If bin Laden Could Vote:
May 12, 2004
by Eric Mader
"Even if al Qaeda is planning another attack in the U.S., they're likely to wait until after the November elections."
"Because they know if they attack before the elections, Bush will be sure to win. If there's another attack, Americans will vote Bush because they think he's tougher on terrorism. And al Qaeda doesn't want four more years of Bush."
"I suppose you're right. They'd be stupid to hit us now."
This is part of a conversation I overheard last night in a local bar: two men speculating on the likelihood of another al Qaeda attack. Words like theirs have doubtless been repeated over and over across America in recent months, as Americans gear up for the election and continue to think about the terrorist threat. On first glance the assumptions in this exchange seem reasonable enough: certainly bin Laden wouldn't want another four years of George W. Bush. Bush, after all, is the man who brought the fight back to the terrorists: the man who bombed their training camps and chased them from Afghanistan.
Their words seem reasonable enough, true. But then again, how much thought do Americans give to Osama bin Laden and his goals? Very little in fact. Bin Laden, in American eyes, stands in mainly as an embodiment of pure evil. He is a bogeyman, and as such he is most likely a madman to boot. For this reason, considering bin Laden's goals is not something our journalists or politicians will devote much discourse to. To discuss his goals seems already to give him too much stature: evil madmen, after all, aren't supposed to have goals beyond pure mayhem and evil. Regarding bin Laden's motives, our president has put it simply and clearly: "They attacked us because they hate our way of life. They hate freedom." Most Americans are willing to leave it at that. Bin Laden is a man who hates, and what he hates is us and our freedom.
Bush's words have an element of truth in them. Bin Laden and his followers certainly do hate Western democracy. They hate it because, first of all, it is Western and, secondly, it is based on a rigorous separation of the state from religion. Bin Laden and likeminded Muslim fundamentalists want nothing to do with a multicultural society in which government remains strictly neutral in religious matters. What they want is a state founded on Islam, or rather: on their own rigorous interpretation of Islam. They want the state and its laws to be guided by scripture: the Koran.
In order to defeat your enemy, you must first understand him. This is a basic principle of strategy. The Bush Administration's approach to terrorism has shown a serious failure to understand the enemy. And this failure is very likely making the enemy stronger.
What does bin Laden want? I propose to discuss this question in a straightforward manner. To do so is not to justify bin Laden. I consider him a twisted, misguided extremist. But this said, I do not believe he is a madman. Rather he is cunning and methodical: his methods show cynicism but they show logic. Bin Laden's plan is overly optimistic, but it is a coherent plan nonetheless.
In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Max Rodenbeck pointed out that bin Laden's aim is not simply to attack America, nor is it simply to free Muslim countries from the American cultural influence he hates. No: his ultimate goal is wider and more world-historical. Bin Laden and his followers want a "radical remake" of Islam and the political world of Islam. As Rodenbeck's words are so to the point, I will quote him at length:
Attacking America and its allies is merely a tactic, intended to provoke a backlash strong enough to alert Muslims to the supposed truth of their predicament, and so rally them to purge the faith of all that is alien to its essence. Promoting a clash of civilizations is merely stage one. The more difficult part, as the radicals see it, is convincing fellow Muslims to reject the modern world absolutely (including such aberrations as democracy), topple their own insidiously secularizing quisling governments, and return to the pure path. It is this latter part of his project that bin Laden shares with a wider radical and reactionary trend, which is sometimes referred to as Salafist (derived from the Arabic salaf, meaning forebears, i.e., returning to the way of the founding fathers of Islam).
The imagined political destination of this path is the recreation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, such as existed for a few short years after the Prophet's death. (The question of who is to fill the office of caliph has been left conveniently vague by bin Laden and the other extreme radicals.) Reaching this goal would necessitate the elimination of such impurities as Shiism, Sufism, and so on, and the imposition of a supranational, tribal identification with Islam. So far as personal behavior is concerned, the ultra-radicals would like to see the Salafist version of Islam applied in detailed, prescriptive form. There would be hand-chopping for theft, and death by stoning for adultery. But there would also be a thicket of lesser rules to regulate everything from how to greet an infidel (a Muslim may respond to but not initiate hellos) to how to bury the dead (in unmarked graves).
Bin Laden attacks America because he knows it will bring a backlash of American violence against the Muslim world. This backlash will in turn awaken Muslims to their predicament: i.e., that they are peoples ultimately subject to the West and the hypocritical and secularizing governments the West supports to rule over them. Bin Laden's calculation is cold and precise: When his fellow Muslims see the violence of the American response to his attacks, when they see media coverage of Muslim children killed by American "smart" bombs, when they see Muslim governments waffling under American pressure, they will rise up in rage to overthrow those governments. And when that begins to happen neither the American imperialists nor their Arab minions will be strong enough maintain control: the battle will prove too costly, the revolt too widespread. Finally, sickened by the cost in dollars and soldiers' lives, the Americans will have to retreat. But meanwhile, in the course of battle, in the heat of the struggle, bin Laden's movement will have grown.
This represents bin Laden's rough strategy, the first stage of his plan. Note that it is only stage one: it is only a "base" on which he intends to build a wider transnational Muslim movement (al Qaeda means "the Base" in Arabic). Will bin Laden achieve his goal? It's hard to imagine he will. But in the meantime how can American leaders weaken rather than strengthen his movement?
In one of the notes to his article, Rodenbeck quotes an interesting statement made by al Qaeda after the Madrid train bombings. It pertains to the coming American elections. According to this statement, Al Qaeda hopes George Bush will win reelection. And why? The al Qaeda representative writes:
Because [Bush] acts with force rather than wisdom or shrewdness, and it is his religious fanaticism that will rouse our [Islamic] nation, as has been shown. Being targeted by an enemy is what will wake us from our slumber. (Quoted on the Arabic news Web site www.elaph.com: "Bayaan lil qa'ida yuhhammal tawqi' kataib abu hafss al massri," March 17, 2004.)
Given the logic of bin Laden's strategy, given his calculations about what it will take to awaken Muslim fury and so spur on the movement he hopes to lead, it makes perfect sense that a leader like Bush would be better to have in the White House than a leader like John Kerry. As bin Laden (and everyone else in the world) can see, the Bush Administration is not averse to bold military action, or to taking the fight to new fronts. Bush is not afraid of a few (thousand) civilian casualties in his desire to bring the evil ones to justice. When four American contractors died in the disgusting attacks in Fallujah, the American military responded with a month-long siege of the whole city, a siege which killed hundreds of Iraqis: men, women and children. This is the Bush style applied to military action. It seems to say: "If four of ours get killed, we are more than willing to kill hundreds of yours in hopes of killing the few dozen insurgents responsible for the initial attacks." Such a policy may sound reasonable to Americans who watch CNN, but how does it sound to Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians? Does it not seem to show a bit of a double standard as to the relative value of Muslim vs. American lives? Such is just the kind of double standard bin Laden prefers coming from America. He knows that with an enemy like George W. Bush, the number of al Qaeda supporters and followers will increase by the day.
Terrorism experts agree on this assessment. The most prominent of them to come out with his criticisms is Richard Clarke, for years America's most highly placed counterterrorism coordinator and once the Bush Administration's own ranking expert. Since his testimony before the 9/11 commission and the appearance of his book, the Bush people have done their best to bash Clarke, but anyone who considers Clarke's record will see what he is about. He is known as a public servant of the highest standards. He has been described as a man actually obsessed with defending America against terrorism.
Clarke sees the Bush Administration's record vis a vis al Qaeda as a dismal one. Leading up to 9/11 Clarke's warnings were all but ignored by Bush's inner circle. Although he insisted that the consistency of the intelligence reports meant that relevant government agencies and the airlines must be put on full alert, nothing was done. But the inaction before 9/11 was one thing. What Clarke found inexcusable, infuriating even, was the Bush team's sudden shift to Iraq after the attacks. He might have guessed that such a shift would come. Even at meetings during the first months of the Bush Administration, long before September 2001, Clarke had noted Paul Wolfowitz's obsession with Iraq. After the attacks the old focus on Iraq returned. And this regardless of the fact that no link between Iraq and bin Laden's people could be demonstrated. Clarke considers what followed to be a stupendous strategic blunder:
Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our subsequent calls for reform in their region.
As Clarke sees it, America had played right into bin Laden's hand:
Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals' values, we did exactly what al Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.
The current situation in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world confirms Clarke's worries. Polls recently conducted across the region show that levels of hatred and distrust toward the United States continue to remain at a high-water mark. (These polls were done before the revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers: one can only wonder what the results would be now.) The climate created by the Bush Administration's foreign policy is exactly the kind needed to make bin Laden's brand of radicalized Islam flourish. Is this the way to fight this particular enemy?
The war in Iraq is one thing. But as if to add insult to injury, the Bush Administration recently endorsed Ariel Sharon's unilaterally conceived plan for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Even Tony Blair's government was surprised by this sudden and reckless shift in U.S. policy. Sharon's own Likud party voted against the plan. The carte blanche so far given Sharon and his extremist policies is another instance of the Bush team carelessly squandering our country's diplomatic capital. Here they are squandering it from precisely those accounts we need the most.
Apropos of which, Bush's irresponsible shifting about as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led a group of fifty former U.S. diplomats to write an open letter of protest. Part of the letter reads:
Your unabashed support of Sharon's extra-judicial assassinations, Israel's Berlin-wall-like barrier, its harsh military measures in occupied territories and now your endorsement of Sharon's unilateral plans are costing our country its credibility, prestige and friends.
These are not left-wing journalists writing this. They are U.S. diplomats.
In the war on terror, to lose friends is to strengthen the enemy. America's reputation as a fair and law-abiding nation are its greatest assets in the fight against terrorism. And yet month after month the Bush Administration's actions continue to give our enemies reason to rejoice: each passing month seems to bring a new case of gratuitous arrogance or diplomatic miscalculation. Admitting no mistakes, the Bush team cannot learn from their mistakes.
This, more than anything, is why Osama bin Laden would cast his ballot for George W. Bush if he could vote in the November election. Because bin Laden can see that the team assembled around Bush is likely to keep playing into al Qaeda's hand: given four more years in office, they will continue to isolate America while making him and his organization stronger. Bin Laden and friends can see how effective Bush's war on terrorism has been; hopefully American voters will come to see it also.
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Quotations in this article were taken from:
Max Rodenbeck: "Islam Confronts its Demons," The New York Review of Books, April 29, 2004.
Richard Clarke: Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press, 2004.
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