The killing of Osama bin Laden is being celebrated by the US media and government officials who spin it as one of the most important events since September 11, 2001. To the extent that it weakens Al-Qaeda, that would certainly be a gain. But it is worth taking a sober look at the reality behind all the hype.
Bin Laden, who – like Saddam Hussein and other infamous mass murderers – was supported by the United Stated government for years before he turned against it, changed the world with the most destructive terrorist act ever committed on US soil. But the reasons that he was able to do that have as much to do with US foreign policy at that particular juncture as with his own strategy and goals.
Bin Laden's goal was not, as some think, simply to bring down the US Empire. That is a goal shared by most of the world, who (fortunately for us) would not use terrorist violence to further this outcome. His specific goal was to transform the struggle between the United States and popular aspirations in the Muslim world into a war against Islam, or at least create the impression for many millions of people that this was the case. As we look around the world ten years after the attack, we can see that he had considerable success in this goal. The United States is occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, bombing Pakistan and Libya, and threatening Iran – all Muslim countries. To a huge part of the Muslim world, it looks like the United States is carrying out a modern-day Crusade against them, despite President Obama's assertions to contrary last night.
This situation, along with the United States' continued role of supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, pretty much guarantees a steady stream of recruits for any terrorist movement of the kind bin Laden was organizing, for the foreseeable future. In that sense, bin Laden was successful.
This is somewhat remarkable considering that, as many observers have pointed out, bin Laden at first appeared to have made a tactical blunder with the attacks of September 11, since this caused him to lose his base in Afghanistan – the one Islamic state that was at least sympathetic to his organization. But after President Bush decided to use 9/11 as a pretext not only for invading Afghanistan, but also Iraq – these wars combined to put bin Laden and his movement back in business on a larger scale.
Could bin Laden have known that the US response to 9/11 would have made his movement even stronger, even if he lost his base in Afghanistan? I would say it is likely. While it was not predictable that President Bush would necessarily invade Iraq – although it was a strong possibility – it was foreseeable that the US government would seize on 9/11 to create a new overarching theme for its interventions throughout the world.
For a decade prior to the 9/11 attacks, Washington was without such an overall ideological framework. Until 1990, there were four decades of a "war against communism" that was used to justify everything from the overthrow of non-communist democratic governments in the Western Hemisphere (Guatemala, Chile, etc.) to large scale warfare in Vietnam, as well as hundreds of military bases throughout the world. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended, but the military bases and interventions continued. Prior to 9/11, the military interventions had to be done on an ad hoc basis (eg "enemy-of the-month" as in Panama or the first Iraq war). But this is a weak basis for mobilizing public opinion, and in general, Americans have to be convinced that their own security is at stake in order to acquiesce to most sustained military adventures.
The "war on terror" was made to order for the post-Cold War era, and enthusiasts such as then Vice-President Dick Cheney noticed this immediately, before any wars were launched. Within five days of the 9/11 attacks, Cheney was on television proclaiming that the war against terrorism was "a long-term proposition," the "kind of work that will take years."
Indeed it has, and with US drone strikes in Pakistan killing civilians and generating more hatred weekly, a cycle of violence is perpetuated that can go on for many years to come.
Of course, this was not inevitable. Ironically, the killing of bin Laden confirms what the left has maintained since 2001: that the occupation of Afghanistan was not necessary or justified in order to go after bin Laden. The killing of bin Laden was mainly an intelligence operation – the US did not have to invade or occupy Pakistan in order to carry it out. The same would have been true while he was in Afghanistan.
Since bin Laden is now dead, we will never know what he was thinking when he planned the 9/11 attacks. But as someone who was Washington’s ally during the Cold War, he could easily have understood how these attacks would likely lead to a "war on terror" that would strengthen his movement. Despite being criminally insane, bin Laden knew his enemy.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited (UK) on May 3, 2011