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.