Dead Empire Walking: On Playing into Al Qaida's Hands
We have, once again, played right into Osama bin Laden's hands. This might seem like an odd assertion, since the al-Qaeda mastermind is finally dead at the hands of U.S. Special Forces, most heads of state have voiced their congratulations, and practically the entire U.S. citizenry is unified in celebration.
But Osama bin Laden always understood that the weak use the weapons of the powerful against them, such as U.S. airplanes against U.S. skyscrapers. The weak also lull their opponents into thinking that they have won the war when in fact they have only triumphed in a skirmish.
Martyrdom is the preeminent weapon of the weak, and bin Laden has long courted a martyr's death. He didn't want to end up like Saddam Hussein, who looked like a hunted animal when U.S. soldiers extracted him from his hiding hole. Bin Laden didn't want to go on trial and be executed like a common criminal. He wanted to go out in a blaze of gunfire, the jihadi version of Butch Cassidy.
The U.S. government reports that bin Laden resisted arrest. No doubt it would have been extremely difficult to thwart his desire for martyrdom, bring him back alive, and pump him for information. Still, the value of subjecting bin Laden to the rule of law would have been incalculable. Instead, bin Laden will enter history as a legend not as a man. His quick burial at sea may well generate a wave of conspiracy theories, a "Deather" movement to parallel the Birthers. Prepare for three more decades of Osama sightings in the Muslim world that rival the once-strong U.S. tabloid obsession with Elvis.
There might also be blowback from the killing. "Al-Qaeda affiliates may speed up operations that were in the pipeline," writes Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker. The Taliban is reportedly preparing a new set of attacks. Fresh from its recent reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas condemned the killing of an "Arab holy warrior" but hasn't vowed anything in the way of retaliation.
But the real blowback will be much more subtle than a military tit for tat. The weak can't afford direct confrontation. There will be legal, religious, and economic ramifications, and they will again follow bin Laden's script, not out own. On the legal side, bin Laden's strategy has been to corrode the machinery of the nation-state. A fervent believer in a global caliphate, bin Laden viewed sovereignty and the rule of law as obstacles in the path of establishing one world under his version of Islam. His assassination calls into question the adherence of the West to its vaunted principles of justice, much as the support for Hosni Mubarak and other Arab dictators called into question the West's commitment to democracy.
Bin Laden's death sends a particular message about the abuses of state authority — why is the United States in the business of targeted assassination? — that may resonate in the Islamic world. Likewise, with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf condemning the attack as an infringement on his nation's sovereignty, bin Laden in death has been able to drive a further wedge between Washington and Islamabad.
The religious wedge is larger still. Bin Laden, an unabashed partisan of holy war, divided the world into believers and infidels, with the latter category including many Muslims that he considered apostates. In his speech announcing the death of bin Laden, President Barack Obama was careful to "reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al-Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own."
Obama is correct, at least in terms of bin Laden's actions and U.S. intentions. But the perceptions of the last decade's wars are another matter entirely. Washington has waged conflict in predominantly Muslim countries. And these battles have been accompanied by a wave of Islamophobia that have swept through the United States and Europe (not to mention South Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world).
Obama ended his address with what has become a customary presidential sign-off: "May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America." If the wars we pursue aren't crusades strictly speaking, they nevertheless approach the level of holy war when the commander-in-chief invokes God and large sections of the military view their mission as God-given.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, bin Laden understood quite well the economic implications of the battle he launched. He had witnessed the Soviet Union's collapse, and he wanted to repeat the trick with the last empire standing. Nine years ago, in Osama bin Laden's Secret Strategy, I wrote that al-Qaeda viewed bankruptcy as the path to ruin for the United States. "The United States may look healthy enough at the moment, with the world's largest economy and largest military," I wrote. "But we also shoulder nearly $6 trillion in national debt, which current military spending and tax cuts are only increasing. The war on terrorism, with no end in sight, may very well push us over the economic edge."
Since that 2002 essay, the U.S. national debt has more than doubled. A good chunk of that money went toward the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, alongside the ballooning military budget. Many of the costs — in terms of lives ruined and opportunities missed — are only starting to hit us now. We might be already over the edge, like Wile E. Coyote spinning his legs and unaware that the ground has dropped away beneath him. Dead empire walking.
The terrible irony is that, in terms of their influence in the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been a dead end for a long time. Most strands of Islamism renounced the caliphate-through-violence strategy long ago. Modern Islamists participate in elections, support nation-states, and embrace modernity. The Arab Spring, as my colleague Phyllis Bennis points out, is only the latest example of non-violent, political efforts to transform the Middle East and North Africa. Osama bin Laden's greatest magic trick was to persuade the United States and its allies to expend enormous sums of money to fight a small, isolated, and anachronistic force that operated on the very margins of the Muslim world.
Martyrdom, holy war, the lure of power and economic profligacy: with these weapons of the weak, al-Qaeda has drawn the United States into a conflict that has sapped our moral, political, and financial resources. We have persuaded ourselves that we're in control, even in this last act of extrajudicial killing. But even here, bin Laden has managed to glorify himself at our expense.
These are the tools of bin Laden. We are the tools of bin Laden.
© 2011 Foreign Policy in Focus