Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Pre-9/11 Mindset

Thomas Hegghammer has a very interesting piece on the state of insight into the phenomenon of terrorism:

...[T]he lack of understanding about the enemy has led to serious inefficiencies and excesses which are starting to become publicly known. An astronomical sum of money has been spent on counter-terrorism and homeland security, much of which has gone to private American consultancies with questionable expertise. Then there is the human cost of the search for enemies. The Kafkaesque conversations between detainees and their accusers at Guantánamo Bay reveal a US military with a chronic lack of accountability and a poor understanding about the Middle East and Islamic activism. The security establishment was not alone in its ignorance about jihadism. Middle East scholars on both sides of the Atlantic had long shunned the study of Islamist militancy for fear of promoting Islamophobia and of being associated with a pro-Israeli political agenda.

Citing some of my personal favorites such as Peter Bergen and Marc Sageman, Hegghammer shines a light on Bin Laden - in his own words:

Those who wonder why it has taken so long to establish a reliable account of Bin Laden’s deeds will be even more surprised to learn how long it took simply to report his words. Since the early 1990s, Bin Laden has been screaming for attention, always declaring his intentions before putting them into practice. Yet it was not until 2005 that these declarations were made available to a broader Western public with the publication of Messages to the World, a reader of Bin Laden’s texts edited by Bruce Lawrence...This collection of annotated and edited translations of twenty-four of Bin Laden’s most important statements between 1994 and 2004 is a far better resource than the translations circulating on the internet. Bin Laden’s proclamations are, of course, hate speech, calling for the mass murder of civilians; but those who expect religious ranting will be surprised. There are no complex theological arguments, for the simple reason that Bin Laden’s intended audience, the Muslim masses, are not versed in the technicalities of Islamic jurisprudence. Bin Laden’s discourse is profoundly political and elegant in its simplicity. It is populism at its most effective and most frightening.

Osama bin Laden’s central theme is the suffering and humiliation of the Muslim nation (the umma) at the hands of non-Muslims. He conveys a pan-Islamic nationalist world view according to which the umma is facing an existential threat from outside forces led by the US. Bin Laden’s principal rhetorical device is the enumeration of symbols of suffering – examples of situations where Muslims have been humiliated or oppressed by non-Muslims, such as in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and, above all, his homeland, Saudi Arabia, where the US military “occupies” the holy places of Islam. The only way to defend against this onslaught, he argues, is to confront America militarily.

Given the nature and focus of Bin Laden's rhetoric and propaganda, it is easy to see how and why invading Iraq with bombastic shock and awe, shortly after invading Afghanistan, was such a strategic gaffe. Amongst other things, it equipped Bin Laden with an arsenal of bloody images of innocent Muslim men, women and children to go along with his seductive oratory (not to mention Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other predictable atrocities that come part and parcel with war - especially when administration leaders sanction torture). The prolonged occupation provides constant succor to Bin Laden's hearts and minds campaign. Seen in this light, the invasion of Iraq is a policy that reveals the flaws in the Bush administration's approach - a mindset that has consistently ignored, downplayed and neglected the actual terrorist threat facing this country since before 9/11 to the present.

Bush's invasion of Iraq was not only a propaganda boon for Bin Laden, however. Hegghammer explains how Bush and Cheney helped Bin Laden snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a tactical sense:

Bin Laden’s intention was to provoke a US invasion of Afghanistan, whereupon the US would get stuck, like the Soviet Union had done in the 1980s, and eventually collapse from the economic burden of the war. It is ironic that the US would later choose to place itself in the situation envisaged by Bin Laden, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq.

While the US hasn't quite "collapsed" due to the strain of the Iraq war, the war has been an enormous drain on a wide array of limited, valuable and, in some instances, irreplaceable resources: From the lives of soldiers lost or diminished to death and injury, to the widespread non-reenlistment of the cherished officers class, to the lowering of standards in recruitment to make up for lack of interest (a corrective measure that greatly lessens fighting capacity).

Then there is the expenditure of trillions of dollars, which in turn has necessitated the neglect of other vital initiatives in need of funding: From Social Security, to health care, to the rapidly deteriorating environment and an infrastructure in need of overhaul in order to maintain the lead in economic advancement.

Not to be underestimated, there are the diplomatic costs, the loss of standing in the world, the ceding of the moral highground, the tainting of the democratization movement, the neglect of Afghanistan and the inattention to countless other exigent circumstances - including, and especially, al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself.

In furtherance of irony, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, and his supporters, focus on the fear that if we leave Iraq, al-Qaeda will be "emboldened" or that, shudder, al-Qaeda might "claim victory." As if continuing to conduct ourselves according to the Bin Laden playbook is going to cause Bin Laden to lose heart. By further bleeding resources as Bin Laden hoped, we'll deny Bin Laden his...victory?

Hegghammer calls attention to one other bit of information that is worth emphasizing:

Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era. [emphasis added throughout]

Those that promulgate the notion that the Israel/Palestine conflict is irrelevant to terrorism tend to be the same people that argue that no matter what we do, terrorists will "hate us anyway" - so don't bother changing. These are specious arguments marshaled by those that do not want to offer any concessions or compromises in connection with the legitimate grievances that, in part, fuel anti-Americanism and terrorism (from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and beyond).

That - not an aversion to tangentail preemptive war or a defense of civil liberties - is what can accurately be described as the pre-9/11 mindset.

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