[A-List] The War Bin Laden Wanted

Bill Totten shimogamo at attglobal.net
Sat Oct 30 17:06:55 MDT 2004

How the US played into the terrorist's plan

by Paul W Schroeder

The American Conservative (October 25 2004 issue)

George W Bush's re-election campaign rests on three claims, distinct but 
always run together: that the United States is at war against terror, that 
it is winning the war, and that it can ultimately achieve victory but only 
under his leadership.

The second and third propositions are hotly debated. Critics of Bush contend
that the US is losing the struggle against terror on the most important fronts
and that only new leadership can bring victory, but except for a few radicals,
no one denies that the struggle against international terrorism in general and
groups like al-Qaeda in particular constitutes a real war. The question comes up
in the campaign only when Republicans such as Vice President Cheney charge that
Democrats view terrorists as mere criminals and do not recognize that the
country is at war. The charge, though false - no Democratic leader would commit
political suicide by even hinting this - is effective politically.

Some experts on international law and foreign policy object to calling the
struggle against terrorism a war, pointing for example to the legal problem of
whether under international law a state can declare war on a non-state movement
and claim the rights of war, or arguing that terrorism constitutes a tactic and
that no one declares war against a tactic. Both arguments indicate the sloppy
thinking that pervades the rhetoric of the War on Terror. The first point,
moreover, has important practical consequences for such questions as the
treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere, and for our
relations with allies, other states, and the UN. Yet these kinds of arguments
seem too academic to matter. The general public can hardly understand them, much
less let them influence their votes.

Other reasons, however - different, more powerful, highly practical, and
astonishingly overlooked - argue against conceiving of the struggle as a war and,
more important still, waging it as such. The reasons and the logic behind them
are somewhat complicated, but the overall conclusion is simple: by conceiving of
the struggle against international terrorism as a war, loudly proclaiming it as
such, and waging it as one, we have given our enemies the war they wanted and
aimed to provoke but could not get unless the United States gave it to them.

This conclusion is not about semantics or language but has enormous implications.
It points to fundamentally faulty thinking as one of the central reasons that
America is currently losing the struggle, and it means that a change in
leadership in Washington, though essential, will not by itself turn the course
of events. What is required is a new, different way of thinking about the
struggle against terrorism and from that a different way of waging it.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda repeatedly and publicly declared war on the United
States and waged frequent attacks against its property, territory (including
embassies abroad), and citizens for years before the spectacular attack on 9/11.
This admission would seem to destroy my case at the outset and end the
discussion. If bin Laden and al-Qaeda declared war on the United States and
committed unmistakable acts of war against it, then obviously the US had no
choice but to declare war in reply, just as it had to do so against Japan after
Pearl Harbor.

No, not really. Some other obvious facts also need consideration. First, states
frequently wage real, serious wars of the conventional sort against other states
without declaring war or putting their countries on a war footing. In the latter
20th century, this practice became the rule rather than the exception. Korea and
Vietnam are only two of many examples. Second, revolutionary and terrorist
organizations and movements have for centuries declared war on the governments
or societies they wished to subvert and overthrow. Yet even while fighting them
ruthlessly, states rarely made formal declarations of war against such movements.
Instead, they treated these groups as criminals, revolutionaries, rebels, or
tools of a hostile foreign power, not as organizations against which a
recognized legitimate government declares and wages war.

The reasons are obvious. A revolutionary or terrorist movement has much to gain
from getting a real government to declare war upon it. This gives the movement
considerable status, putting it in some sense in the same league with the
government with which it is now recognized as at war. No sensible government
wishes to give such quasi-legitimacy to a movement it is trying to stamp out.
Consider Napoleon's treatment of the insurrection in Spain from 1808 to 1813.
The insurgents had powerful claims to belligerent status and even legitimacy.
They maintained a government in a small corner of Spain, represented the former
legitimate Bourbon government Napoleon had overthrown, included the regular
Spanish army, and were supported and recognized by a major power, Great Britain.
But Napoleon always insisted they were nothing but brigands, used this
designation as justification for the brutal campaign he waged against them, and
acknowledged a state of war with them only when, defeated in Spain and on other
fronts, he decided to cut his losses, evacuate Spain, and make peace with them
and the Bourbon regime.

Other reasons further explain why legitimate governments have not declared war
on terrorist or revolutionary organizations that waged war against them - for
example, the fact that when one declares war one has to operate under the
prevailing laws of war, and these can be constricting for a legitimate
government, as the United States is currently finding out in Iraq, Afghanistan,
and elsewhere. Thus declaring a war on terrorism and waging it as a genuine war
has to be justified as an exception to a powerful rule, not accepted as the
obvious response to a terrorist attack.

Readers may find this an impractical, academic argument and respond, "So what?
This is a unique situation. Our country never faced a threat just like this
before. Besides, what difference does it make what you call a campaign against
terrorism if in fact you intend to wage an all-out fight to exterminate
terrorist organizations with every weapon at your command? In practical terms,
that is war, whatever name you use for it, and it is good for the American
public, the world, and the enemy to face it."

Again, not so fast. The issue is not whether the American public after 9/11
needed squarely to face the fact that the United States had been attacked by a
dangerous enemy and had to fight back. It still needs to understand this - and
does. Neither is the issue whether in fighting back the US had a right to use
military force against that enemy anywhere (though only where) it was sensible
and practical to do so. Those points are not in dispute. The relevant, practical
questions instead are, first, whether it was necessary to declare war on that
enemy in order to confront the attack and fight back with every useful means,
including military force. As just indicated, the historical and practical answer
to that question is no. Second, was a public declaration of war against
terrorism in general needed to prepare psychologically for a serious campaign
against the enemy? The reaction of the American public and virtually every other
government and people to the 9/11 attack and the subsequent American
counterattack makes clear that for this purpose a formal declaration was
unnecessary. The support in America and abroad for a powerful campaign against
al-Qaeda was overwhelming.

The only question left is the one central to the argument: did the American
government, by constantly and solemnly declaring the nation at war against
terrorism and repeatedly summoning the rest of the world to join up or else be
ranked among America's enemies actually help or hurt the campaign against the
terrorist enemy?

The natural response might be, "How could the declarations of war possibly have
hurt? Even if they were not strictly necessary, they served to unite the
American people and gird them for possible sacrifices and losses and to rally
the rest of the world behind the American effort. What harm did they supposedly

It was never in dispute that Osama bin Laden deliberately, repeatedly, and in
the most spectacular way possible provoked a war with the United States. What
should that tell us? Why did he do this? What was he after?

Once again this looks like an intellectual befogging the issue and ignoring the
obvious. Osama bin Laden did this because America is his enemy. He hates America
and its ideals, America stands in the way of his creating the kind of world he
is fanatically determined to bring about, and so he declared war on America and
tried to destroy it and kill as many Americans as possible. This interpretation
is perfectly understandable and defensible from a moral and emotional standpoint.
Unfortunately, it is counterproductive from the standpoint of rational analysis
and policymaking.

Two vital principles in foreign-policy thinking are, first, know the enemy -
this means doing one's best to enter into his thought world and decision-making
processes, to think from his presuppositions and standpoint - and second, expect
a hidden agenda and look for it. Assume that the enemy's decisions and actions
have a purposive rationality behind them, that he hopes to achieve by them some
concrete result that is rational in terms of his goals and worldview, however
fanatical, irrational, or simply evil his actions may seem.

Apply these two principles to the question here. Take for granted that Osama bin
Laden is an evil fanatic, totally determined to pursue his goals and wholly
unscrupulous in the means he is willing to use to reach them. But assume also
that he is highly intelligent, shrewd, patient, and focused in his strategy.
Supposing this and knowing that he is the leader of a relatively small, highly
secret terrorist organization, strong in devotion to its cause but weak in both
numbers and weapons in comparison to the resources available to any major state,
much less the world's one superpower, ask yourself: why would he go out of his
way to challenge that superpower with its awesome array of resources and weapons,
deliberately provoking it into declaring war to the death upon him and his
organization? The enormous risks are obvious. What were the potential gains?

Any serious and unemotional consideration of this question makes it apparent
that the answer "He hates America and wants to destroy it" will not do. If that
were his concrete strategy and end, that would make him a fool, which he is not.
Any fairly intelligent person would know that an attack like that of 9/11, or
even ten such attacks, would not suffice to defeat the United States or make it
give up the struggle against terrorism and accept the unhindered spread of
radical revolutionary Islam in the world. Any intelligent person would instead
expect the attack on the American homeland to have precisely the political,
psychological, and military effects it actually had - to mobilize the government,
the American public, and many of its allies around the globe for an all-out
struggle against al-Qaeda and international terrorism. Anyone with intelligence
would also have anticipated the huge risks to himself and his organization from
the inevitable counterattack - a military campaign by an overwhelmingly superior
foe against his political base and secret camps in Afghanistan, blows to his
cells wherever they could be found, international police, intelligence, and
financial measures against his organization on a vastly increased scale, heavy
pressure on regimes that had secretly supported or tolerated his activities to
crack down on them, the imprisonment or death of anyone in al-Qaeda's ranks from
bottom to top - in short, all the measures that the Bush administration carried
out and has trumpeted as successes in the War on Terror. Why would bin Laden
knowingly risk all this for the sake of an attack, however spectacular, that he
knew would not seriously damage the United States as a nation?

Two replies frequently offered need to be considered before getting to the real
answer. Each, though superficially more plausible than "He did it because he's
evil", is fundamentally no more satisfactory. The first is that bin Laden did it
to demonstrate the power, bravery, skill, and fanatical resolve of his
organization and thereby gain new recruits and allies. This is undoubtedly true
in a sense but far too vague. As just noted, the overwhelming surface
probability was that the attack would result in gravely weakening and
threatening al-Qaeda. That is certainly what the Bush administration confidently
promised. Why precisely did bin Laden expect, against all probabilities, that
the attack would eventually expand and strengthen his organization and cause?

The second reply is that the 9/11 operation was intended as only one step in a
long campaign against the United States, a kind of dress rehearsal for worse
blows, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological, or
chemical. Once again, this argument makes no sense. If one intends to start a
long campaign to destroy the enemy, one does not begin with an action that can
be expected to galvanize rather than cripple the enemy and make him more
prepared to anticipate, prevent, and counter new attacks. It would be as if
Japan in 1941, having decided to fight the United States and needing first of
all to cripple American naval power in the Pacific, chose to attack by bombing
buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The only sensible answer, once the foolish and inadequate ones are discarded, 
is that Osama bin Laden anticipated the American reaction and wanted it. His
purpose in attacking the United States directly in its homeland was to get the
American government to do what it had not done in response to his previous
attacks: to declare an all-out war against him and al-Qaeda and a worldwide War
on Terror led and organized by the United States, with every other country in
the world summoned to follow and support or be considered an enemy. That seems
to deepen the puzzle. Why thus deliberately multiply the ranks of his enemies
and organize their efforts under the leadership of a single, powerful, aroused

The answer, if one thinks about it free from emotion and preoccupation with
oneself, is clear. Deliberately provoking the United States into open, declared
war against him, his forces, radical Islamism, and worldwide terrorism was bin
Laden's way of expanding a struggle he was already waging but losing, one he
could not win on account of its insoluble contradictions, into a larger war free
from internal contradictions that he could hope ultimately to win. To put it in
a nutshell, Osama bin Laden needed the United States as a declared enemy to
enable him to win his war against his primary enemies and thus achieve his goals.

To understand this, we need once again to take bin Laden's fanatical ideology
and his hatred for the United States and the West for granted and concentrate on
his situation and the purposive rationality behind his tactics. Consider his
central goal - a Muslim world ruled by true Islamic law and teaching, purged of
all evil, materialist, secular, infidel, and heretical influences. Of course he
regards the West, especially the United States, as the source of many of the
evils corrupting and oppressing Islam and would like ideally to destroy it, but
the immediate obstacles to achieving his vision and the main foes to be overcome
have always lain within the Muslim world itself. (There is a good parallel here
with 16th-century Europe. The Ottoman Turks were the great military and
religious threat to Christendom, but the most bitter quarrels and wars were
between Christians of different creeds, churches, rulers, and countries.) The
obstacles he faced consisted of the divisions in sects, beliefs, and world
visions within Islam; hostile governments ruling in Islamic countries, virtually
all of whom regarded his kind of Islamic radicalism as a threat to their rule
and were determined to repress it; and the attitude of most Muslims, loyal to
their creed but unwilling to sacrifice what security and well-being they had in
his kind of jihad. Osama bin Laden tried to overcome these obstacles and foes
directly but the struggle, besides being difficult, dangerous, and largely
unsuccessful, was inherently divisive and counterproductive. It meant pitting
Muslim against Muslim, alienating more followers and potential recruits to the
movement than it attracted, and giving free rein to the spread within Islam of
infidel influences from outside while Muslims fought each other.

There was, however, one good way to overcome these obstacles - that is, to unite
Muslims of divergent beliefs, sects, and visions against a single foe; to
discredit, paralyze, and possibly overthrow secular Muslim governments; and to
galvanize more believers into that suicidal zeal that al-Qaeda and its kindred
organizations need as a baby needs its mother's milk. That way was to make the
United States, already the Great Satan in much of the Muslim world for a variety
of reasons - its support of Israel against the Palestinians, its support of
corrupt dictatorships and secular regimes, its encouragement of Iraq's war
against Iran and toleration of Saddam Hussein's atrocities, its later conquest,
humiliation, and ongoing punishment of the Iraqi people through sanctions, its
long record of imperialism, its greed for Arab oil, its military occupation of
sacred Muslim soil, its penetration of Muslim societies with its decadent
culture and values - declare open war on him and his followers united in a true,
heroic Islamic resistance movement.

The solution, further, was if possible to provoke the US into actually attacking
Muslim countries, using its awesome weapons against pitifully outmatched Muslim
forces, destroying and humiliating them, killing and wounding civilians and
destroying much property, occupying more Muslim land, and miring itself in an
attempt to control what it had conquered and to impose its secular values and
institutions on Arab and Muslim societies. From this would arise the chance to
demonstrate that faithful Muslims under leaders and movements like bin Laden and
al-Qaeda could be David to America's Goliath. If they could not immediately slay
the oppressor, they could survive its onslaught, grow and spread despite it, and
gradually reduce it to a helpless giant, isolated from its former friends,
trapped in an interminable occupation of hostile territory and peoples, with its
armed forces stretched thin and its awesome weapons unusable, while al-Qaeda and
similar groups could continue to launch even bolder attacks against it or anyone
still associated with it.

That, I believe, is a reasonable rendition of Osama bin Laden's hopes and
strategy. It was a tremendous gamble, of course, and he could not possibly have
predicted exactly how it would turn out. But it is beyond doubt that his gamble
succeeded, that for more than three years after 9/11 things have generally been
going his way, and that he could not have achieved this huge, improbable victory
without indispensable American help. In declaring and waging a War on Terror
with al-Qaeda as its initial announced focus and the United States as its
self-acclaimed World Leader, America gave bin Laden precisely the war he needed
and wanted.

One can anticipate at least three reactions to this conclusion (three that are
printable, that is). Starting with the least important, they are:

1. This is all hindsight, Monday-morning quarterbacking.

2. Given the circumstances, there was nothing else the United States could have

3. Even if this is all true, it is water under the bridge, useless in deciding
what to do now.

The first is easy to answer. Hindsight is a good exercise in politics,
especially for the public at election time - but this is not that. Quite a few
observers warned about these dangers at the time, and I was among them. In an
article written just after 9/11 and published in November 2001 ("The Risks of
Victory", The National Interest, Winter 2001/2002) I argued, among other things,
against allowing a necessary and justified military campaign in Afghanistan to
draw us into leading a general War on Terror in the wider Middle East and the
world. More warnings were included in my "Iraq: The Case Against Preventive War",
appearing in this journal in October 2002. Mine was only one voice in a steady,
growing chorus, though one always drowned out by crowds of raucous hawks.

The second objection has a little more substance. Certainly 9/11 required strong
action including military measures against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the
natural, inevitable war psychology pervading the country had to be reckoned with.
Yet as was pointed out earlier, these needs required actions like those taken
initially more than words. As far as the public rhetoric and justification was
concerned, nothing hindered the administration from conceiving and explaining
the undertaking differently both to the American public and the world,
especially the Arab-Muslim world that was Osama bin Laden's real target.

There is little point now in drafting the kind of address Bush should have
delivered to Congress and the public. But one can readily imagine an American
president (though not Bush) persuasively making the two cardinal points. First,
the United States intended to pursue al-Qaeda with all the weapons at its
command on grounds of legitimate self-defense and, while respecting the rights
of other countries, would allow no one to interfere with these actions. It would
not, however, dignify al-Qaeda's atrocious crimes by calling them acts of war or
give Osama bin Laden and his fellow criminals what they obviously wanted, a
pretext to portray themselves as soldiers in a holy war against the United
States. Instead, it would pursue them ruthlessly the way civilized nations had
always pursued criminal organizations, as international outlaws and pirates,
enemies of all governments and of civilization itself, and it expected other
countries to co-operate in this struggle.

Second, the United States recognized that though it was the direct target of
this attack and that in one sense it represented al-Qaeda's final enemy and
target, it was not the country most menaced by the current threat from al-Qaeda
and international terrorism generally. As bin Laden well knew, neither this
attack nor possible future ones, tragic though the individual deaths and losses
were, could really hurt the United States, much less deter it from its purpose
of hunting down the criminals behind the atrocities. The attack instead had
already had just the opposite effect. It had strengthened the country and united
Americans and their friends throughout the world for a long struggle against him
and his fellow terrorist criminals. America's government, institutions, and
civil society were rock solid. It had no homegrown terrorist organizations to
fear or ethnic and religious differences for terrorists to exploit. Its
relatively small Muslim population was well integrated and overwhelmingly loyal
to the United States, thankful for its blessings and freedoms.

Many other countries in the world could not say this, especially the Arab and
Muslim countries that Osama bin Laden wanted to subvert and revolutionize as he
had already done in Afghanistan. These countries and governments had the most to
fear from al-Qaeda and international terrorism; they and not the United States
were the real targets of the 9/11 attack. Even America's European allies and
friends, sound though their countries and institutions were for the most part,
had more to fear directly from terrorism than the United States, given their
large unassimilated Muslim populations and their proximity to the Middle East.
The United States was, of course, vitally concerned with the general problem of
international terrorism. It had interests around the world to protect, including
those in the Middle East and other threatened regions. Nonetheless, this was not
first and foremost America's problem, nor was it America's place primarily to
provide the solution. The terrorists wanted to make the United States appear an
imperialist Great Satan imposing its will and its solutions on others and
forcing them to follow its lead. America would not fall into that trap. The US
had a particular right and duty to its citizens and the world to pursue al-Qaeda
and exterminate it as a criminal organization. It would help, advise, support,
and even where specifically desired lead others in the global struggle against
terrorism. But it would not try to force others who had an even greater and more
immediate stake in that struggle to do what their own self-interest ought to
compel them to do, nor would it try to dictate the kinds of internal measures
and reforms they needed to take to combat the common enemy.

That kind of language would have done everything language can do both to free
the United States to attack al-Qaeda and to put pressure on other governments,
especially in the Middle East, to confront their own problems and
responsibilities and seek help if necessary from the United States, rather than
hiding behind it. It also would have undercut the al-Qaeda strategy of making
the United States into the main enemy, helped place responsibilities where they
belonged, and galvanized genuine world support in the struggle against terrorism.
What is more, it would have been entirely consistent with the campaign against
terrorism the United States actually waged at the outset. That was very much an
international effort, a largely proxy war directed but not mainly fought by the
US and focused strictly on destroying al-Qaeda's organization and governmental
base - until this focus was foolishly abandoned to attack Iraq.

To heighten the irony, this kind of language would have conformed to the actual
wartime policies the administration has followed. Let us be honest: the "War on
Terror" in America is basically a sham, a charade. While great, even ultimate
sacrifices have been demanded of relatively few, chiefly those in the armed
forces, for the overwhelming majority of Americans having the country at war has
meant massive tax cuts, exhortations to spend and consume, enormous deficits,
politics and government spending as usual - in short, no wartime sacrifice at
all. The rest of the world knows this and sees the hypocrisy, if we do not.

As for the last reply, that this argument now represents water under the bridge,
useless for current or future policy, if that were true, it would constitute the
most devastating indictment of the Bush strategy possible. It would mean that
the administration had so ruined America's position that nothing could now
remedy it. But it is not true. This administration's policy deserves harsh
condemnation for the reckless incompetence that has made the way out now much
more painful and costly, but a way out still lies in recognizing that the United
States needs to abandon not the struggle against international terrorism but the
conception of that struggle as a war fought and led mainly by the United States,
making itself the chief target of the enemy.

This is a change only a new administration could make, though obviously not
during the electoral campaign, when it would be suicidal. Once in office,
however, it could claim that it had found things to be even worse than it knew
and could make the kind of 180-degree turn Bush executed after his election. A
gradual disengagement from Iraq and re-concentration on Afghanistan and Pakistan
in the pursuit of al-Qaeda, a devolution of tasks onto the UN and NATO on the
grounds that even the best meant efforts of the United States are frustrated by
the fact that it is seen as the enemy by too many in the region, a willingness
to admit past mistakes and agree to focus co-operatively on other problems as
well - all this would become possible, though not easy, if only the current
American war mentality and psyche gave way to a saner one. This still could
happen - but of course not under Bush.


Paul W Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champagne. His most recent book is Systems, Stability and Statecraft:
Essays in the International History of Modern Europe.

Copyright 2004 The American Conservative


Please also see:-

"Why Have We Suddenly Forgotten Abu Ghraib?"
by Robert Fisk, The Independent (Counterpunch, September 28 2004)

"No Change in US Torture Policy - Amnesty"
by Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service (October 29 2004)

"America's tortuous road to Abu Ghraib"
by Alfred W McCoy, Asia Times (October 16 2004)

"This Strips Away the Last Vestiges of Moral Authority"
by Robin Cook, Independent/UK (August 27 2004)

Bill Totten     http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/

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