cutters and made you piss your pants.

    Who’s the twit exactly again?

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  33. hey norm says:

    @ Dave E…
    “…bin Laden dreamed of tens and hundreds of millions of dead across the globe…”
    I gather your point is that we only gave him a hundred or so thousand dead innocent civilians in Iraq…so he failed?
    He brought American xenophobia bubbling to the surface. He caused Americans to turn their backs on the values that once made this country great. Maybe you are right that he did not achieve the level of damage, in shear numbers, that he wanted…but he did plenty of damage.

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  34. mannning says:

    So a retired leader was killed, a former icon of the movement, now unable to push up daisys. Nothing has changed in the circles of jihad but the names at the top. While we are somewhat better focused now on terror acts, and appear to have prevented quite a few, we have certainly not deflected the Islamic jihadists from their holy mission. although, of course, we just might have speeded up some terrorist revenge actions. New leaders will pop up to replace those we kill, and the war that we did not begin will continue to roll on.

    That we have had to make some provisions for our security is the price of this continuing jihadist war on us. While many rage that it is terrible, I have personally not seen any troubles for me from the Patriot Act, for instance, yet, the Act has had a good effect against jihadists. Even Obama supported it, and most of our representatives too. I say that the values we cherish are still very much in effect, barring the assault on our Constitution by the Left. It is not useful to paint us as being degenerate now, all because of UBL, because it simply isn’t true.

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  35. Rob in CT says:

    I largely agree with Balko.

    I think bin Laden wanted us to get into a war in Afghanistan – if I recall correctly, he believed he and his merry band of religious kooks believed that they brought down the Soviet Union there. The idea that he could bring down or seriously damage the USA by bogging us down in Afghanistan might be delusional, but I think he believed it. And he got what he wanted on that score.

    Iraq was a huge gift. An unforced error. An own goal. I doubt he really thought we haul off and do that, but he had to be pleased as punch.

    The civil liberties stuff, which matters a lot to me, was probably minor to him. It might have amused him, but his goal was civilizational clash, awakening of Muslims to jihad and then, somehow, Caliphate. You know, step 1: pick fight with Superpower; step 2: ???, step 3: Caliphate! It wasn’t a brilliant plan, but I’d say it worked a whole lot better than any of us liked.

    My hope is that his death may provide our leadership with an opportunity to re-assess the whole “war on terror” thing. Sadly, I doubt it will.

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  36. Rob in CT says:

    Thinking on it a bit more, I think “largely agree” is overstating it. I somewhat agree with Balko: I think bin Laden’s crew of nutbags got us to do some really dumb, counter-productive and even evil things, but to say that he “won” is pretty silly. His goals have clearly not been met and it’s far from clear that his actions (or our sometimes ridiculous reactions) did much if anything to advance the ball for his dream.

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