Yes, you read it right. This has never been a war on terror. We can no more wage a war on an abstract noun, as one of the Monty Python guys succinctly put it, than we can turn iron into gold. Furthermore, when we employ terrorism—or worse: aggression—it should be obvious to all that what this is is: a war of terror.
The death of Osama bin Laden (I will put aside questions of the burial at sea—I admit the whole thing is suspect but I don’t doubt bin Laden is really dead), the figurehead behind Al Qaeda, means nothing. He was not a master planner of terrorist attacks. He was simply an icon for people fed up with their lives and ready to do something about it. He was a useful tool when we were aiding the mujahedeen in Afghanistan back in the 1980s and he’s been a useful bogeyman ever since. But the world is a scary place and there is always a bogeyman to fill the void left behind by the Hitler’s, Hussein’s, and bin Laden’s of the world. Remember Zarqawi?
President Obama will exploit it for any political capital he can get from it but the underlying reasons for the September 11th attacks remain firmly in place. From a 2004 report issued by the Pentagon:
American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.
• Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
• Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.
• Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.
• Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.
• What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.
• Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic — namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is — for Americans — really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game.
This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.
Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of “dissemination of information,” or even one of crafting and delivering the “right” message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none…
Nothing has changed. Our criminal support for Israel is ongoing and we can look at Washington’s continued support for tyrants during the Arab Spring to see how it is still fueling resentment and hatred. Even now we are forming a familiar alliance with Islamic militants in Libya we will no doubt be fighting in the years to come.
We want revenge but what of redemption?
Let’s keep in mind that it has been our decades of imperialism and neoliberal policies (they didn’t call it the “Washington Consensus” for nothing) that provoked these terror groups. But also, our response to the September 11th attacks was the complete opposite of what it should have been. Rather than get to the root of the problem (Who did it and why? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again?) we escalated it with a war of aggression and made the world less safe.
We illegally attacked one of the poorest and most defenseless countries in the world. We turned down offers from the Taliban to turn bin Laden over to a neutral third party to face an investigation and possible trial for his role (not to mention at the same time we were ignoring an official request from Haiti, asking for a Haitian terrorist living in New York!)—and that’s the real kicker: when we attacked Afghanistan we did not know who was behind the attacks (whereas Haiti had plenty of evidence for the culprit they sought, and they never responded with aggression against American cities).
Let that sink in: we illegally attacked one of the poorest and most defenseless countries in the world without knowing who the perpetrators of the crime we were allegedly responding to were. Try putting ourselves in an Afghan’s shoes. Imagine we are a very weak and impoverished country and China is a military juggernaut who is attacked by some terrorist group and before they even know who did it they start bombing us. How can we retaliate against an unknown attacker—not to mention whether or not violent retaliation is the right thing to do!
Is bin Laden’s death a success? What have we gained; what has been won? What is the achievement: a death or a distraction?
It is not likely that many Muslims will grieve the death of bin Laden but when US policies in the Middle East continue as the day before then we can only expect more of the same. We Americans can, and no doubt will, congratulate ourselves in our Orwellian version of "Two Minutes' Hate" for the death of a meaningless figurehead but we are not safer or better people for it. We are still a nuclear-armed imperial police state who puts this fact—along with $1 trillion a year of our tax money—above the safety and economic welfare of its own people. The rest of the world just better hope it’s not in the way the next time the Ministry of Love wants to put on a show by killing Goldstein because if war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength then justice is a Predator drone.