Sunday, August 17, 2008

Al Qaeda at 20: The terrorists contend with American fortitude 

As previously reported here and elsewhere, al Qaeda had its 20th anniversary this month. Terrorism expert (and no friend of the Bushies) Peter Bergen examines the highly politicized debate over al Qaeda's prospects, including whether it is stronger or weaker today than in years past. As with much that Bergen writes, one gets the sense that he is not quite saying everything that is on his mind. In particular, he generally concludes that al Qaeda's strategy has failed, seemingly because the government of the United States has pressed it in unexpected ways. "Seemingly," because Bergen does not give the United States or the Bush administration any actual credit, even as he leaves us with the impression that it is responsible for much of al Qaeda's strategic misfortune. I've highlighted the bits that seem like smart, but unacknowledged, Bush moves. Commentary follows.

Two decades after al-Qaeda was founded in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar by Osama bin Laden and a handful of veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the group is more famous and feared than ever. But its grand project -- to transform the Muslim world into a militant Islamist caliphate -- has been, by any measure, a resounding failure.

In large part, that's because Osama bin Laden's strategy for arriving at this Promised Land is a fantasy. Al-Qaeda's leader prides himself on being a big-think strategist, but for all his brains, leadership skills and charisma, he has fastened on an overall strategy that is self-defeating.

Bin Laden's main goal is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the governments in Cairo and Riyadh with Taliban-style theocracies. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States), then watch as the supposedly impious, U.S.-backed Muslim regimes he calls the "near enemy" crumble.

This might have worked if the United States had turned out to be a paper tiger that could sustain only a few blows from al-Qaeda. But it didn't. Bin Laden's analysis showed no understanding of the vital interests -- oil, Israel and regional stability -- that undergird U.S. engagement in the Middle East, let alone the intensity of American outrage that would follow the first direct attack on the continental United States since the British burned the White House in 1814.

In fact, bin Laden's plan resulted in the direct opposite of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. The United States now occupies Iraq, and NATO soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar, the old de facto capital of bin Laden's Taliban allies. Relations between the United States and most authoritarian Arab regimes, meanwhile, are stronger than ever, based on their shared goal of defeating violent Islamists out for American blood and the regimes' power.


The "paper tiger" thing deserves at least some elaboration, doesn't it? The United States did not have a reputation as a wimp until successive American presidents turned tail at the first punch in the nose. Carter wimped out massively during the hostage crisis, Reagan did not retaliate for Beirut (even the French bombed Hezbollah, but we did not), and Clinton fled from the Mog, did not retaliate for Khobar Towers, blew up a few camels with cruise missiles after the attacks on the African embassies, and did not respond to the attack on the Cole (because he did not want to anger the Palestinians, with whom he was trying to broker a last-minute deal). It took George W. Bush to put some spine back into the United States after more than 20 years of, well, spinelessness. Bin Laden did not misread history; he misjudged George W. Bush. As did many people.

Then there is the question of Iraq. It will take two generations to know whether Iraq turns out to have been "worth it". This much, however, seems obvious: Al Qaeda vowed to eject the United States from Iraq and it could not do so. First it tried direct attacks, but found that the United States Marines and Army were much harder targets than it anticipated. Then it tried to render the country ungovernable -- and thereby use American domestic politics to "defeat" the United States -- by sparking a civil war. To do that it needed to kill civilians. The almost unbelievably persistent Bush toughed it out, and when he finally found his general he pressed ahead with a strategy that was opposed, at least rhetorically, by most of the Congress. When Iraqis woke up and realized that al Qaeda was primarily killing innocent Arabs, al Qaeda had lost its war and broken its vow. Nothing defeats an ideology more resoundingly than blown credibility, and Iraq has been a big blow for al Qaeda.

Finally, there is the question of the ability of the Bush administration to work with its allies. Bergen says that our relations with other Arab regimes are "stronger than ever." Could it be because we have shown in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States still has the fortitude that made it great in the first place?

Fortitude. There's an interesting word that would seem to have some bearing on the presidential election, whether or not Peter Bergen would admit it.


By Blogger WomanHonorThyself, at Sun Aug 17, 10:17:00 PM:

Fortitude. There's an interesting word that would seem to have some bearing on the presidential election..indeed!..nice analysis>:)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 18, 01:11:00 AM:

The President once said that Al Queda expected us to file a lawsuit as a response to 9-11. Some people claim this would have been a better course. We will never know because we rerun the tape after we've made a few edits to see what would happen. However, I don't think a pile of paper would have stopped them the way the US Army and Marines have. Given the success the Saudis have had in enlisting American legal counsel to further their aims, it think it is clear that the United States has some real disadvantages fighting lawfare.

Yes, bin Laden misjudged George Bush, but he understands the Michael Moore left very well.  

By Blogger Donna B., at Mon Aug 18, 02:11:00 AM:

Fighting al Qaeda is a lot like clearing brush from pasture. Sure, it can be ignored for a while, but you can't simply let it take over.

I'm regularly vilified for my support of Bush and the Iraq war, but in 100 years, I think my support will be historically justified.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Mon Aug 18, 07:42:00 AM:

I agree. Bush will be fondly remembered by history...unless the success of his initiatives in fighting terrorism are re-engineered in some future Orwellian Ministry of Information.

With a left "leaning" media, our public face is not necessarily predictable to our enemies. Bin Laden gambled on a paper tiger. He was wrong this time. Hopefully we are not preparing for an administration that will reinforce the perception of American weakness.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 18, 09:17:00 AM:

I have read Peter Bergen.

I would trust Edgar Bergen's judgement more than Peter's. For those too young to recall, Edgar Bergen was a famous ventriloquist (mediocre at best), and a avowed leftist.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 18, 04:59:00 PM:

Good points raised in the excerpt and in your commentary. Let's hope these lessons are not ever forgotten.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 18, 05:10:00 PM:

To those who speak of the Iraq war as a failure, I point to the Korean war, unpopular,and fought to a barely satisfactory conclusion. And it may have been considered "not worth it" in the 50's. But it kept the South Koreans from being ... well ... North Korean. Now the South Koreans are wealthy and prosperous enough to be building a car factory a few miles up the road from me in Georgia. Bringing jobs, and creating more wealth.
I'm pretty sure the South Koreans now think it was worth it as do all the Georgians who will build and work in the car factory.  

By Blogger Consul-At-Arms, at Sun Sep 07, 12:52:00 PM:

I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2008/09/re-al-qaeda-at-20-terrorists-contend.html  

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