Bin Laden Didn’t Win, But America May Have Lost

Andrew Sullivan Asks: Did Osama Win on 9/11? – The Daily Beast


Yes, I know many were not fooled. I tip my hat to them. I am ashamed my own panic overwhelmed my own judgment. But that is an explanation, not an excuse: I cannot imagine any other circumstance in which I would simply trust the government, period. But, as fear dominated my being, trust I did—as did a majority of Americans who supported the war that handed bin Laden exactly what he wanted.

What he wanted, it seems obvious now, was central relevance to the power shifts in the Middle East, and U.S. troops in lands they could never understand and never fully win over. History has proved him right on that. Even the finest soldiers in the world, with the finest leadership in the world, were not capable of miracles. And so Iraq is now a pseudo-democracy whose current regional stance is alignment with Iran and Syria, America’s direst enemies in the region. And the war in Afghanistan will, at best, have decimated the ranks of Al -Qaeda and killed bin Laden (after nearly 10 years of trying, thanks to Obama, not Bush). But the threat from radical Islamism in Pakistan remains real, and the Taliban can wait till our last troops leave. And that was always true.

The fiscal costs of our actions are one reason we find ourselves today in a lost, jobless, debt-driven decade. About $2.6 trillion was spent in a decade of war—approaching some of the most ambitious spending cuts now being proposed. The human cost—in lives, limbs, and loves—is incalculable. And not just for us. Millions of Iraqis lived through the closest human equivalent to hell for years as the incompetent occupation tore Iraq apart. That trauma, wrought in children as well as adults, will not end, and will reverberate for decades, rendering the country even more vulnerable to sectarian blandishments or a new dictatorship if civil war breaks out again.

Part of any military’s strength is its deterrent effect. That was blown apart in Iraq as the U.S. struggled to control a country it could never fully commit to. The CIA, meanwhile, was revealed before the world first as incompetent and then as capable of evil. The approval of sickening torture techniques by the president and vice president destroyed American moral standing in the world, eviscerated our soft power, and became the prime recruitment tool for the Islamist thugs. Neoconservatives alone can call this “victory.”

So did bin Laden succeed? Not at all. On most fronts, he spectacularly failed—down to the amazing end to his pathetic, deranged life. He didn’t banish American influence or occupation in the Middle East; he temporarily intensified it. His dream of a caliphate is more remote than ever. But in this, it wasn’t the U.S. who defeated him; it was his own brutality and nihilism. From the streets of Tehran to Cairo, it appears that the young Muslim generation does not want to withdraw from the modern world into a cultural and intellectual blind alley forever. They are too busy on Twitter. That’s why after 9/11, Al Qaeda saw its popularity in the Arab world plummet, resuscitated only by American floundering in a newly anarchic Iraq.

The American people, moreover, eventually responded by electing Barack Hussein Obama as their president, committed to stepping back from what bin Laden had always longed for, a civilizational war, while quietly trying new methods like drone warfare to target jihadists from a distance with ever-increasing accuracy. The political model Al Qaeda celebrates—of stultifying premodern, brain-dead oppression—has no serious global appeal compared with Western or Asian models of capitalism. Instead, Turkey’s and Indonesia’s evolutions have shown a different way forward for Islamist democratic politics. It’s time we fessed up: the madmen of 9/11 were not the Soviets; they were not the Nazis. If we had seen them in that calm perspective a decade ago, we would be living in a very different America today.

Bin Laden and his henchmen failed, in other words. But our own fear won. Fear stopped us, overwhelmed us, as our ra-tion-al-ity deserted us. Yes, it was understandable, given what we endured that September morning. But we need to admit that our response was close to fatal. A bankrupted America that tortured innocents and disregarded its own Constitution is barely recognizable as America.

8 comments on “Bin Laden Didn’t Win, But America May Have Lost

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  1. The war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq are simply different things and shouldn’t be lumped together.

    The first was a logical, justified and (all in all) successful response to 9/11.
    The cost in Afghanistan wasn’t excessive and the radical Islamist threat in Pakistan has been contained and blunted.

    Iraq is a whole different story.

  2. @ fuster:
    Wrong and then some, Frog. “The cost of Afghanistan wasn’t excessive” statement reveals a deeply rooted sense of denial that can no more be mitigated by reason than many of Migg’s and George’s most ridiculous claims. I have admired the patience and persistence that you have shown them, but I can’t muster the same for you on this point. Partly, because you should clearly know better all on your own. You’re capable.

  3. Okay. But first, let’s face facts. If you disagree with Sullivan, you’re also going to disagree with me. You’ve read all the arguments and you’ve been made aware of all the costs and all the corruption that spawned from not just the Iraq war but the Afghanistan war, and yet, because you believe the way you do about war and its ability to prevent what you think it can prevent, you will continue to believe what you believe. So trying to change your mind will almost certainly fail. The only reason I’m doing this is because you asked me to, and because I’m okay with failure as long as its creative. In my opinion, anyone with any sense at all should now recognize that any (at best limited) success that has come of the wars, like the one you mention, could have been accomplished by much more peaceful means. Certainly, none of the successes that the US public was promised in exchange for its money and lives have been achieved. And since you have asked me to try and do this, I will take a chance at something. I wouldn’t normally go there, but because I think you can hear this from me and not think of it as anything remotely close to anything anti-semitic, I will tell you that I think if you lived anywhere but New York, and were of a different racial descent, you would feel differently. Of course, there are New-York Jews who think the way you do, but personally, I know no one who is as smart as you are that still thinks the way you do at this point. They all see failure. If after all the failure, you still see success, there’s no argument left that will sway you. All I can tell you is that I think you should try to open your mind to Sullivan’s point about how “It’s time we (all) fessed up: the madmen of 9/11 were not the Soviets; they were not the Nazis. If we had seen them in that calm perspective a decade ago, we would be living in a very different America today.”
    If the madmen of 9/11 had been anything more than what they were, we would know that by now. The “logical” thing to do, even from what I think of as your perspective (not mine), would have been to wait and really find out who the enemy really was. At this point, it should be obvious to everyone, not just liberals, or pacifists like me, that in this case, since we were not dealing with anything more than a small group of madmen incapable of doing anything more than what they already did, that we flew off the handle and drove ourselves into the ground economically just as bin Laden predicted. They were not the Nazis. They were more like Breivik and MacVeigh–not exactly–but enough like them to be handled the way they were handled. Bin Laden could have killed the same way he was killed. In fact, it would have been easier to take care of it like the mobsters we really are and execute a hit on him instead of a war on “all terrorists” that will never end and will still possibly take the whole world down. We played right into a unworthy little gang’s hands and at a minimum, after 10 years, if you can’t figure out your own version of a response that would be at least a lot more logical and a lot more successful then what happened, then, again, I see no way to reason with you. My creative sense tells me that shortly, the cost will be even more obvious than it is now. I predict that in 5 more years, even people who think the way you do now will begin to realize what the continuation of the Afghanistan war has done to our society in relation to how many veterans are back home causing a level of violence here that at first will be exploding inside homes as domestic violence but will eventually spill out all over our streets, chemically fueled by the new habit that damaged young people have of combining red-bull and alcohol. Obviously, that last part is just speculation. I mention only because I see your position as partly just a failure of creativity. Prove me wrong on that point by telling me what you envision happening and establishing itself 5 years from now as a result of what you see as a successful war.

  4. It strikes me that there is a ‘failure of imagination’ lying therein bordering on category error. fiction rarely envisioned the world we would encounter, in a genre sense, the little noticed “Executive
    Decision” was most prescient, ” The SIEGE’ helmed by future Looming Tower” author Lawrence Wright was closer, but he had to insert a bete noire, in Willis’s GEN. Devereaux, to some how rationalize the terror cells action.Science Fiction, best told it in allegorical fashion,the alien flotillas of “Independence Day”, the Bugs of the ill considered Verhoeven’ Starship Troopers’, and the Chiggers of SABA.

  5. Scott, that’s a lot of points. I’ll try answering a couple of them that I think are central.

    1. we should have waited to find out who they were

    we knew who they were and we knew where they were headquartered.
    we had peacefully petitioned the Taliban government for some years before 9/11 to close the AQ training camps and stop providing a home for terrorists not native to Afghanistan. We asked them to expel them and to give us bin Laden.
    you’ll find a bunch of UN resolutions (1193, 1214, 1297 ) petitioning the Taliban.
    “more peaceful means” didn’t work.

    2. small group of madmen incapable of doing anything more

    how small is small?

    their camps in Afghanistan were pretty large and had trained 10,000 or 20,000 or more people most of whom scattered and went to Central Asia or the islands in the Far Pacific or Africa to preach the word of bloody struggle. A couple of thousand came from Europe and returned.

    just how incapable

    AQ and bin Leaden were getting a lot of press and winning admirers.

    The attacks on us didn’t start with 9/11. They escalated to that rather large and spectacular thing and there was no reason to think that the attacks wouldn’t continue or that they might not further escalate.

    Afghanistan was a great base from which to build and AQ was supported by large sums of cash from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and had a huge population of Pakistanis educated in hard-core fundamentalist schools financed by Saudi money.

    The training camps in Afghanistan had the blessing and participation of Pakistan’s military/intelligence who sent trainees that the Pakistanis would use to attack India in Kashmir.

    I’m not sure how incapable they were or would have been.

    and 5 years on,

    things in Afghanistan and the neighborhood won’t be good and they won’t be as bad as they would have been. the Saudis were forced to reassess and withdraw their support for bin Laden and the Pakistanis have been pushed away from continued provocations against India and their blatant support for terrorism was rolled back.

    my imagination tells me that Pakistan was headed toward becoming a far darker and more dangerous place than it now is, and what it is now is awfully bad.

  6. Frog:
    We both tried here. We can give ourselves credit for that and move on. For reasons having nothing to do with this exchange or anything else having to do with the blog, I won’t be commenting much if at all for a few weeks. So I want my temporary leave to be smooth. I hope things go well for the Yanks and that this month in particular turns out to be a healing time for all New Yorkers.

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