War of Attrition (against Terror)
If, as we are led to believe, Osama Bin Laden truly perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and is now alive and in hiding, I think we can be sure he regards this past decade as an unqualified success. His whole plan was to draw America into an expensive and pointless war with no clear end, and to be fair he said as much in his various audio and video statements, once going so far as to cackle: “All I must do is send a brother to the furthest mountain east and unfurl an Al Qaeda flag. The Americans will come running!” When one views the trillion-dollar deficits, the open-ended troop commitment (each soldier costs $1 million dollars) and the mass of cash printed to sustain these expenditures culminating in a financial crisis unthinkable in 2001, it seems Mr. Bin Laden could not have wished for better results. Keep in mind, of course, that he cares very little for the lives of his own countrymen (he demonstrated as much when he sacrificed the lives of those 11 WTC hijackers), and indeed, so far as one can tell from his cryptic and contradictory statements, his primary motivation was an outrage at the global power of the US and a desire to diminish that power by any and all means.
9/11 was a trap, and the US did exactly what was expected of it. We are now in our 9th year of war, and a significant portion of the Muslim world has hardened against us. What may once have been seen as a war against the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, is now increasingly seen as a war against Islam itself. How we came to be in this state of affairs, what we might have done differently and where to go now are the pressing questions of this decade.
It is always dangerous to anthropomorphize international relations, to expect whole countries to act as an individual would, but some useful parallels can still be drawn between the behavior of individuals and states. Let us say, for example, you are a member of the popular elite at your high school. On your climb to the top, you have often had to snub others and at times, even openly humiliate some people. It is all a part of governance, as it were – a part of staying on top. Now one of those people you snubbed – perhaps you gave him a scathing insult in the lunchroom, and the whole room stopped eating and laughed at him – he wants revenge. He knows there are others you have so treated, seeks them out, and devises a plan. Every so often, he, or one of his compatriots, will randomly walk up to you, punch you in the face, and run away. He knows how strong you are (in fact, that is a major reason your clique remains loyal), and that he cannot win in an open (“conventional”) battle, but by a series of a thousand pin-pricks he believes he can whittle away your resources.
The plan begins, and your adversary delivers the first sucker punch. Being bigger and stronger, you of course catch and beat him. But curiously, it does not end there; once every two weeks or so, someone runs up to you and hits you in the face. Sometimes it’s your main adversary, sometimes one of his few friends. It begins to tax you, constantly having to chase these hooligans down, and often you can’t; and this begins to fade the aura of dominance you have concocted around yourself, what the US calls it’s “credibility”. You become paranoid, lashing out (pre-emptively) on those you suspect are plotting to punch you. After a while, the sucker punches stop, but their effect lingers on. You remain consumed with jealousy and anger for the injuries sustained, your security irrevocably damaged.
I do not wish to over-state the significance of this crude analogy, but I think it roughly describes the United States’ response. One particularly notices a strain of machismo in our propaganda, constant repetition of tough-guy statements like, “You cannot run; you cannot hide. We will defeat you.” – this from Barack! And lest we forget, President Bush once professed that his strategy was to “smoke ’em [the Iraqis] out”, whatever that means. And we have remained in these dual quagmires, Iraq and Afghanistan, for no discernible reason, pursuing an ill-defined and probably impossible goal (making us perpetually “safe”) in large part to save face. Mr. Bin Laden saw, with apparent clarity, that the US would not be able to shrug off his blow, and would instead spend untold resources in attempting to retaliate.
Going back to the schoolyard analogy, if you were both popular and wise, you would not have reacted violently to the first sucker punch, and would instead have asked an audience with your adversary and attempted to set things right. You might have said something like, “Look, I’m sorry if I mistreated you in the past. I don’t seek to excuse my actions, but I hope you can forgive me. This fighting won’t do either of us any good; instead, let’s talk about it, and maybe we can come away friends, or at least not bitter enemies.”
That the US leadership, corrupted by 60 years of total victory (plus one forgotten defeat), could not see such a clear and obvious trap speaks, I think, to the nature of their power and the cunning of Mr. Bin Laden. And their refusal, after nearly a decade of fiscal hemorrhage, to stop these misbegotten and absurd “military actions” speaks volumes of the shallow origins of their foreign policy.