This is the sort of post that makes people mad, but in light of what’s happening in Egypt it’s necessary to talk about bin Laden.
Most people who hate bin Laden have never read his writings. They’re quite extensive, and they’ll reward your time in reading them. (Obligatory bin Laden is a bad man, just like George Bush Jr. disclaimer.)
Bin Laden was very smart, and and he understood America very well, and had a good take on the world system. He was not stupid, he was not a coward (he led troops from the front line against the Soviets), and he was very effective at accomplishing many of his goals.
Along with George Bush Jr, who was his greatest ally and enemy, he was was one of the first great men of the 21st century. Great men, of course, do not need to be good men. Hitler and Churchill and Gandhi were all great men, they weren’t all good men.
Let’s start with relation to Egypt. A lot of people in Egypt and elsewhere see the Egyptian coup (it was a coup, don’t tell me otherwise) as being US backed.
Add to this the fact that they see the defeat of the Muslim brotherhood in the past as being aided by the US, they believe that Egypt is ruled by its current oligarchy (an extension of the Mubarak era oligarchy, and again, don’t even try and lie and say otherwise), because of the US.
What bin Laden said was that despotic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere are backed by America in specific, and the West in general.
That backing is powerful. In Islam there is an idea that you should deal with your local tyrant, your local problems, first, and not worry about the far enemy.
Bin Laden believed that, in the current circumstance, you could not do that. Revolution at home was close to impossible because of the far enemy, because of the United States.
Even if you did, by some miracle succeed, as long as the US was the global hegemon, your success would be undermined and destroyed by the US by crippling your economy, escalating, if necessary, to economic sanctions backed by force.
If you don’t believe this, see what was done to Iraq in the 90s and what is being done to Iran today. A lot of children and adults are dying and suffering because of these sanctions.
Bin Laden’s argument, then, was that the US had to be defeated. That the evils being done by local regimes (such as the extensive use of torture and routine rape in Egypt under Mubarak) could not be ended by simply fighting the local regime, but that the far regime, the US, must be defeated.
This is a pragmatic argument, and it is an ethical argument. When Madeline Albright said that half a million dead Iraqi children from US sanctions was “worth it”, bin Laden’s response was to ask if the lives of Muslim children were not equal to those of Christian children.
Rhetorically, he asked, “is our blood not red too?”
Whatever you think of bin Laden, this is a powerful ethical statement.
What this leads to is that the US is responsible both for the suffering it causes directly, and the suffering it causes indirectly, by keeping monstrous regimes in power, or, in many cases, helping create them.
This critique is not just a critique from an Islamic perspective, it strikes to the heart of the West’s ostensible ethics, to the equality of all humans, to the right of self-determination, and even to the western theoretical preference for democracy.
Democracy is a powerful idea, but bin Laden (and others) have observed that the West only believes in elections when the right people win.
This was best on display when Hamas, in Palestine, won elections the US had insisted occur (over Israeli objections) and the US then backed a Fatah coup to make sure that Hamas did not take power. (Hamas later kicked Fatah out of Gaza, leading to the current divided rule of Palestine.)
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this applies to the current Egyptian situation. Whatever one thinks of Morsi’s government, it was elected in what seem to have been fair elections.
So, if you play the West’s rules, if you win fair and square in elections, and the West doesn’t like who came to power, they will help undo the results of the elections.
If you try and get rid of a regime you don’t like through violence, the West will support the regime, making it unlikely you will win, and if you do win despite all that, they will undermine or destroy your regime through economic sanctions.
All that failing, as in Iraq, they may well invade.
The problem with this critique is that it is, substantially, accurate. Hate bin Laden or not, this is a model of the world which has predictive and analytical utility.
It explains the past, it predicts the future, and it does both well.
The fact that bin Laden’s critique is fairly similar to various left-wing critiques is not accidental. It is not because bin Laden and the left are fellow travellers (Islamists are strongly opposed to genuine leftists), it is because any set of model that track reality fairly well will tend to look alike.
Of course, that they look the same is used to discredit people by association. “You agree with bin Laden” they say, and shut down discussion of how the world actually works.
The power of bin Laden’s critique is its accuracy, the elements of it which are true. What bin Laden added (though I’m sure others have as well), was one main thing: the directive to attack the US.
Bin Laden was, in certain respects, born of the Afghan war against the USSR. Those of you who are young tend to view what happened to the USSR as inevitable. Creaky, economically broken, it was going down. Nothing is so inevitable as what has already happened.
You’re not wrong, the USSR had real internal problems it couldn’t fix, but you’re not quite right, either. Absent Afghanistan, the USSR might have toddled on for a lot longer. Decades, perhaps.
Looked at from the outside, even in the 90s (heck, even in the 80s, with some prescience), the US does not look healthy. It looks economically sick, with stagnation of wages even in the 90s, a gutting of real productivity, soaring inequality, and political sclerosis leading to the creation of an elite detached from the actual economy, but instead playing financial games which do not track real economic power.
It looks, like the USSR did, like a society which, with a push, could collapse.
Bin Laden set out to give the US that push.
Let’s go back to the USSR. The Soviet military was not a joke. It was large, powerful, had good equipment (especially compared to Afghan tribesmen). Even the post Soviet Russian military is no joke (take a look at what they did to Georgia, recently.) The USSR was POWER.
And in Afghanistan, the USSR was worn down. All that power died in the grave of Empires. And soon thereafter, the USSR ceased to be.
Bin Laden was there. He saw it. He participated in it as a fighter.
He looked at the West, and the US in specific and believed that the US was ripe for something similar.
As with the USSR the US in the 90s had a very scary reputation. Remember how decisively Saddam was defeated in the first Gulf War. The US looked undefeatable. And, in certain respects it was, and still is.
But bin Laden saw, accurately, the US weakness. He believed that while the US was good at open field warfare, American troops were nothing special at the sort of guerrilla warfare that had occurred in Afghanistan. He believed that if they could be brought into Afghanistan, and kept there, instead of coming in and leaving quickly, they could be defeated. He believed that the legend of American invincibility, as with that of the Red Army, could be shattered.
[The] 9/11 was about getting the US to overreact. About getting it into Afghanistan. It succeeded in doing that, but bin Laden must have known some despair, because at first, Afghanistan wasn’t proving to be much of a graveyard at all. The majority of Afghans hadn’t liked the Taliban, didn’t mind them being blown over, and were willing to give the US and the West, a chance.
Then Bush stepped in, used 9/11 as the de-facto pretext, and invaded Iraq. And in Iraq, much of what bin Laden wanted to have happen in Afghanistan happened, with the bonus that Hussein (whom, as a secular Arabist, bin Laden was an enemy of) was gotten rid of too.
Win/win. And meanwhile, in Afghanistan, coalition forces managed to alienate the Afghan population and ensure the return of the Taliban, while destabilizing Pakistan in addition. Bonus!
(Bush was able to rewrite the unwritten US constitution, however, and his victory in changing the nature of America has been confirmed by the fact that Obama has institutionalized almost all essential Bush policies and extended many of them.)
Now one can say that bin Laden lost (not because he was killed, that’s irrelevant and people who think it matters much are fools), because the US is still around, still powerful, and hasn’t collapsed.
But it isn’t over yet. The cost of the Iraq war, of 9/11, was huge, both in financial terms and in the changes wrought to the American psyche, unwritten constitution and society.
Those lost years, and they were lost, should have been used to transition the US economy. Instead the money that should have done that was used to fund the Iraq war, and to keep money flowing a housing bubble was not just allowed, but encouraged, both by the Fed and by actively turning a blind eye to illegal activity.
The US economy has never recovered. Five to six years out, the absolute number of jobs hasn’t recovered, the actual standard of living for most people is dropping, income and wealth inequality is worse, and unsustainable spending is occurring without any plan to create an economy which can pay for it.
Political sclerosis is worse, not better, the economic plan is to frack, frack, frack (which won’t work in the long run) and the US and the West are doubling down on a surveillance state and continuing to erode freedoms, which not only has much larger economic effects than most people realize, but weakens Western ideological power.
So bin Laden hasn’t lost yet. The reaction to 9/11 may yet be seen to be the precipitating event that made it essentially impossible for the US to reverse its decline, and made that decline far faster and far worse.
We started with Egypt, so let’s bring it back there. If you’re an Egyptian who believes (accurately) that there was a coup which overthrew a democratically elected government, and that the US was complicit at best, and actively involved at worst (John Kerry constantly insisting there was no coup is not in America’s interests here), then the basic critique still resonates.
Even if you don’t want bin Laden’s end goal of a new Islamic caliphate, if you want independence, if you want to be able to defeat your local tyrants, well, the US is your enemy, the far enemy whose existence makes defeating the near enemies impossible.
It is not a country you feel you can make peace with, a devil you can ignore because it is far away, but a country whose ability to intervene in your country must be somehow destroyed.
This basic analysis of the situation remains extremely powerful and convincing.
Bin Laden was the first great man of the 21st century. George Bush Jr. was the second (Obama is important, but is a secondary figure to Bush.)
And as long as bin Laden’s insights seem to explain the world, someone is likely to act on them.
May God, should he or she exist, aid us. We’re going to need it.
(Oh, and part of the opportunity cost of the Iraq war may well be hundreds of millions of deaths from climate change. You’re welcome.)
Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return—and so the wheel turns.