Published on Tuesday, July 12, 2005 by the Providence Journal (Rhode Island)
What We Can Do About Al-Qaida
by John R. MacArthur
|My first thought when I heard the news of the bombings in London, which included blowing up a double-decker bus, was of the upper-level bus ride I recently took with my kids along Oxford Street before attending the Mary Poppins matinee; the second was about George Bush's childish dare of "bring 'em on" to Arabs who didn't like the American-British invasion of Iraq.|
Well, it looks as though al-Qaida brought it on last Thursday, and there's no real-life nanny to say "spit spot" and clean up the bloody mess spawned by Boy George's 1001 Arabian fantasies. I wonder how Tony Blair feels about the Anglo-American "special relationship" now that his imperial capital has been shaken, literally at its core, by people mainly angry at the U.S.A.
The British prime minister seems a bright man, if a deeply cynical one, and I suspect that underneath the TV bluster about "resolve," "resilience," and "stoicism," he is reconsidering his commitment to the cretinous and self-defeating policies of the current administration in Washington. If he isn't, he's a fool. Since the Madrid train-station bombing, the Spanish government is doing very nicely out of Iraq, able to concentrate its efforts more constructively on rounding up the killers who committed the crime, instead of safeguarding "democracy" in the Green Zone.
Blair's first statements after the London bombings didn't mention any resolve to keep British troops in Iraq -- indeed, he wisely didn't mention Iraq at all.
Then again, Bush's British sidekick has never been keen on moral reflection or honest self-examination. Long before the Downing Street Memo surfaced, a French diplomat told me that between Blair and Bush, he found Blair the more odious, since the British leader knew that Bush was going to war no matter what the U.N. said -- yet he insisted, for cosmetic purposes, on dragging the world through the charade of Security Council "consultation" up to the very last minute. Blair lied (more articulately than Bush) about Saddam's weapons arsenal before the invasion, and he could very well continue lying to justify the mad project of re-colonizing the Mideast.
But that doesn't mean the people of the U.K. and the U.S. need go along, or that Britain can't act independently from Uncle Sam. During the 1950s and '60s, the "special relationship" went only so far: In 1956, President Eisenhower halted the British-French attempt to repossess the Suez Canal, and in the 1960s Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to participate in America's Vietnam debacle. Wilson, in particular, was responding to public pressure, from within his own Labor Party, as well as an aroused citizenry convinced that Vietnam was a doomed and irrational enterprise.
We can hope that the British people, dumbed down about history, like their American cousins, may yet recover their sanity (as might the Americans, perhaps led by a potential Republican dissident such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, R.-Neb.).
In any event, even assuming a return to rational analysis, the hard question remains: What is the United States to do about al-Qaida and its offshoots? Three years ago, intelligent people argued that an invasion of Iraq was the greatest gift that the Western powers could possibly bestow on Osama bin Laden. They have been proven right. The renegade CIA asset needs recruits willing to die for his ultimate ambition: that of seizing Islam's holiest sites from America's corrupt client, the Saudi royal family. What better advertisement for martyrdom than regularly televised scenes of the American Army flattening houses and killing innocent civilians in the name of secular democracy? The Soviets learned the hard way when bin Laden was their foe in Afghanistan.
Of course, freeing Iraq from American rule is just as much a pretext for bin Laden as Saddam's imaginary atomic-bomb program was for Mr. Bush. I doubt that the rich nightclubber - turned - puritanical religious fanatic cares a whit for the suffering peoples living under the boot of U.S. occupation.
But Blair is not as smart as I think if he really believes what he said on Thursday -- that "the purpose of terrorism is just that, to terrorize people." Bin Laden, like other terrorists before him (the Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army), has political objectives; his are part nationalist, part pan-Arab, and part religious. Criminal though he is, he cannot be dismissed as a mere practitioner of mayhem for the sake of mayhem.
Thus, the first move is the easiest one: a complete military withdrawal from Iraq. We did it in Vietnam, we survived, and today Conoco Phillips is drilling oil in the Gulf of Tonkin with the blessing of the communist Vietnamese government.
The second move is harder: disengaging from Saudi Arabia, its oil leverage, and its double-dealing support of radical Islamists (through myriad front groups), which hurts Israel as much as it hurts the U.S. I once asked Alon Pinkas, then Israel's consul general in New York, why his country didn't loudly denounce the Saudis for the subsidies they pay to the families of suicide bombers. He looked at me in astonishment -- how could I be so naive?
Such a thing simply could not be done, given the Gordian knot that binds the Saudi royals, Washington, and the Bush family. (Left- and right-wing critics of Israel take note: The Saudi lobby usually trumps the Israeli lobby.)
Distancing ourselves from Saudi Arabia would require a revolution in reduced energy consumption, but it's a price most Americans would gladly pay if they thought it would save lives. And wouldn't a truly independent Iraq be delighted to sell us all the replacement oil we need?
If an Islamic revolution topples the Saudi monarchy, so be it. The Wahhabi mullahs of Mecca don't want bin Laden as their head of state, and they would be just as happy to sell us oil as the Iranians would be if we stopped interfering in their domestic politics.
In short, we don't need more homeland security so much as we need a new foreign policy.
But there's a third thing to do that might deflate the bin Laden mystique and reduce the glamour of terrorism for angry young Arabs: We must capture and then try bin Laden for 9/11, in open court and on worldwide television. As a matter of simple justice and good politics, this country and the Islamic world need to see the robed one cut down to size and subjected to the rule of law.
And, assuming that bin Laden is convicted, we must not grant him the gift of a death sentence. Let's follow the French example with Carlos the Jackal -- former poster boy of international terrorism, now a comic figure left to making absurd declarations from his jail cell.
Easier said than done? No one outside the Bush inner circle knows the precise cost of the war and occupation, but it's safe to say that at least $150 billion of the $204 billion already appropriated has been spent on the Potemkin Village called the Iraqi nation. Do we really think that with a concerted effort by our best intelligence agents, Special Forces units, and bankers -- combined with political pressure on Pakistan's two-faced dictator -- we can't arrest bin Laden, who is probably hiding in Waziristan, in Pakistan on the Afghan border?
In 1994, the French apparently just bribed the Sudanese government to turn over Carlos the Jackal in Khartoum (where bin Laden, by curious coincidence, was also in residence). After the carnage of 9/11 and 7/7, we can afford to pay a premium in U.S. dollars and British pounds -- that is, unless Bush and Blair prefer bin Laden at large.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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