Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Never Let 'Em See Ya Sweat

Ken Lovell at Road to Surfdom flags a particularly odious bit of rhetoric from John Hawkins. Hawkins not only defends Australian Prime Minister John Howard's recent demagoguery aimed at Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party in general, he takes it many steps deeper into the "sewer." I'll leave it to the reader's discretion whether you wish to click through to Hawkins' vitriolic tantrum, or not. There is one aspect of his rant that I did want to address, though, due to its increasing popularity of late, and its dubious basis in history and fact.

Osama Bin Laden thought the United States was a paper tiger that had no appetite for a protracted battle against terrorism, even if we were winning. So, he hoped to draw us into a long battle and win after we quit.

Similar variations of this contention can be heard from various pro-war pundits and politicians, who warn us that leaving Iraq before...well, before some as of yet undetermined milestone or date would only confirm Bin Laden's suspicions of our lack of resolve.

According to the more popular variation of this argument, bin Laden was motivated to launch the 9/11 attacks because of what he perceived as our weakness. He thought he could "defeat" us - whatever that means - because we retreated in Vietnam, Somalia and Beirut, so al-Qaeda struck. Therefore, a confirmation of this belief as manifested by our (premature?) withdrawal from Iraq would only lead to more attacks. He would think he was winning - whereas our unflinching refusal to leave Iraq no matter the costs would communicate to him in no uncertain terms that he was losing.

Like most good propaganda, this narrative weaves in and out of fact and plausibility but, also like most good propaganda, the underlying assertions are tendentious and premised on half-truths and outright fabrications.

To understand why this argument fails to line up logically, it is important to analyze what bin Laden's goals are/were, and how the perception of America's relative aversion to conflict interacted with these designs. Here is a slightly oversimplified version useful to this conversation, but my preemptive apologies for some of the heuristics employed and shortcuts taken for the sake of brevity. Even then, some might question my use of the term "brevity."

Zawahiri and bin Laden are motivated in their cause largely by the desire to see the Muslim world return to the position of global prominence that it enjoyed centuries ago. They are profoundly disturbed by what they perceive as the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the West, in terms of the disproportionate distribution of wealth, power and influence and how these disparaties translate into conquest and imperialism (of all sorts). This is part of why bin Laden was so offended by US troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia circa Gulf War I.

This shameful posture of powerlessness only reminded him of the feckless nature of the Saudi ruling faction, as well as what he deemed its obsequious submission to American hegemony. Recall, bin Laden himself offered his cadres of Afghan mujahadeen to the Saudi leadership as an alternative to the Americans defending Saudi Arabia's border at this time. He was rebuffed and this wounded his pride deeply.

These events and related circumstances, as well as a zealous, if misguided, religiosity, inform the beliefs of violent Salafists like bin Laden and Zawahiri. For them, the only way for the Muslim world to regain its past glory, and surpass the West in all significant respects, would be for the larger Muslim world to adopt the true and pious interpretation of Islam (akin to the Taliban's rendition) as implemented by a far-reaching, unifying and powerful Caliphate. Having "purified" the Muslim world through the adoption of this truly devout version of the faith, Allah would once again bestow his blessings on the Muslim world and glory would return.

Thus, the ruling regimes in the Muslim world were seen as obstacles since they were corrupt, secular and/or Western leaning, and not pious enough or exacting enough on the underlying populations, to inspire Allah to usher in the era of Muslim renaissance (Saddam, being particularly secular for the region, was considered a prominent target by al-Qaeda).

Initially, al-Qaeda and their ideological forebears/brethren targeted these "apostate" regimes in an effort to topple them and rally more Muslim brothers to the cause. The tool they used was the one that most maximalist, uncompromising political/religious groups employ when they lack the capacity for success in full on conventional military confrontations: terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

What al-Qaeda soon learned, however, was that killing fellow Muslims in an attempt to usher in regime change was alienating too many of the victims and their countrymen to yield the desired results. Besides, such piecemeal attempts at destabilization through sabotage were futile while America was propping up these "puppet" governments with military, diplomatic and economic aid.

Thus, the US became a logical target. A two-fer actually: by targeting the US, al-Qaeda could win supporters, not create local enemies. Also, once the US withdrew its support for these "apostate" regimes (retreating from the al-Qaeda onslaught), the corrupt governments would be easier to topple with the suddenly more popular movement.

That is where bin Laden's estimation of American resolve as informed by events in Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia comes in. Osama believed that the US had no appetite for high rates of casualties, and that therefore once enough pain were inflicted, the US would simply accede to the demands of al-Qaeda by removing itself physically, and withdrawing its support economically and politically, from the region. Thus weakened and isolated, these regimes would be ripe for overthrow.

As an aside, bin Laden also thought that the US might at some point lash out wildly against him in Afghanistan. He believed, however, that this US aggression would rally the Muslim world, that he could defeat the Americans there like he did the Soviets, and that in the process the US would bleed enormous amounts of blood, treasure and prestige, while al-Qaeda's popularity and prominence would surge.

But here's the catch: after the attacks in Yemen, Kenya Tanzania (Saudi Arabia?) and the US on 9/11, the US did not decide to cut off aid to the region's "apostate" regimes or withdraw its military/diplomatic/NGO presence. Osama had miscalculated. Also, the invasion of Afghanistan did not yield any of the benefits he expected along the alternate path. Unfortunately, though, the subsequent invasion of Iraq gave him an all too adequate consolation prize.

But if one understands that bin Laden's ultimate goal was to force us to withdraw from the region, and eliminate the flow of support and aid to the regimes that al-Qaeda was targeting for overthrow, it is hard to see how leaving Iraq would make him any more likely to strike the US in order to achieve this. To the extent that he drew hope that we would shrink away from al-Qaeda's attacks based on what he perceived as our lack of resolve, this was proven to be wrong. Our presence in the region has not significantly waned - if anything, our support for, and reliance on, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is stronger due to Iran's ascendancy.

On the other hand, our continued presence in Iraq is helping to destabilize the region, ramp up radicalization, win recruits and generally create conditions whereby al-Qaeda must consider its prospects somewhat brighter for realizing its ultimate end game: motivating enough fellow Muslims to join in a region wide ideological battle against the corrupt regimes, on the side of "righteousness" and anti-Western chauvinism.

Although dubious, the claim that our disengagement from Iraq will lead to the emboldening of terrorist groups that would now attack us out of a misinformed sense of our weakness makes for frightening rhetoric. And we all know that the manipulation of fear is a potent political tool. But it doesn't always succeed.

Just ask bin Laden.

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