In this past week's statement bin Laden noted:
And if you would like to get to know some of the reasons for your losing of your war against us, then read the book of Michael Scheuer in this regard.
In fact, Michael Scheuer's understanding of bin Laden and al Qaeda may well be more penetrating than that of any other observer in the U.S. or Europe. Scheuer has written two worthwhile books: Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future ofr America.
Bin Laden is probably referring to the first book, Imperial Hubris. Scheuer was the CIA's leading expert on bin Laden and al Qaeda before he was made to feel unwelcome and essentially forced out of the Agency after publishing Imperial Hubris anonymously in 2004.
In Scheuer's view bin Laden is certainly not crazy. He is highly intelligent, and he speaks coherently and persuasively to his audience. He is regarded throughout the Arab World as astute and dignified, and he appears to possess genuine charisma. He has excellent organizational skills, and he thinks strategically. He has the capacity to imbue his followers with great loyalty and sense of mission--even unto martyrdom for his, and their, cause. Watch video of him closely. He does not rant. He does not rave. He does not foam at the mouth. He does not gesticulate manically like Der Führer or stare wild-eyed into the camera. He appears to speak with conviction and with gravitas. At least most Arab observers think so.
Perhaps the most important point Scheuer makes is that bin Laden does not hate the U.S. or its (or other Western) people for what they are or for what they personally believe. He is opposed to specific U.S. policies in the Arab and Islamic World and seeks to organize and inspire resistance to those policies.
In Imperial Hubris Scheuer boils down bin Laden's world view to opposition to six major elements of U.S. policy:
(1) Unquestioning U.S. support for Israel, especially U.S. support for Israel's heavy-handed treatment of Palestinians.
(2) The presence of U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Laden and his sympathizers view this presence as an occupation.
(3) The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, and now of Iraq.
(4) U.S. support for what bin Laden considers to be the suppression of Islamic minorities in Russia, China, and India.
(5) U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep the world markets awash in sufficient oil to keep oil prices low for the U.S. and other Western powers. Bin Laden believes that more oil revenues should be allocated for the benefit of Arab peoples.
(6) Closely related to (5) above, U.S. support for what bin Laden asserts are apostate, corrupt, tyrannical governments in the Islamic world, as in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and North Africa.
In short, bin Laden does not rail against the U.S. and other Western countries because they are "free," because they are "modern," because they are "Christian," or even because they purport to be "secular" (though he asserts that Americans would be more happy if they were to adopt Islam). He rails against them because of specific U.S. (and allied) policies--military, political, and economic--that he and his followers believe harm ordinary people in the Islamic World.
Bin Laden uses the imagery and vocabulary of Islam in making his points to his Arab and Islamic audience, much as George W. Bush, Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards, or Bill O'Reilly will use the imagery and vocabulary of the Judeo-Christian tradition to make points to their audiences. But bin Laden is not a raving religious fanatic. He is fundamentally a political revolutionary with a strong sense of suffered injustice, a sense which is shared by much of his audience and which he can therefore effectively manipulate for his political aims.
So is Osama bin Laden truly "evil?" Most people who lost family members at the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 would probably consider him to be evil. Was President Ronald Reagan evil? Most residents of Beirut who lost family members when the USS New Jersey rained 2,700 pound Mark 7 shells on residential neighborhoods in 1983 during the Lebanese Civil War probably considered Reagan to have been evil. Bottom line? Bin Laden is no more evil than other revolutionary leaders in other times or even than ordinary national leaders who propel their countries to war for "national honor," or to acquire the resources of others, or even to "do good."
So if bin Laden, if looked at dispassionately and analytically, is neither absolutely "crazy" nor utterly "evil," what is he?
Bin Laden is a serious and wily adversary who knows how to manipulate the Arab "street." He is intelligent and well-informed-- clearly far better informed about the U.S. and the West than the apparatchiks and their bosses in the current White House are informed about him and his region of influence. Bin Laden thinks strategically and takes the long view; he is tactically flexible and is not afraid to retreat to attain an ultimate strategic advantage. Unfortunately for the U.S., he probably has a 40 point I.Q. advantage over the current occupant of the White House.
In short, we should not risk underestimating bin Laden by dismissing him out of hand as "crazy" and "evil."
The Most Recent Video Statement: What Does bin Laden Seek?
So what messages is bin Laden delivering in his latest video? You can read the English translation and decide for yourself. Here are a few things which struck me as significant.
Bin Laden states that since the "...11th,...many of America's policies have come under the influence of the Mujahideen...." He asserts that America's:
...reputation worsened, its prestige was broken globally and it was bled dry economically, even if our interests overlap with the interests of the major corporations and also with those of the neoconservatives, despite the differing intentions.
Read that passage twice. Perhaps we are missing something in the translation from the Arabic, but bin Laden appears to be stating that the interests of the Mujahideen overlap with the interests of major corporations and of neoconservatives. How on earth could that be?
Here are a few excerpts that illustrate this critically important point:
...there has been an increase in the thinkers who study events and happenings, and on the basis of their study, they have declared the approach of the collapse of the American Empire.
Among them is the European thinker who anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union, which indeed fell. And it would benefit you to read what he wrote about what comes after the empire in regard to the United States of America. I also want to bring your attention that among the greatest reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union was their being afflicted with their leader Brezhnev, who was overtaken by pride and arrogance and refused to look at the facts on the ground.
The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush....
The unnamed "European thinker" is of course Emmanuel Todd, who forecast the collapse of the Soviet Empire in his The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere, published in 1976. Todd's book on the crumbling Soviet sphere was remarkably prescient, and in 2002 he turned his attention to America's global status in his After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order.
Todd's argument, which has been much discussed among European intellectual and political elites, is that in the relatively near term America's financial indiscipline and runaway consumption habits will result in a crash leading to a necessary 15 to 20 percent reduction in American living standards. Todd reasons that the U.S., despite its military prowess, simply lacks the power to enforce its hegemony everywhere it wishes and that its increasingly fragile, debt-dependent economy cannot sustain for long such an overreaching imperial policy.
Todd describes the U.S. as a "superpower living hand to mouth," led by a ruling class "even more rudderless and clueless than its European counterparts," and incapable of achieving its global aims through repeated applications of "theatrical micromilitarism." Todd argues that the disintegration of American hegemony already is in full swing, and he predicts that the Bush American Administration and its neocon theorists "will go down in history as the gravediggers of the American empire." (I diaried Todd's analysis in April here at Daily Kos.)
Bin Laden's thrust thus becomes clear: U.S. corporate interests (presumably Big Oil, Big Guns, and various Big Contractors) that benefit from the global "War on Terror," as well as neoconservative ideologues who argue for U.S. military interventions in Islamic states to create a "new order" in the Middle East, ultimately serve the interests of the Mujahideen, who wish to drain the U.S. military and economy in order to bring about the collapse of the American Empire, just as they believe that their jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan led directly to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
From bin Laden's and al Qaeda's viewpoint, so far, so good. In their view, U.S. policies and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East provided the tinder. Bin Laden and al Qaeda have struck the match. And now they seem to believe that the U.S. is pouring onto the flames the fuel with which it will scald and eventually incinerate its own military and economy.
Here is bin Laden's analysis of the U.S. role in Iraq:
Then Bush talks about his working with al-Maliki and his government to spread freedom in Iraq but he in fact is working with the leaders of one sect against another sect, in the belief that this will quickly decide the war in his favor.
And thus, what is called the civil war came into being and matters worsened at his hands before getting out of his control and him becoming like the one who plows and sows the sea: he harvests nothing but failure.
What threats does bin Laden make or imply in his video statement? Here is a direct one:
The first is from our side, and it is to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you. This is our duty, and our brothers are carrying it out, and I ask Allah to grant them resolve and victory.
While Juan Cole correctly points out that bin Laden and al Qaeda have little influence on events in Iraq, Cole suggests--mistakenly, I believe--that bin Laden's message is essentially a call for increased jihadi resistance to U.S. troops in Iraq. In the overall context of the statement bin Laden seems rather to be looking at the conflict from a more global perspective--not merely in Iraq, but certainly also in Afghanistan and anywhere that the right conditions exist. Bin Laden elsewhere in his statement mentions the millions of displaced persons in Africa, a displacement he attributes to global warming brought about in large degree by ",,,emissions of the factories of the major corporations." It appears as though bin Laden may be signalling that he sees the chaos in East Africa as promising arena for escalating jihad.
Bin Laden criticizes the American electorate for returning Bush to power for a second term, and he asserts that by doing so, American voters gave Bush a "...clear mandate from you - with your full knowledge and consent - to continue to murder our people in Iraq and Afghanistan." Translation: Americans share the guilt of their leaders, and all are therefore fair game for Mujahideen.
Bin Laden also mocks both the Democrats and the anti-war movement in the U.S.:
Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital. And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn't be any cause for astonishment - and there isn't any - in the Democrats' failure to stop the war. And you're the ones who have the saying which goes, "Money talks." And I tell you: after the failure of your representatives in the Democratic Party to implement your desire to stop the war, you can still carry anti-war placards and spread out in the streets of major cities, then go back to your homes, but that will be of no use and will lead to the prolonging of the war.
Bin Laden has harsh criticism for the U.S. news media:
And...your information media, during the first years of the war, lost its credibility and manifested itself as a tool of the colonialist empires, and its condition has often been worse than the condition of the media of the dictatorial regimes which march in the caravan of the single leader.
What does bin Laden call upon the U.S. to do? Convert to Islam. Of course, it is unlikely that he makes this call from any sense of realism; it appears more to be grandstanding to his "Base," his audience in the Arab "street." Also, having called upon Americans to convert to Islam, he can claim that he has acted according to Islamic precepts before ordering further attacks.
Bin Laden does adopt some of the "leftist" rhetoric cited by Juan Cole. Bin Laden asserts that:
...as you liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system.
If you were to ponder it well, you would find that in the end, it is a system harsher and fiercer than your systems in the Middle Ages. The capitalist system seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of "globalization" in order to protect democracy.
OK. Now We Know How Osama bin Laden Thinks and What He Is Trying to Accomplish. So What Can We Do About It?
Even Michael Scheuer, though he makes an extensive laundry list in Imperial Hubrisof remedies that could be tried, really does not offer a compelling, coherently strategic answer. (Full disclosure: I have not read Scheuer's second book, Through Our Enemies' Eyes. Maybe the best answer does lie there.)
But maybe we could start by not reflexively pouring more military fuel on political, economic, social, and cultural fires? Merely ratcheting up military pressure--conventional ground, massive air strikes, or special forces--against mainly indigenous insurgents embedded among local populations is simply not working.
Start by reflecting on the six policy issues identified by Michael Scheuer. How many of these policies truly serve vital U.S. national interests?
One could reasonably argue that cheap oil (i.e., No. 5 above) is important to the U.S. economy. However, if we accept the increasingly convincing data supporting the concept of Peak Oil, the prospect of ensuring cheap oil supplies for very much longer seems to be beyond reach. The sooner we accommodate ourselves to this emerging reality of oil scarcity, the better.
So why not reframe the whole debate with an obvious question: is the current U.S. policy of interventionism to secure access to cheap oil (by invading countries to secure drilling rights for ExxonMobil, Chevron, British Petroleum, and Royal Dutch Shell) really less costly--in terms of treasure and of blood--than to refrain from military intervention (except as a very last resort to ensure freedom of transit) and to let the petroleum exporting countries and the petroleum importers arrive at mutually agreed prices for crude?
And could we take a portion of the literally trillions of dollars devoted to seizing and occupying countries possessing oilfields, natural gas deposits, and pipeline rights-of-way and instead invest it in more efficient petroleum technologies (encouraging a hybrid in every driveway) and better yet, in alternative and renewable sources of energy?
The U.S. would still need a robust Navy to discourage potential threats to vital shipping lanes and to prevent piracy (No. 2 above). Hence a naval (and likely air) presence in the Middle East would continue to serve U.S. interests. But are imperial police actions, air-launched devastations, and festering occupations really solving any of our problems? The U.S. really is not very good at conducting such occupations successfully when faced with stiff indigenous opposition, as we have found out in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and in a rapidly deteriorating Afghanistan. The U.S. position in Iraq is deteriorating as well, with any conceivable satisfactory resolution no nearer now than in 2003--no matter how creatively Gen. David Petraeus, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, and Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner have sought to cook and obfuscate the numbers since the "surge" began.
The other major issue, of course, is Israel. But what U.S. interest is served by indulging the Israeli Right and Far Right (No. 1 above, and a key irritant throughout the Arab World)? With probably several hundred nuclear weapons in its arsenal, Israel surely has a sufficiently credible nuclear deterrent to assure its continued existence. Israel can take care of itself. And with this kind of nuclear deterrent, should not reasonable Israelis be able to summon the confidence to engage the Palestinians and other neighbors to bring about a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement? Would it really be so inconceivable for Israelis to treat the Palestinians as respected neighbors rather than as untermenschen to be suppressed and dispossessed in perpetuity? And if Israel can return the Sinai to Egypt, why can it not return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria?
As for the brittle Arab monarchies or more conventional dictatorships that the U.S. helps to prop up (No. 6 above), why should we feel compelled to make extraordinary efforts to sustain them on life support? Why not let them sort things out and transform themselves as best they can? If the U.S. wishes to have any influence on the transformations, would it not be better to aspire to serve as a worthy model with some traits worth emulating, rather than as a too-eager interventionist seeking to impose its views and norms on alien cultures?
Even if Osama bin Laden ends up serving as the revolutionary catalyst for some regime changes in the Islamic World, it will be the societies themselves that will reorganize, reconstruct, and manage themselves. Bin Laden will never become some sort of menacing, all-powerful "Caliph," and given the ethnic and national differences within the Arab and Islamic Worlds, neither will anyone else. Such a threat is a bogeyman created by the willfully ignorant or the merely delusional.
The U.S., if it is sensibly introspective about its true "vital" interests before its self-infliected wounds become critical, may yet manage to remain prosperous and survive as one great power among several.
But the U.S. simply cannot afford to behave like a global hegemon, especially an eagerly interventionist one, in perpetuity. The U.S. economy cannot sustain such a role.
Is it not time to turn away from following bin Laden's agenda, which, oddly enough (as bin Laden himself observes) is congruent with the neoconservative agenda and the corporatist agenda: seeking more U.S. military interventions in the Islamic world, resulting in more violent resistance to U.S. military occupations, more strain on the U.S. economy (and perhaps even a structural breakdown), more fissures in U.S. alliances, and ultimately the collapse of the "American Empire?"
Why is the U.S. playing a game with the rules set by Osama bin Laden?
Are we truly stupid?
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