In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, and the celebrations inspired by news of his demise, there’s been some discussion of whether Americans should be celebrating and just what Americans are celebrating. Are we celebrating the death of another human being (even one as despicable as bin Laden)? Or are we celebrating a win; a "mission accomplished"?
That question is thrown in a disconcerting light upon considering both the course of action America embarked upon after 9/11, and what it cost. Did Osama bin Laden actually win in the end?
The question came to mind for me after reading Ezra Klein’s post about what he called bin Laden’s war against U.S. economy.
Did Osama bin Laden win? No. Did he succeed? Well, America is still standing, and he isn’t. So why, when I called Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert who specializes in al-Qaeda, did he tell me that “bin Laden has been enormously successful”? There’s no caliphate. There’s no sweeping sharia law. Didn’t we win this one in a clean knockout?
Apparently not. Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do — and, more to the point, what he thought he could do — was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before. And though it didn’t quite work out this time, it worked a lot better than most of us, in this exultant moment, are willing to admit.
The thing is, if bankrupting the America was his goal, bin Laden got a lot of help along the way from the U.S. government itself. Maybe that’s what Ezra says is so hard to admit.
The superpower Ezra says bin Laden successfully bankrupted was the Soviet Union. Bin Laden wisely bet that engaging the Soviet Union on the battlefield, and keeping them on the battlefield, would cause Soviets to pour money into a long, expensive, not-really-winnable war. rather than admit defeat.
But, given the stakes, America wanted in on that bet. After all, it was an opportunity to take down the Soviet Union by bleeding it dry, while having someone else do the really dirty work. It’s a long story, exhaustively told by Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, which I read years ago, and effectively summed up by Robert Scheer.
He was our kind of guy until he wasn’t, an ally during the Cold War until he no longer served our purposes. The problem with Osama bin Laden was not that he was a fanatical holy warrior; we liked his kind just fine as long as the infidels he targeted were not us but Russians and the secular Afghans in power in Kabul whom the Soviets backed.
But when bin Laden turned against us, he morphed into a figure of evil incarnate, and now three decades after we first decided to use him and other imported Muslim zealots for our Cold War purposes, we feel cleansed by his death of any responsibility for his carnage. We may make mistakes but we are never in the wrong. USA! USA!
Kind of like when the CIA assigned the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro and the Mafiosi turned out to have their own agenda, or when Pentagon experts anointed the Catholic nutcase Ngo Dinh Diem as the George Washington of predominately Buddhist South Vietnam before they felt the need to execute him. A similar fate was suffered by Saddam Hussein, whose infamous Baghdad handshake with Donald Rumsfeld stamped him as our agent in the war to defeat the ayatollahs of Iran.
Awkward, I know, to point out that bin Laden was another of those monsters of our creation, one of those Muslim “freedom fighters” that President Ronald Reagan celebrated for having responded to the CIA’s call to kill the Soviets in Afghanistan. That holy crusade against infidels was financed by Saudi Arabia and armed with US weapons to oppose a secular Afghan government with Soviet backing but before Soviet troops had crossed the border. In short, it was an ill-fated and unjustifiable intervention by the US into another nation’s internal affairs.
It seemed like such a good investment at the time. And in a sense, it it seemed to pay off for everyone. It took a while, about ten years, but after the Soviet Union fell until bin Laden took the USSR’s place as the much needed bogie man in an old, old story.
Bin Laden and his ideological mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, talked about "the near enemy" and the "far enemy". But from 2001 onwards they became America’s "far enemy". Neoconservative politicians, who had last tasted real power under President Reagan during the cold war, took the few known facts about Bin Laden and Zawahiri and fitted them to the template they knew so well: an evil enemy with sleeper cells and "tentacles" throughout the world, whose sole aim was the destruction of western civilisation. Al-Qaida became the new Soviet Union, and in the process Bin Laden became a demonic, terrifyingly powerful figure brooding in a cave while he controlled and directed the al-Qaida network throughout the world. In this way, a serious but manageable terrorist threat became grossly exaggerated.
Journalists, many of whom also yearned for the simplicity of the old days, grabbed at this: from the outset, the reporting of the Islamist terror threat was distorted to reflect this dominant simplified narrative. And Bin Laden grabbed at it too. As the journalists who actually met him report, he was brilliant at publicity. All three – the neoconservatives, the "terror journalists", and Bin Laden himself – effectively worked together to create a dramatically simple story of looming apocalypse. It wasn’t in any way a conspiracy. Each of them had stumbled in their different ways on a simplified fantasy that fitted with their own needs.
The power of this simple story propelled history forward. It allowed the neocons – and their liberal interventionist allies – to set out to try to remake the world and spread democracy. It allowed revolutionary Islamism, which throughout the 1990s had been failing dramatically to get the Arab people to rise up and follow its vision, to regain its authority. And it helped to sell a lot of newspapers.
Newpapers ain’t all it helped to sell. In the aftermath of September 11th, it helped the Bush administration sell America two wars
— on credit, even.
The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.
In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.
Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds. “In the end, the floodgates opened,” said former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chaired the Senate Budget Committee when the first tax-cut bill hit Capitol Hill in early 2001.
Now, instead of tending a nest egg of more than $2 trillion, the federal government expects to owe more than $10 trillion to outside investors by the end of this year. The national debt is larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any time in U.S. history except for the period shortly after World War II.
And, America bought it. That, as Ezra says, is the story of how America went from surpluses to deficits. Well, part of it anyway. Choosing to get into two very expensive wars — the Iraq war cost us about $3 trillion or more, and Afghanistan is running us about $8 billion a month — along with tax cuts for the rich that cost us about $2.5 trillion in revenue, is what got us into this hole.
Here’s another awkward point. As Scheer pointed out, bin Laden was a monster of our own creation. So is the economic hole we find ourselves in. America dug it, and then fell it in. If bin Laden deserves any credit, then it’s for being smart enough to know that if he led us to it, we would jump in it by pouring trillions of dollars into a war with no clear "winning" strategy. Imagine his surprise when he got a "two-for-one" deal, with the Iraq war.
As Ezra points out, it isn’t quite right to say that bin Laden cost us all that money. After all, the very mission that ended bin Laden’s life showed us what we should have done in the first place. We could have done the same thing at Tora Bora in 2002 that we did in Abbottabad in 2011, but our government chose not to. And, as Kevin Drum noted, Osama bin Laden had little to do with most of our worst fiscal policy decisions: not the Bush tax cuts, the housing bubble, unfunded prescription benefits, etc.
Still, he bet that we’d take his bait, and make the worse possible choices.
So far, that may turn out to be a wise bet, unless we make different choices:
The threat of terrorism will remain though bin Laden is gone. He was a figurehead and a symbol, both to the Americans who despised him and the villains he inspired. Like shards of glass, al-Qaeda’s franchises and affiliates remain scattered across the globe, planning ever more innovative ways to slaughter human beings. Bin Laden understood from the beginning that his tiny group of murderers would never be able to destroy the United States. Instead, he would destroy America from within by luring us into unwinnable wars abroad and exploiting fear to warp America into the weak, skittish tyrant he always believed us to be.
Just as al-Qaeda could never defeat the United States militarily, the biggest threat to its ideology was never just American force but Muslims’ own desire for self-determination. It is fitting that bin Laden’s end should come now, while the Arab Spring brings the reign of less imagined despots to a close. As they usher in their new democracies, we should consider what we’ve done with ours.
We can’t get back the lives lost on 9/11, or in the wars that have ensued since. We can’t get back the trillions of dollars spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can end our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can elect leaders will promise to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealth expire, instead of costing us $5 trillion over the next ten years.
Then we might have really have something to celebrate.