The re-emergence of Osama bin Laden in the final days of the presidential campaign was occasioned by a flurry of speculation: was OBL rooting for Bush? Or for Kerry? Good old American narcissism: it always comes to the fore. It’s always about us, now isn’t it?
The Democrats lamented that this was the dreaded "October surprise," while Walter Cronkite half-jokingly averred that Karl Rove must have put bin Laden up to it; Republicans were visibly nervous that the taunting jack-in-the-box had popped up yet again, reminding voters that the man George W. Bush vowed to get "dead or alive" still mocked us with impunity. Some mutually self-protective instinct briefly brought both candidates together with messages of "unity," urging Americans to close their ears, close their minds, and close ranks in a united front of impregnable ignorance. They soon fell to using bin Laden’s reappearance against each other, but, as OBL made perfectly clear in his speech, it wasn’t about the election: it was about grabbing the attention of the American people.
Like any and all ideologues everywhere, bin Laden wants to get his message out, in the somewhat naïve belief that the power of mere words will have an impact. Clothed in golden robes, speaking softly and calmly, and with nary a weapon in sight – a first – the man they liken to the legendary Vanishing Imam looked directly into the camera:
"You, the American people, I talk to you today about the best way to avoid another catastrophe and about war, its reasons and its consequences. And in that regard, I say to you that security is an important pillar of human life, and that free people do not compromise their security. Contrary to what [President George W.] Bush says and claims – that we hate freedom – let him tell us then, ‘Why did we not attack Sweden?’"
For a man supposedly hiding in a hole somewhere, constantly on the run, he sure did look remarkably serene. Standing behind a desk, without any of the emphatic hand gestures that have characterized past perorations, he taunted his enemies with sarcasm and exhibited a quality rare in mass murderers: a sense of humor. Why not Sweden, indeed.
It was a kinder, gentler Osama: although his very presence is enough to cast a pall of menace over any words he might utter, there were no explicit threats. Instead, there was the offer of a conditional truce:
"We fought with you because we are free, and we don’t put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you.
"I wonder about you. Although we are ushering the fourth year after 9/11, Bush is still exercising confusion and misleading you and not telling you the true reason. Therefore, the motivations are still there for what happened to be repeated."
I wonder about us, too. Are we so narcissistic that we are deaf to all voices other than our own? Are we a nation condemned to talk endlessly to itself, like some madman one might encounter wandering the streets in a daze, a danger to himself and others? In this speech, bin Laden tries to reason with his enemies, and this, I submit, is far more dangerous than all his threats combined.
An attempt at conciliation often precedes an unprecedented assault, and there is no doubt that, for all this administration’s boasting that they have "taken out" three-quarters of the al-Qaeda leadership, the wily mastermind of 9/11 has the power to strike us in places and ways yet to be imagined.
So let us examine what he had to say, objectively and dispassionately, with the understanding that the first rule of warfare is to know your enemy.
The first observation to be made is that bin Laden has here refuted the canard that he is in any way akin to a Western-style nihilist, along the lines of Nechaev or some punk rocker with a ring through his nose and a swastika carved into his forehead. The analysis proffered by CIA analyst Michael Scheuer in his most recent book, Imperial Hubris, is confirmed: they are over here because we are over there. Context – the context of American foreign policy – is key to understanding the genesis and rise of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden puts it like this:
"And I will talk to you about the reason for those events, and I will be honest with you about the moments the decision was made so that you can ponder. And I tell you, God only knows, that we never had the intentions to destroy the towers.
"But after the injustice was so much and we saw transgressions and the coalition between Americans and the Israelis against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, it occurred to my mind that we deal with the towers. And these special events that directly and personally affected me go back to 1982 and what happened when America gave permission for Israel to invade Lebanon. And assistance was given by the American sixth fleet.
"During those crucial moments, my mind was thinking about many things that are hard to describe. But they produced a feeling to refuse and reject injustice, and I had determination to punish the transgressors. And as I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same – and that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children."
During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 14,000 Lebanese civilians were killed by the IDF in the first month, and their Christian Falangist allies were unleashed at Sabra and Shatila, murdering hundreds and horribly mutilating their bodies in an orgy of killing fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. As James Bovard, author of the indispensable Terrorism and Tyranny, reminds us:
"As fighting between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon escalated, the original U.S. peacekeeping mission became a farce. The U.S. forces were training and equipping the Lebanese army, which was increasingly perceived in Lebanon as a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim force. By late summer, the Marines were being targeted by Muslim snipers and mortar fire. On September 13 Reagan authorized Marine commanders in Lebanon to call in air strikes and other attacks against the Muslims to help the Christian Lebanese army. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger vigorously opposed the new policy, fearing it would make American troops far more vulnerable. Navy ships repeatedly bombarded the Muslims over the next few weeks."
The original mandate of the American peacekeepers was quite different, however: Yasser Arafat and his PLO fighters had been offered a deal, brokered by the Americans, to leave Lebanon, on the condition that the peacekeepers would protect the remaining Palestinians from the rampaging Israelis and their Christian Falangist puppets. Instead, Palestinian noncombatants had been butchered with the aid and assistance of the Israelis. As John H. Kelly, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (1986-88) pointed out in an excellent Rand Corporation study,
"During the autumn of 1982, the presence of the Marines in Beirut began to take on an additional meaning which was never publicly acknowledged. The Marines became a bargaining chip in the complex international maneuvering that the United States was fostering. There were active negotiations among the United States, Israel, and Lebanon over the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the terms of a possible treaty between Lebanon and Israel. The presence of the Marines provided leverage in putting pressure on the Government of Lebanon to accede to Israeli demands. The presence implied some measure of protection for the Lebanese authorities against those Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Arabs who adamantly opposed any normalization between Lebanon and Israel."
America became Israel’s instrument in a war where, for the first time since the days of the Barbary pirates, U.S. guns were trained on Arab Muslims. The Sixth Fleet bombarded the Shi’ite suburbs of southern Beirut, and lobbed bombs into the mountain areas, where their targets were Druze militiamen. The U.S. had shed the pretense of neutral arbiter, the ostensible basis for the intervention, and allowed itself to be drawn into the Lebanese civil war – on the side of the Israelis and their Lebanese sock puppets.
In what little analysis there has been of his actual words since the release of the videotape, bin Laden is accused of being disingenuous in this case because, after all, in 1982 al-Qaeda had yet to be founded. It’s true that bin Laden had just been recruited by the CIA to help organize and lead the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. But his acceptance of U.S. assistance against the Communist enemies of Islam hardly rules out U.S.-Israeli collaboration in Lebanon as the true genesis of his ire at the Americans. In that sentiment, bin Laden was hardly alone. As Bovard notes in his book:
"On June 14, 1985, two Arab terrorists hijacked a TWA flight out of Athens and forced it to land in Beirut. Robert Dean Stethem, a Navy seaman, was executed by the hijackers and his body dumped out of the airplane. … One hijacker kept shouting ‘New Jersey! New Jersey!’ at the terrified passengers, referring to the U.S. battleship New Jersey that rained down hundreds of 2000 pound shells on Lebanon the previous year. The U.S. bombardment killed an unknown number of civilians; Navy Secretary John Lehman had predicted the shelling would kill ‘the odd shepherd.’"
An aggrieved relation of one of those "odd shepherds" would, some 20 years later, wreak his vengeance. As Juan Cole points out,
"One of the 9/11 hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, was a Lebanese Sunni who was 8 when the Israelis invaded his country and wrought so much destruction. He obviously was deeply traumatized by the experience."
As both Scheuer and Peter Bergen maintain, it is wrong to assert, as many analysts do, that bin Laden’s preoccupation with the Palestinian question and opposition to Israeli aggression is of recent vintage, opportunistically adopted in order to broaden his base of support.
It is also wrong that he is waging war against the American Bill of Rights, that he wants to destroy our culture, behead Britney Spears, and cancel The Simpsons. As Bergen puts it, "he does not care what we do in our backyard. He cares what we do in his."
Al-Qaeda’s appeal is based on bin Laden’s ability to persuade the Muslim mainstream that the U.S. has embarked on a war against Islam, and that it is necessary to wage a defensive jihad. U.S. foreign policy since 9/11 has confirmed al-Qaeda’s analysis, in spades, and bin Laden can’t help but mock his enemies even as he seems to be proposing an end to hostilities under certain conditions. No, it wasn’t Sweden that empowered the Israelis and their Lebanese allies to carry out an infamous massacre of women and children: the warlords of Stockholm did not rain death on Iraq and snuff out 100,000 civilian lives. One can’t imagine the Swedes carrying on in the manner of Abu Ghraib: their burgeoning pornography industry allows them to harmlessly act out their darker and steamier impulses at home, instead of on the battlefield.
Bin Laden spends quite a bit of time laughing at us: at our "presidents" who act like Middle Eastern potentates, at the spectacle of George W. Bush "more interested in listening to the child’s story about the goat rather than worry about what was happening to the towers." While it has been much remarked that the Evil One seems to have been influenced by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which features this infamous incident prominently, what goes unremarked is the contention that Bush’s curious inaction meant "we had three times the time necessary to accomplish the events" – a bit of information bin Laden is certainly in a position to know.
"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda," says bin Laden. "Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked."
What is astonishing about this statement is that it manages to accomplish and encompass so much in so few words. To begin with, he speaks of "us," as if he represented the entire Muslim world – and who can deny that, in an important sense, he does? Reviled in the West as a mass murderer and medievalist madman, in the East he is a folk hero more famous and honored than Saladin. Instead of isolating bin Laden and his followers as a fanatical fringe element, U.S. policy in the region – especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq – has allowed him to pose the question in terms of "us" versus "them," East versus West, as if he were the undisputed leader and defender of Islam worldwide.
Secondly, bin Laden, with this statement, reiterates the principal selling point of his movement, which is the religious duty of all Muslims to fight a defensive jihad. "Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked."
Additionally, he throws a peace offering into the mix, and, intriguingly, even a bit of self-deprecation: in acknowledging that we could undermine al-Qaeda’s assault on our security simply by changing our policy of perpetual war on the Muslim world, bin Laden underscores his own potential weaknesses. We are told that the CIA is currently poring over the videotape, looking for clues and significant nuances, if not hidden messages to sleeper cells. Hopefully, they’ll stumble over this not so hidden clue to the mystery of bin Laden’s success.
Scheuer said it best: we have created, in bin Laden, “the enemy we want, not the one we face." The image that we’re supposed to buy into – bin Laden as a terrorist madman who revels in the destruction of all things Western, and seeks to impose a World Islamic Caliphate that would enforce sharia from Islamabad to Iowa – has been shattered by this latest video performance, in which he comes across as a kind of Elder Statesmen of Islam under siege.
Very few have confronted the essential truth of what bin Laden is saying, because the truth hurts – especially if spoken by a mass murderer who is an avowed enemy of the United States. But unless we face the hard truths that his rise forces us to confront, he will defeat us. Yes, as he puts it, we can take our security into our own hands: the American people can demand a change in U.S. foreign policy.
We have sacrificed American interests in the Middle East by pursuing an Israeli-centric foreign policy. The invasion of Iraq – arguably the worst foreign policy decision since U.S. entry into World War I – is a disaster that has swelled the ranks of al-Qaeda so fast that one high-ranking member, according to Scheuer, called it "the gift that was not quite expected." A gift from George W. Bush and the neocons, that is.
This gets to the core issue in the dispute between the War Party and its opponents on both the left and the right. The neocons contend that we cannot negotiate with "terrorists" because it only encourages them: they will demand more, and yet more, until, in the end, there is nothing left to surrender and our women are all wearing chadors. We cannot negotiate because the terrorists are beyond reason, and are motivated by a religious rage that can never be appeased or in any way ameliorated.
What this latest video visitation proves beyond doubt, however, is that bin Laden is not only a rational actor, but also a master strategist and politician. He is focused on waging a war for limited, quite specific, and often enunciated objectives, which all boil down to ending U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, especially via Israel. The military aspect of his campaign, culminating in the 9/11 atrocity, is only a secondary adjunct to the far more important political and propagandistic arm of his movement, which seems to inspire nothing less than a worldwide Muslim insurgency. Bin Laden may be a madman, after all, but if so he is hardly alone in his madness. As Scheuer bitterly observed:
“As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each – a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Now’s the time for election day predictions, and so here goes: it’s Bush by a relatively substantial margin in the popular vote. Sorry, folks: I call it how I see it.
But there’s one possible glitch in all this that could prove potentially explosive: the Colorado initiative that would award the state’s 9 electoral votes proportionately. If the system had been in effect in 2000, Al Gore would be president. Will Kerry take it on a technicality, losing in the popular vote but winning in the Electoral College?
Boy, would that ever put a stop to all that loose talk about how the Republicans stole the election last time around! It would almost be worth a Kerry victory, if achieved in this manner, just to see how liberals would come to appreciate the elitism of the Founding Fathers, and the wisdom of that old-fashioned conservative aphorism that America is a republic, not a democracy.
I’m not telling anyone how to vote, but merely informing you of my own plans, here. Oh, and here’s another perspective, one that I would probably share under ordinary circumstances, but I won’t go into that just now. Suffice to say that, the next time you check in here, you’ll probably be reading about the dire situation that we all face – no matter who wins. And that is the sad fact that we have to face head on: it isn’t going to be easy. But there you have it. The anti-interventionist movement must – and will – continue to put pressure on whichever of the candidates emerges as the victor, and in both cases we certainly have our job cut out for us.