Today, the American Conservative Defense Alliance's Bandow and Townhall.com's Hewitt consider the most recent comments from terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Previously, they debated the sixth anniversary of the war on terrorism and the Petraeus report. Later this week, they'll focus on other approaches to the war on terror and domestic politics.
The Hedgehog regretsBy Hugh Hewitt
Yesterday I asked if you had read Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower: The Road to 9/11." I think it is almost silly to try and understand Osama bin Laden's recent missives without having first read this Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the origins and evolution of Al Qaeda. (The role that Greeley, Colo., played in the radicalization of Sayyid Qutb and Qutb's fathering of the virulent strain of Islam that produced both Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri almost always surprises people.)
I interviewed Wright on my radio program yesterday, and asked him about Bin Laden's ramblings: "They have absolutely no politics of their own," he responded, and continued:
If you look through all those Harmony documents, which are the documents that American and coalition troops captured after the battles of Tora Bora, there are thousands of pages of internal Al Qaeda documents. They haven't got a single page in there about their own political agenda because they don't really have one. They're not interested in politics. They're only interested in purification. The Taliban are a perfect example of what Al Qaeda would do. I mean, they leave government to others. They're mainly interested in excoriating Muslims. So it's so weird and hypocritical when Bin Laden talks about the Kyoto treaty, when no one has ever asked him to produce his own environmental policy. He's never thought about it.Bin Laden has never thought much about anything other than restoring and purifying Islam, which means driving the West back to the borders it had been forced into by the time of the Battle of Vienna in 1683. What drives Bin Laden is detailed in Wright's book: hatred for those within Islam who do not agree with his understanding of Islam and a certainty about American character.
Indeed, Bin Laden is very much the hedgehog of Isaiah Berlin's famous 1953 essay, and the one thing Bin Laden was absolutely sure about before 9/11 was that America could not absorb a hard blow. Wright recounts Bin Laden's confident proclamations of this key truth to his fellow jihadists after the American withdrawal from Somalia, which he saw as a repeat of the American withdrawal from Lebanon after Hezbollah murdered the American and French forces there. Americans would run from any fight, he asserted again and again, and it could be forced from Saudi Arabia and the region by blows like 9/11. Bin Laden did not see the ferocity of the counter-attack, and he definitely did not count on George Bush, which is why last week's letter bristles with anger at the president and at the Democrats who were supposed to bring about the long-predicted collapse in the American will to fight.
Others have been reading Bin Laden closely, such as theologian John Mark Reynolds, here and here. Anti-war activists probably can't be bothered to read it, much less the books like "The Looming Tower" and "America Alone ," which put Bin Laden's demands into their necessary context. If Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who took over the chair of the House Intelligence Committee in January, hadn't come to grasp the difference between Sunni and Shiite, I doubt very much if anything Bin Laden says or argues will mean much to him; and of course it will mean nothing to the MoveOn.org smear machine, which is too intent on attacking Gen. David Petraeus' integrity to bother to wonder what the enemy is thinking.
The enemy is frustrated by George W. Bush, primarily, but also of course by the American military, which the jihadists expected to have folded long ago. Bin Laden is no closer to reestablishing the beginning of the caliphate than he was while plotting in the Sudan in the mid-'90s, or during his glory days in Kabul when he could blow up American embassies and attack American ships without serious concern for reprisal.
The 9/11 attacks were supposed to have sent America reeling and to have forced its retreat from the Middle East. Bin Laden never imagined an America that would refuse to allow a terrorist stronghold in Tora Bora to remain in place, or one that would stand with the newly freed Iraqis against the imported Salafist killers from around the world until such time as the Iraqis could themselves and like the Algerians kill the killers.
The latest Bin Laden missive is a fascinating one because he has begun to realize that he had it all wrong, that the Lebanon and Mogadishu retreats were aberrations, not compass points on the American character. He ought to have read a little more broadly, say Churchill's famous address to the Canadian Parliament on Dec. 30, 1941, in which the half-American British Prime Minister declared: "We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of cotton candy."
I also asked yesterday, Doug, if you had read either of Robert Kaplan's books on the American military "Imperial Grunts" or his brand new "Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts?"? The frustration in Bin Laden's letter is also because he and his followers are not up against the Soviets who he and his fellow jihadists battled in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but against a far more lethal, far more competent American military fully on display in Kaplan's pages. They are winning the war against Bin Laden's progeny not just in Anbar province but in places as far removed from each other as the remote islands in the Philippines, the rugged desert roads beyond Timbuktu, the jungles of Colombia and the south of Algeria. Bin Laden's desperate appeals to the anti-war left in the United States are increasingly high-pitched because Bin Laden is recognizing not only that he was wrong about America's character and its president, but also about his troops' ability to go against the Western world's finest.
Bin Laden realizes he can't win. Only the American left can save his vision, and the small bits of hope he has come from newspaper ads in the New York Times attacking Gen. Petraeus, the dizzyingly stupid remarks of members of congress like Robert Wexler and Loretta Sanchez and senators like Barbara Boxer and Joe Biden, and the comments on a thousand blogs written by the tiny segment of the American population that sees retreat and defeat as a necessary thing. "How can I be losing to these people?" he must wonder. That is one confused hedgehog who knew the wrong thing because of very bad data.
Hugh Hewitt is the executive editor of Townhall.com and a nationally syndicated talk-show host whose show can be heard in more than 100 cities across the United States. He blogs at HughHewitt.com and his most recent book is A Mormon In The White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney.
Osama bin Laden alive: administration failureBy Doug Bandow
You're quite right that Osama bin Laden's rants verge on incoherence. What he says is less important than his survival, which reflects administration failure in the war on terrorism. Bin Laden alive serves as a symbol for radical Islamists around the globe.
For a time, President Bush focused on Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. But a desire to re-engineer the Middle East alas, the belief that lack of democracy leads to terrorism is no better grounded in reality than the liberal argument that poverty leads to terrorism quickly led the administration astray.
With administration attention diverted by Iraq, the group has revived. Last November, CIA Director Michael Hayden pointed to Al Qaeda's "deep bench of lower-ranking personnel capable of stepping up to assume leadership responsibilities." We face a "heightened threat environment," according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).
Downgrading the Afghanistan war also opened the door for the Taliban. Should the Taliban regain control of significant portions of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would take root again in contrast to Iraq, where, you are right, Al Qaeda can't win. Sunni tribes already have turned against those who slaughter even their co-religionists.
Indeed, the principal issue for the U.S. in Iraq is sectarian war, not Al Qaeda terrorism. But America's military brave, competent and lethal as you say should not be expected to resolve Iraq's underlying political conflicts.
The administration now downgrades Bin Laden's importance but, absent its fecklessness, Bin Laden might not be alive to inspire independent terrorist groups in Britain, Spain and elsewhere. Iraq's terrorist cadre likely would have chosen a different role model.
Bin Laden has become a symbol for America as well. Fear of him, and what he represents, encouraged administration overreaching that yielded little or no security benefit. Expanding executive power is not the same as defeating terrorists.
We must realistically assess what new powers would target bad guys and what safeguards would limit abuse by good guys. To allow the president, any president, on his (or her) arbitrary authority to deny a citizen constitutional due process is to act out of fear, not wisdom. To confuse anti-communist refugees with Islamist terrorists is to substitute blindness for discretion.
Perhaps the biggest mistake is to act as if most terrorists are a magic asterisk, a set number of crazed theocrats whom we need only kill to be safe. Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recognized that people become terrorists for a reason, observing that America's presence in Saudi Arabia has "been a huge recruiting device for Al Qaeda."
Unfortunately, killing Muslims in the name of freeing them angers those whom we are supposed to be freeing. In the most recent BBC poll, 60% of Iraqis say attacks on coalition forces are justified. The latest NIE warns that the occupation of Iraq has become Al Qaeda's principal recruiting tool. The British government similarly points to Iraq as inciting its home-grown terrorists.
The Bush administration likes to talk tough. But Osama bin Laden's continued freedom highlights the administration's biggest blunder, its misguided invasion of Iraq.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times