Osama bin Laden is no martyr. He is certainly no Che Guevara, whose fate at the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency was strikingly similar to his. But one cannot escape the fact that he succeeded in unleashing a chain of events that led to his nemesis, the United States, becoming a diminished power compared to what it was in the halcyon days of unilateralism at the end of the last century. In the duel between Washington and Osama, the latter was, at the time of his death, far ahead on points.
Soon after the United States went to war against the Taliban in pursuit of Osama in October 2001, I penned a widely published analysis that at the time provoked controversy. However, it anticipated the course of the titanic struggle between a global power and a determined fanatic over the next decade. I am reprinting part of that essay below.
Bin Laden’s Game
In the aftermath of the September 11 assault, a number of writers wrote about the possibility that that move could have been a bait to get the United States bogged down in a war of intervention in the Middle East that would inflame the Muslim world against it. Whether or not that was indeed bin Laden’s strategic objective, the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan has created precisely such a situation…
The global support that U.S. President George Bush has flaunted is deceptive. Of course, a lot of governments would express their support for the UN Security Council’s call for a global campaign against terrorism. Far fewer countries, however, are actually actively cooperating in intelligence and police surveillance activities. Even fewer have endorsed the military campaign and opened up their territory to transit by U.S. planes on the way to Southwest Asia. And when one gets down to the decisive test of offering troops and weapons to fight alongside the British and the Americans in the harsh plains and icy mountains of Afghanistan, one is down to the hardcore of the Western Cold War alliance.
Bin Laden’s terrorist methods are despicable, but one must grant the devil his due. Whether through study or practice, he has absorbed the lessons of guerilla warfare in a national, Afghan setting and translated it to a global setting. Serving as the international correlate of the national popular base is the youth of the global Muslim community, among whom feelings of resentment against Western domination were a volatile mix that was simply waiting to be ignited.
The September 11 attacks were horrific and heinous, but from one angle, what were they except a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory? According to Guevara, the aim of a bold guerilla action is twofold: to demoralize the enemy and to empower your popular base by getting them to participate in an action that shows that the all-powerful government is indeed vulnerable. The enemy is then provoked into a military response that further saps his credibility in what is basically a political and ideological battle. For bin Laden, terrorism is not the end but a means to an end. And that end is something that none of Bush’s rhetoric about defending civilization through revenge bombing can compete with: a vision of Muslim Asia rid of American economic and military power, Israel, and corrupt surrogate elites, and returned to justice and Islamic sanctity.
Yet Washington was not exactly without weapons in this ideological war. In the aftermath of September 11, it could have responded in a way that could have blunted bin Laden’s political and ideological appeal and opened up a new era in US-Arab relations.
First, it could have forsworn unilateral military action and announced to the world that it would go the legal route in pursuing justice, no matter how long this took. It could have announced its pursuit of a process combining patient multinational investigation, diplomacy, and the employment of accepted international mechanisms like the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
These methods may take time but they work, and they ensure that justice and fairness are served. For instance, patient diplomacy secured the extradition from Libya of suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, and their successful prosecution under an especially constituted court in the Hague. Likewise, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, set up under the auspices of the ICJ, has successfully prosecuted some wartime Croat and Serbian terrorists and is currently prosecuting former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, though of course much remains to be done.
The second prong of a progressive U.S. response could have been Washington’s announcing a fundamental change in its policies in the Middle East, the main points of which would be the withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia, the ending of sanctions and military action against Iraq, decisive support for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, and ordering Israel to immediately refrain from attacks on Palestinian communities.
Foreign policy realists will say that this strategy is impossible to sell to the American people, but they have been wrong before. Had the United States taken this route, instead of taking the law–as usual–in its own hands, it could have emerged as an example of a great power showing restraint and paved the way to a new era of relations among people and nations. The instincts of a unilateral, imperial past, however, have prevailed, and they have now run rampage to such an extent that, even on the home front, the rights of dissent and democratic diversity that have been one of the powerful ideological attractions of U.S. society are fundamentally threatened by the draconian legislation being pushed by law-and-order types…that are taking advantage of the current crisis to push through their pre-September 11 authoritarian agendas.
As things now stand, Washington has painted itself into a no-win situation.
If it kills bin Laden, he becomes a martyr, a source of never-ending inspiration, especially to young Muslims.
If it captures him alive, freeing him will become a massive focus of resistance that will prevent the imposition of capital punishment without triggering massive revolts throughout the Islamic world.
If it fails to kill or capture him, he will secure an aura of invincibility, as somebody favored by God, and whose cause is therefore just…
September 11 was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but the U.S. response has converted the equation in many people’s minds into a war between vision and power, righteousness and might, and, perverse as this may sound, spirit versus matter. You won’t get this from CNN and The New York Times, but Washington has stumbled into bin Laden’s preferred terrain of battle.
Lessons Not Learned
I take no credit for the originality of the thoughts expressed in this ten-year-old essay. Many others who had studied the history of insurgent movements and imperial responses could have written the same thing then and anticipated the general thrust of events over the next decade. Unfortunately for the world, hegemonic powers never, never learn from history, and Washington did stumble into Osama’s preferred terrain, with all the consequences of this move motivated by imperial hubris: thousands of lives lost, loss of credibility, loss of legitimacy, and a significant erosion of power.
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines and a senior analyst of the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South.