Giving Bin Laden What He Wants?

Ted Koppel thinks our actions since 9/11 have helped Osama bin Laden fulfill his goals. He couldn't be more wrong.

In a column for the Sunday WaPo already available online titled “Nine years after 9/11, let’s stop fulfilling bin Laden’s goals,Ted Koppel contends that our overreaction to that event is playing into al Qaeda’s hands.

The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response. And over the past nine years, the United States has blundered into the 9/11 snare with one overreaction after another. Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.

It did not have to be this way. The Bush administration’s initial response was just about right. The calibrated combination of CIA operatives, special forces and air power broke the Taliban in Afghanistan and sent bin Laden and the remnants of al-Qaeda scurrying across the border into Pakistan. The American reaction was quick, powerful and effective — a clear warning to any organization contemplating another terrorist attack against the United States. This is the point at which President George W. Bush should have declared “mission accomplished,” with the caveat that unspecified U.S. agencies and branches of the military would continue the hunt for al-Qaeda’s leader. The world would have understood, and most Americans would probably have been satisfied.

But the insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security. Each incident provokes the contemplation of something worse to come. The Bush administration convinced itself that the minds that conspired to turn passenger jets into ballistic missiles might discover the means to arm such “missiles” with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads. This became the existential nightmare that led, in short order, to a progression of unsubstantiated assumptions: that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; that there was a connection between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaeda.

He goes on to rehearse the various sins of commission and omission that the blogosphere finally tired of after several years.  That this column was published demonstrates one of my pet peeves about the way op-ed pages are filled.    This banal tripe would never have been given the time of day if Ted Koppel’s name weren’t attached.    Seriously, there’s not a single idea here that wasn’t beaten into the ground by 2006.

At least Fareed Zakaria wrote an interesting column with the same theme, which I discuss at some length in “Overreaction to 9/11?

Look, there’s no doubt that we’ve made some serious mistakes in our attempts to fight against violent extremism.  And, almost by definition, this has been a boon to al Qaeda. Hardly anyone disputes that.    On the other hand, al Qaeda is a tiny shell of its former sense largely because of the things we’ve gotten right.  And, by the way, that wasn’t the case at the point where Koppel would have had us declare victory.  Not by a long shot.

I’ve published minor variations of the following in various places probably a dozen times since July 2004 but it still bears repeating.

Wars are fought for strategic goals. Al Qaeda announced theirs in a 1998 declaration of Jihad. As summarized by Michael Scheuer, they were:

  • The end of U.S. aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian peninsula;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands;
  • The end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India;
  • The end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera;
  • The conservation of the Muslim world’s energy resource and their sale at higher prices.

How is it going for the Jihadists? The reality:

  • Israel is stronger than ever and U.S. support could hardly be stronger. The 9/11 attacks, if anything, solidified U.S.-Israeli relations, since it brought home the everyday far of terrorist attacks Israelis endure on a daily basis.
  • Western forces have indeed left Saudi Arabia, only to be mobilized and reinforced in Arab lands.
  • Western forces are deeply entrenched in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands and have toppled the first two regimes and strongly influenced the direction of others, notably Pakistan.
  • The U.S. still does not support oppression of Muslims in Russia, China, or India but is certainly less sympathetic to the Chechnyan cause than before 9/11.
  • The U.S. has drawn closer to the governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, although it is pushing for serious democratization.
  • Oil prices have gone up rather dramatically, although owing more to economic growth in China and India than events in the Middle East.

Bin Laden might think he is winning. The facts, however, do not bear him out.

Aside from perhaps having moved into a slightly less Likudist position toward Israel under Obama, that still remains right.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t wrap up our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less that we shouldn’t continue to clean up our more morally and legally dubious policies overseas.   And that’s to say nothing of the diminished freedoms at home in exchange for the illusion of security.    But, by any reasonable standard, Osama bin Laden is in a much, much worse position than he was nine years ago.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andre Kenji says:

    Osama does not cares about the Palestineans. What he wants to do is to destroy the US, and he wanted to the Americans the same thing that he did to the Palestineans. By the way, the problem that the Fundamentalists have is precisely because the Muslim became too much Westernized for them.

  2. Stan says:

    To me, George Bush’s greatest mistakes in our struggle against radical islam were 1) failing to expend any effort on securing an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, 2) the war in Iraq, and 3) his willingness to use torture as a standard tool in interrogations.  All were major blunders, particularly his failure to understand the importance of the Palestine issue.  What they demonstrated, among other things, were the cowardice of the Democrats, the laziness and irresponsibility of the press, and the failure of Republican elected officials and writers to choose country over party.

  3. ponce says:

    It’s hard to agree with any of your points, James.
    They read like a check list of right-wing wishful thinking, not reality.
    Does anyone really believe Israel is stronger now than it was nine years ago?
    Does anyone really believe U.S. forces are “deeply entrenched” in Afghanistan?

  4. This is a valuable piece, James.  When I first read Koppel’s piece, I thought it was quite good.  But your response here is devastating, even if its most important point is just to quote a six year-old post of yours.  Koppel’s piece makes perfect sense if you buy into the overwhelmingly popular meme – as I myself have done at various times – that Bin Laden’s goal is the creation of a new caliphate and the complete and utter destruction of the United States and the Western way of life, and that “they hate us because we are free.”  If you view all this as the point of Al Qaeda’s terrorism, then indeed our various overreactions are playing right into their hands.  The trouble is that this meme is basically accepted by everyone, left, right, and center.  So the Left concludes (correctly) that these alleged goals of Al Qaeda’s terrorism are entirely preposterous and can only be achieved with the help of overreactions by Americans.  Meanwhile, the Right concludes that these alleged goals of Al Qaeda’s are entirely realistic if Americans do not fight back viciously, no matter what the cost to our civil liberties, making arguments such as Mitt Romney’s claims that “the most important civil liberty I expect from my government is my right to be kept alive.”

    While there’s no doubt that by and large Al Qaeda would love to see the complete destruction of the US and the Western way of life, their strategic goals – and the goals that they certainly view as actually realistic – are more limited and directly pertinent to them…essentially more nationalistic.  Even to the extent that Al Qaeda’s ultimate goals are the destruction of the US and the Western way of life and the creation of a new caliphate, it should be fairly obvious that the achievement of those goals have to be premised on first achieving the strategic goals. 

    That said, to the extent our overreactions create or encourage sympathy for al Qaeda in the Muslim world, they certainly do have the effect of helping al Qaeda attain its strategic goals, at least on the margins. 

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    If people would just sit in a nice, quiet place and reflect on the differences among grand strategy, strategy, and tactics a lot of incendiary posturing could be avoided.  I won’t go OBL’s grand strategy or tactics.  Those are well known.  What was his strategy?

    It was for Muslims to rise up in arms against the various objects of his hatred.  That strategy has now been completely discredited.

  6. anjin-san says:

    > What was his strategy?

    It was for Muslims to rise up in arms against the various objects of his hatred.
    You are really confident you understand what his strategy is?

  7. Grant says:

    Executive summary: Sure, a ragtag band of lightly armed cultists managed to force the world’s sole superpower into a $3.5 trillion, half-million dead flinch, but on the other hand their barmy, Unabomberish manifesto proved to be a pipe dream.

  8. André Kenji says:

    Nope. Robert Fisk, that personally knows OBL, said that he wanted to transform Afghanistan in a trap for the US.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Osama once lived in a nice house and had nice things.  Now he has millions of dollars bounty on his head.  There are men who will hunt him to the end of his days.  If that is want he wanted, he is really stupid.  Only idealogical idiots could think Bin Ladin accomplished anything.  I do not know what the kill ratio is, ours to theirs in Afghanistan but notice no superpower is assisting them only one playing with fire though not as long as Obama is President will the U.S. do anything about Iran.  They are paying a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. servicemen.  That is an act of war.  A real American President would deliver an ultimatum to Iran.  The USS Florida carries a huge number of tomahawk missles which could be used to target Iranian leadership.

  10. ponce says:

    “A real American President would deliver an ultimatum to Iran. ”
    Even W. wasn’t dumb enough to attack Iran.
    Why are the wingnuts so determined to drag the rest of us into their sick death wish scenarios?
    I’m guessing their religious fanaticism has something to do with it…

  11. anjin-san says:

    The difference between Zels and a fanatic Jihadist is nil…

  12. anjin-san says:

    The Iran/Taliban bounty story remains behind a Murdoch fee wall. One more way to fleece the rubes.

  13. Raoul says:

    We are also worse off today.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    Koppel’s thesis is not beaten to death by any means. If anything the intervening four years between now and 2006 have just demonstrated how accurate it is. I have to say Jim this little offering is not one of finest hours being filled with more than its fair share of standard right wing Republican boiler plate that is completely at odds with reality. And then at the end you tacitly admit it!   

  15. Mohamed says:

    Bin Laden lost!!!! Do u really think that US did not come here for petroluim? and ofcoarse POWER, well they removed Saddam and caused the death of 2  million Iraqi’s or so. It is true they do not care about what muslims think or feel, but guess who gained and is still gaining popularity and support, IRAN. and iran is far more dangerous than Qaeda and Saddam. How will the states deal with Iran? a new war and some new massacres? I petty US citizens cause they will pay for what there politics are doin.