War on Terror Considered

Last week Mark Danner wrote an essay for the New York Times assessing the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the consequent “war on terror.” Although no fan of the way the Administration has handled things, Danner’s sober analysis is not the same ilk as the tripe one hears from the President’s most vocal opponents (as an aside, I note that Cindy Sheehan now calls for Bush to “pull our troops out of occupied New Orleans”). Instead, he gives a short history of bin Laden and his associates and examines in what ways those terrorists have failed and succeeded.

According to Danner, bin Laden’s goal has been to advance Islam by making the U.S. look weak, much as he did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Power, particularly imperial power, rests not on its use but on its credibility; U.S. power in the Middle East depends not on ships and missiles but on the certainty that the United States is invincible and stands behind its friends. The jihadis used terrorism to create a spectacle that would remove this certainty.

. . .

The 9/11 attacks were a call to persuade Muslims who might share bin Laden’s broad view of American power to sympathize with, support or even join the jihad he had declared against the “far enemy.” “Those young men,” bin Laden said of the terrorists two months after the attacks, “said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world. The speeches are understood by both Arabs and non-Arabs – even by Chinese.. . .[I]n Holland, at one of the centers, the number of people who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were more than the people who accepted Islam in the last 11 years.” To this, a sheik in a wheelchair shown in the videotape replies: “Hundreds of people used to doubt you, and few only would follow you until this huge event happened. Now hundreds of people are coming out to join you.” Grotesque as it is to say, the spectacle of 9/11 was meant to serve, among other things, as an enormous recruiting poster.

One of bin Laden’s stated strategies for weakening the U.S. has been to isolate it incrementally from its allies.

When, during the summer of 2003, the Bush administration seemed to be reaching out to the United Nations for political help in Iraq, insurgents struck at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the talented envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others and driving the United Nations from the country. When the Americans seemed to be trying to attract Arab forces to come to Iraq to help, the insurgents struck at the Jordanian Embassy, killing 17. When the Turks offered to send troops, the insurgents bombed the Turkish Embassy. When nongovernmental organizations seemed the only outsiders still working to ease the situation in Iraq, insurgents struck at the Red Cross, driving it and most other nongovernmental organizations from the country.

Insurgents in Iraq and jihadists abroad struck America’s remaining allies. First they hit the Italians, car-bombing their base in Nasiriyah in November 2003, killing 28. Then they struck the Spanish, bombing commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, killing 191. Finally they struck the British, bombing three London Underground trains and a double-decker bus this July, killing 56. It is as if the insurgents, with cold and patient precision, were severing one by one the fragile lines that connected the American effort in Iraq to the rest of the world.

Danner suggests that bin Laden sought to draw the U.S. into a conflict with a Muslim country, a conflict that through its Al Jazeera-broadcast images would turn the Arab world against the U.S. Bin Laden thought that conflict would occur in Afghanistan, but what happened there largely worked against his expectations. Rather, the war in Iraq provides for bin Laden the opportunity to disgrace the U.S. in battle. Al Qaeda operatives are counting on Americans’ weak stomach for war, and if recent political polls are any indication, their estimation is correct: U.S. citizens (and their leaders) seem to be casting about for the quickest way out of Iraq. Such a withdrawal, which looks like defeat, reinforces bin Laden’s narrative, in which the evil Superpower falls before the plucky Islamic warriors.

I agree with Danner about the existence of a weak national will, but I think we the American people deserve more blame than he allots. However, I too have been baffled by the way the Administration has justified and handled the war in Iraq. In early 2003 I was certain that the President’s threats were simply saber-rattling meant to force the hand of Hussein. I was shocked when he launched the invasion, and I still am not certain why he did so.

Of the many reasons that American leaders chose to invade and occupy Iraq – to democratize the Middle East; to remove an unpredictable dictator from a region vital to America’s oil supply; to remove a threat from Israel, America’s ally; to restore the prestige sullied on 9/11 with a tank-led procession of triumph down the avenues of a conquered capital; to seize the chance to overthrow a regime capable of building an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons – of all of these, it is remarkable that the Bush administration chose to persuade Americans and the world by offering the one reason that could be proved to be false. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction, and the collapse of the rationale for the war, left terribly exposed precisely what bin Laden had targeted as the critical American vulnerability: the will to fight.

Note: Due to the New York Times‘ foolishness and fickleness regarding archived articles, I’ve quoted from the original article so that you can read it here.

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