It is, of course, purely coincidental that news of the alleged death of Osama bin Laden or, at least, his imminent demise has been “leaked” by the Saudis via a French intelligence document just as the American election season hits its stride. This time, he’s supposedly dead or dying of typhoid, although the source of his reported health problems varies with the teller. And, some speculate, this could be just an effort to smoke him out to motivate him to issue a new video, the first in two years, and therefore provide his hunters with possible clues to his whereabouts and condition.
Nothing about this rumor is at all clear. What is breathtakingly obvious, however, is that bin Laden is not only a symbol to many Muslims of resistance to U.S. domination he is a living reminder of this administration’s complete failure when it comes to the GOP’s signature issue: national security and the “war on terrorism.” For years, the more addlepated wing of the War Party has been stoutly maintaining that OBL is dead, in spite of audio messages in which he has spoken. Now they have another excuse to trot out this tired line, as if the death of a single man could possibly improve their rapidly sinking position. Since the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, the level of terror in that country has risen; bin Laden’s death, if it has occurred, is likely to register a similar uptick worldwide. We are, it seems, caught in a conundrum.
The great problem of the War Party is that they chose to fight the wrong war. We were struck by bin Laden, and we went for Saddam’s throat while letting the real author of 9/11 get clean away. Instead of strengthening our ties with local Arab governments and using our influence and regional allies to hunt down and kill the real terrorists, we marshaled inordinate resources to accomplish regime change in Iraq and succeeded only in strengthening al-Qaeda. Or, rather, we succeeded in confirming the idea and action program represented by bin Laden and his followers, who enjoy growing support far beyond the periphery of their actual organization.
In an important sense, bin Laden, the individual, matters not. His significance transcends his own person. Whether he is alive or dead will not impact the larger struggle one way or the other. In the short term, however, rumors of his death, albeit vague to the point of insubstantiality, do serve a purpose, and that is to shore up the rapidly collapsing American strategy in the Middle East. If he is truly dead, or dying, Washington can claim, albeit implausibly, to have driven him into the ground, to have so exhausted and debilitated him that his health simply gave out: it’s a “victory” of sorts, if a rather threadbare one. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Michael Scheuer, until 1999 the head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who avers:
“You should never say ‘never,’ but the source of the intelligence is not a very good one Saudi intelligence can sometimes be an oxymoron. It almost sounds like between the French and the Saudis are trying to goad bin Laden into saying something to prove he is still alive.”
Scheuer has been uncannily correct in his prognostications. In his 2004 book Imperial Hubris and elsewhere, Scheuer predicted with pinpoint accuracy that the Americans’ alleged “victory” in Afghanistan would soon unravel, leaving “President” Hamid Karzai as ruler of little more than the capital city of Kabul. This piece, detailing the rise of pro-Taliban warlords such as former Afghan prime minister and U.S.-funded “freedom fighter” Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, shows Scheuer on the mark yet again:
“Karzai, holed up in Kabul, is increasingly marginalized, as the insecurity has shaken faith in the elected government. Hekmatyar has even taken to taunting Karzai. Earlier this month he called the president and told him he should be able to tell from the telephone number where Hekmatyar was speaking from. He challenged Karzai to arrest him.”
As our politicians prate about “who lost Afghanistan,” the irony is that it was “lost” in the very effort to take it. Instead of going in for the sole purpose of tracking down and shutting down Bin Laden & Co., the Afghan campaign prefigured the nation-building neoconservative program of regime change, the ostensible purpose of which is to “drain the swamp” that supposedly nurtures the terrorist pestilence.
This ideological fantasy soon dissolved in the clear morning light, although U.S. policymakers are still suffering from a huge hangover. The Afghan elections did not deter or even delay the natural native resistance to this imposition of “democracy” from on high: it was, in any event, a performance put on mainly for the benefit of a Western, and specifically American, audience. The idea was to wring money out of Congress (and the NATO countries), as well as to secure a commitment to keep troops there long enough to mount what was termed a “final” offensive against the supposedly defeated Taliban. All that was needed, we were assured, was a “mopping up” operation, and our job would be done. Today, it is closer to the truth to say that we are being mopped up.
Even most opponents of the Iraq war, including many leftists as well as libertarians, supported the invasion of Afghanistan, pointing to the Taliban’s links to al-Qaeda. Yet our military efforts in that country were never aimed primarily at bin Laden and his followers. Instead, we were determined to leave a very large and permanent footprint on Afghan society, one that would somehow transform it into something it has never been: a secular, united, and passably democratic nation. After five years of war, we are very far from achieving anything close to this goal. Just as the British were repulsed, so NATO is slowly being driven out of Afghanistan, which is fast reverting back to its natural state of warlordism and brigandage.
Ludwig von Mises, the libertarian economist whose critique of socialism as unworkable and doomed to self-dissolution preceded the implosion of the Soviet Union by some 70 years said of economic interventionism that it “is a self-defeating policy. The individual measures that it applies do not achieve the results sought.” American foreign policy, these days, is a laboratory experiment proving that the same principle applies to military intervention in other countries.
It logically follows that the application of coercive methods would have the same pitiable consequences in foreign lands as they have had on the home front, but this is the sort of consistency that our present-day “conservatives” disdain as impractical “purism.” Yet we have seen how impractical the policies of these self-proclaimed “tough-minded” pragmatists turned out to be.
In foreign policy, as in domestic policy, the machinations of government bureaucrats and cloistered ideologues are bound to have a deleterious effect, no matter how well intentioned. Whether their efforts in this case were well intentioned is a matter for investigators to unearth: the evidence, so far, is that their real objectives and motives were and are very far from it.
The bottom line is that we must all suffer for the miscalculations of our leaders. We are paying for their dishonesty, their hubris, and their many crimes, and we cannot know how high the price will climb. It may be as high as the dissolution of our republican form of government, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, or more likely both in rapid succession.
As we invade other countries, and pursue bin Laden in far Waziristan, his agents and imitators have every opportunity to penetrate our porous borders: there is, by way of frightening example, still no reliable system of tracking the contents of shipments that come into our ports. The warnings of the 9/11 Commission, which were reiterated recently by worried commissioners, have yet to be heeded by a Congress far too busy endorsing Israel’s rape of Lebanon and ladling ample portions of pork into “national security” legislation.
Opponents of this administration’s foreign policy of relentless aggression [.pdf] and ideology-driven “democratization” efforts have to realize that there is a very real terrorist threat, in large part created by the very policies they oppose. Just as economic interventionism is often put forward as the “cure” for conditions caused by intervention in the first place, so U.S. military and political intervention overseas is touted as the “solution” for conditions created by our incessant meddling. Iran is a perfect example: our intervention against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular nationalist who threatened to nationalize Western oil holdings, paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shi’ite upsurge that led to rule by the mullahs. We supported the shah and his savage SAVAK secret police, who used every method of repression known to man to keep their boot on the throat of the Iranian people for nearly four decades. Today, as the Iranians race toward the development of a nuclear capability, we are experiencing a bit of blowback, i.e., the furious reaction to our incredibly short-sighted and self-serving policy from its outraged victims.
We created the mullahs of Tehran, indirectly and had a direct hand in the creation of al-Qaeda, whose leaders we supported against the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War. Now this beast of our own creation has turned against us, à la Frankenstein’s monster only, this time, the villagers with their pitchforks are on the monster’s side. Even if we kill the monster, our actions and the policies that gave birth to him are likely to regenerate the creature. In this sense, bin Laden, even if he is dead, lives on immortalized by the eternal folly of our interventionist foreign policy.