NOTE: I wrote this before Matt Taibbi published his latest in Rolling Stone, and am pleasantly surprised at the parallels between our arguments. Not that many people are likely to ever read mine, so I appreciate that someone with a helluva bigger audience is making similar points.
But I'll go a step further than is probably *allowed* in the media these days: By the mid 21st Century, Americans will be looked at by most of the world in the same way Germans were viewed in much of the 20th. 8 or 9 billion people living in 2050 will wonder how Americans could not know, how they could let the bloodletting go on and on without realizing that what goes around, comes around. At a certain point, inability to do anything about the problem renders us all complicit in our leaders' crimes.
How Osama Bin Laden Defeated America
Today marks 15 years since the USA launched its attack on Iraq. Most commentators around the world seem to have come to a general conclusion about the whole thing:
No point in mincing words. The US invasion of Iraq directly killed tens of thousands of civilians, indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and provided a training ground for the butchers of ISIS. The damage has steadily spread beyond Iraq, triggering a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in the region that has inexorably pulled Saudi Arabia and Iran into conflict. As their proxy conflicts have escalated, other countries have gotten drawn into the fighting. Turkey is attacking the Kurds, Russia has intervened to prop up their major ally in the region, Syria. Yemen has been annihilated by civil conflict and a US-backed aerial assault by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
The Middle East today is a breeding ground for war. And more war is coming: a key lesson of history is that when a resource-rich region is destabilized to the degree the Middle East is today, the conflicts escalate until someone figures out how to negotiate a stable peace. Or the combatants wipe one another out, as the Allies and Germans did on the Western Front 1914-1918, or the Soviets and Germans did on the Eastern Front 1941-1945. But that threat isn't even on our national radar, though it should be. Look at the escalating military budgets of the combatant powers, listen to the rhetoric of the leadership. The powers-that-be see war coming, and worse, they all seem to think they can win it.
I don't think there's point in mincing words: the Middle East is spinning towards terminal disaster, and the next major unilateral American military action in the area, probably an attack on Iran, is in the making. The US is dramatically increasing the Army and Air Force budget, and the Trump administration is packed full of characters who see Iran as enemy #1 in the region. Sooner or later, the Trumpists will trigger a war, believing that Obama's re-election was secured by the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden and that Trump's re-election will be secured by a successful strike on Iran.
Speaking of old Osama – he won, you know.
Sure, sure, he's dead. And by American cultural definitions, if you die, you lose. Bin Laden himself would probably agree on some level. After all, despite his claim of seeking martyrdom, you never saw Bin Laden set off a suicide vest or crash an airliner into a building. Somewhere deep down the man probably saw himself as leading the renewed and united Islamic Caliphate from Mecca. I guess that's a plus side of having faith.
But beyond his personal ambitions, Bin Laden built Al Qaeda by promising something to his followers. And what he offered was Holy War, in which the faithful could sacrifice themselves and gain admission to eternal paradise in the next life. Of course, that only works if you have an enemy you feel is big enough, pervasive enough, mean enough to justify carrying on Holy War against it. Fortunately for Al Qaeda, generations of American political leaders have built exactly the sort of enemy a group like Al Qaeda needs to thrive.
By and large, Americans dislike studying history. In large part because in school we're fed a steady diet of history-as-names-and-dates, which turns most people off to history. But history is, if nothing else, a database full of bad ideas. Stuff humans, usually those in power, try over and over again. And we Americans, we have no idea how many bad ideas our leaders come up with and try to put into practice. Then, when they're desperately trying to explain why it all went wrong, our collective ignorance of the past gives them a perfect opportunity to sell us a pack of myths. That everything would have gone right if only the right people had been in charge. That other forces interfered with our noble aims, and that next time we'll do it better.
We rarely do. The history of the United States since 1945 is stained with blood. A huge chunk of the world doesn't see the Stars and Stripes as standing for freedom or democracy, they see them as standing for misery and death. The growing nationalist taboo about questioning our nation's violent history of foreign interventions, that curious silent treatment you get when you list off America's many crimes to someone in a position of authority – these represent fundamental weaknesses in the American myth. A recognition that the self-serving tales we tell about our intentions and actions aren't the whole truth.
This blood-stained history is what makes people join organizations like Al Qaeda. The idea that Arabs, Muslims, or anyone else is driven by some vague, inherited cultural hatred of America has been widely disproven by two decades of scientific research. Very few people hate America. A great many people hate America's policies. Especially those that bring bombs, ships, and troops to their doorstep.
Osama Bin Laden knew this. And so he organized a bold and successful strike on America, that would induce us to send even more bombs, ships, and troops to the Middle East. Because every time we do, every time our leaders give our soldiers orders to shoot at something or someone, innocent civilians get caught in the middle. And when innocent people die, everyone they ever knew and loved get angry. It's the most basic of Human emotions, to get angry when someone close to you is harmed by injustice. And from the perspective of a victim, it doesn't matter if your actions were noble or just or necessary. It doesn't matter if your country is the best, if your cause is pure. They only know that you hurt their loved one. And when normal channels for pursuing justice seem to fail, all that is left for those who have been harmed is that most ancient of counters to bad behavior: the promise of exacting vengeance.
When September 11, 2001 happened, the voices of people who understood this dynamic, knew that America had played a negative role in the Middle East for more than 20 years, were completely suppressed by a wave of nationalism. Forget that the governments we are supposed to be able to make accountable through our democratic system have abused our trust and harmed innocents in pursuit of their aggressive foreign policy. Ignore that experts in terrorism and insurgency warned that groups like Al Qaeda launch these types of mass-casualty, high-symbolism attacks specifically to provoke a disproportionate response. Just plop an American flag sticker on your car, pay your taxes, and keep shopping.
And so, Bin Laden won. The United States wandered into Afghanistan, failed to get him in Tora Bora, then Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the Bush-era neoconservative set pretend that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were buddies, and off to Iraq we go. There to sacrifice 4500 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians pursuing “regime change”. And to so badly destabilize the region that Iraq and Syria both disintegrated into sectarian civil war – and led to the rise of ISIS. And a new round of destruction.
The dark irony of it all is that, despite the deaths and destruction, Americans seem to have learned nothing from the past fifteen years. Half of our federal income taxes get funneled to the Pentagon, and it obliges our support by conducting combat operations in at least half a dozen countries, with special forces teams deployed to more. Thousands of American soldiers still sit all over the Middle East, doing whatever our fearless leaders in D.C. think they should, regardless of the long-term consequences to America itself. Our drones buzz over Yemen and Somalia, unleashing death whenever some analyst sitting at a desk in Florida decides a group of potential targets are acting in a “signature” fashion, implying they may be “bad guys”. And with no on-the-ground after action assessments possible, more civilians die by our hands, and we don't even admit it.
Osama Bin Laden won by provoking the United States of America into a Forever War in the Middle East, which looks to people living there like another iteration of European imperialism and colonialism. Another distant power intervening in their lives – and what's worse, proclaiming that it is doing so in the name of “peace” and “defense”. Resistance under these circumstances is not only to be expected, it is in fact morally justified. It is worth setting aside the nationalist lens foisted on us by the national media, whether FOX or CNN or MSNBC, and asking ourselves a simple question: if a foreign power were doing to Americans what we do every day to people around the world, wouldn't we resist?
But there, see, is another of our society's deep taboos. We are taught to believe that we're different, that American means something inherently different than Russian, German, Iranian or Indian. And this poisonous conceit gives our political leaders the opening they need to sell us on the necessity of Forever War, on the mistaken belief that they are all that stands between us and the bad people.
But the truth is, the only bad people are the cynical politicians themselves. Trump, Pelosi, Ryan, Schumer, McConnell – stop wearing the blue and red tinted glasses, and you can see them for what they are: America's true enemies. The real bad people – not because they are inherently evil, but because they have chosen to be part of a political machine that, above all else, is concerned about concentrating power in the hands of an elite few. Whether neoliberal or neoconservative, that's their ultimate objective. Power.
Americans are today as fundamentally ruled without meaningful representation as they were in 1776. Our 200-year old political institutions are fully gamed-out by political elites. They cry “One America!” in order to prevent us all from realizing that there isn't One America at all. America always was, and remains, an idea. The dream that we can collectively develop a set of political institutions capable of letting us all pursue life, liberty, and happiness. That who you are, what you look like, is irrelevant to actually being American.
The dream is almost dead, now. People want to blame social media, or Russia, or populism. But the reality is that our political institutions have been entirely captured by elites. Our media serves its own interests by pushing us into the feedback loop of social media, where we can be safely clustered into groups defined by what advertisements we are shown. It is worth noting the response by major media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to their networks being infiltrated by white supremacist groups has been to aggressively tamp down on any speech deemed too political. Progressive websites dependent on Google to drive traffic to them have noticed that the crackdown on fascist and Nazi speech is actually hitting them worst of all. Around the web, sites are trying to undermine and even ban ad-blocking software that for some of us is our only refuge to the deluge of clickbait advertising swamping the net.
Great changes are afoot around the world. And not all bad – in fact, most of the world is getting markedly better. Economic development is pulling millions of people out of poverty. Global organizations are learning how to better provide humanitarian aid and relief without undermining local social structures. And online, new societies are being born despite the censorship pressures emanating from global governments.
But America is in the middle of a deep crisis. Our two major political parties are collapsing, one captured by neoconservative extremists and the other colonized by neoliberal idealists. America requires renewal and reform if it is to survive the next couple decades. But too many special interests intersect in D.C., and it is becoming apparent that Americans themselves don't agree on the most basic norms of political behavior anymore. All they can agree on is “there is no alternative.”
History shows that there's always an alternative. Usually a set of alternatives. And it also shows countries that do not reform when the time comes, fail and fall.
America's elites have let Osama Bin Laden win. In fact, Obama's raid on that compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding gave him his final victory. Americans were almost universal in their outpouring of joy over his killing. And few people deserved to take a couple rounds fired from a Seal's rifle straight to the face like Osama Bin Laden did.
But in launching that raid, by showing the world stage-managed scenes of Obama, Clinton, and the rest of their administration sitting in the White House, supposedly watching a live feed streamed from a Seal's helmet camera, America's leaders proved for all the world to see that we don't feel ourselves bound by any hard rules. That we talk a big line about justice and rule of law when it suits our interests, and then ignore them when it doesn't. We proved Bin Laden's point for him. And we continue to do it.
To defeat Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, those Navy Seals needed to take him alive, and deliver him to the International Court at the Hague, there to be forced to defend his actions and ideology before an impartial hearing. And then to be locked in a cage for the rest of his life. That is how you beat someone who uses ideology and a narrative of your nation's aggressive nature to gain recruits and justify Holy War. Not by proving everything they allege about you. That's taking the “high road”. That's proving that America is different, even when it has been harmed.
But that isn't what happened. America executed Bin Laden, America fires Hellfire missiles from drones that every so often kills a bunch of innocent civilians. America invades Iraq, botches the occupation, and unleashes another form of Hellfire across the Middle East.
And now, unable to understand the crisis we've created, the blowback is coming home to consume our own society. Bin Laden goaded us into destroying the basis for our own power. The Global War on Terror, or whatever we're calling it this year, has convinced billions of people around the world that America is an evil empire. The Trumpist retreat from the international institutions that have been the foundation of America's power and prosperity will only make matters worse. And when their rhetoric and diplomatic incompetence draws America into another war of choice in the Middle East, the consequences will be grave.
And then, Bin Laden's victory will be complete.