In a way, it is interesting that a lot of the initial commentary on Bin Laden’s death focused on the question of whether or not it was proper and seemly to celebrate his death.
I find that troublesome. Allow me to suggest that a nation which can devote so much of its public discussion to such an issue had best be a nation that has nothing at all in the world to be concerned about. For focusing on that particular issue is a bit like someone who is being stalked by a murderer focusing on the murderer’s atrocious sense of fashion.
I’m certainly neither an historian nor a political scientist, but it seems to me that it has been a long time since this country had anything approaching a thriving deliberative democracy. Maybe it’s the fact the mainstream media has been taken over by large corporations that seem much more bent on feeding us entertainment than hard news. Or maybe it goes deeper than that and reflects the 100 year long assault to change Americans from citizens into consumers that was largely begun by that contemptuous and fearful man, Edward Bernays. Most likely, it’s a combination of many factors.
But whatever the causes, I think it can be safely asserted that we Americans do not, by and large, publicly deliberate much in the way of genuinely serious issues.
Having said all of that, there are, of course, some important exceptions. On May 2nd, Foreign Policy published an article by counter-terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross that asks the genuinely pressing question of whether — or to what extent — Bin Laden might have won.
I suspect that is not a question any politician in America willingly wants to publicly raise. Yet, if our leaders have the genuine interests of the country at heart, they had best be asking that question of their advisers — at least privately. It might be even better if there were a widespread public debate of the question.
At any rate, Gartenstein-Ross argues that Bin Laden’s strategy — which is likely to outlive him — consists of two pillars. The first pillar is to trick the US into bankrupting itself:
Indeed, bin Laden has spoken of how he used “guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt.” He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions — and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, “continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that “thinkers who study events and happenings” were now predicting the American empire’s collapse. He gloated, “The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush.”
The second pillar of his strategy is broaden and spread the struggle against America to all parts of the Muslim world. In a sense, that is classic Clausewitz: He was — and his successors most likely still are — attempting to deprive America of any support or ally in the Muslim world.
The irony is Bin Laden needed — and he got — the cooperation of the United States in achieving his twin goals. You cannot bankrupt a superpower merely by flying planes into its two tallest buildings. But you can anticipate that the superpower will respond to such an attack in ways that are severely detrimental to its economic and political interests.
Ezra Klein has made an attempt to calculate the cost of the American response and, while that cost is disputable, it might easily be in the trillions of dollars. It also seems rather obvious that, for various reasons, American prestige in the Muslim world has significantly declined in the aftermath of 9/11.
So, did Bin Laden win?
I myself largely agree with Klein’s assessment: “He may not have won, but he did succeed, at least partially. But then, we can learn from our mistakes. He can’t.”
What do you think, though? Did Bin Laden win? And, if so, to what extent did he win?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what can the US and its allies do to combat Bin Laden’s successors? For, if Gartenstein-Ross is correct, Bin Laden’s successors will continue to employ the same strategy against us that Bin Laden did.