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By failing to accurately assess Osama bin Laden’s motives in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration committed the U.S. to a foreign policy in the Middle East that plays into bin Laden’s nefarious interests. Bin Laden was not simply a religious fanatic dedicated to the destruction of pluralistic and democratic Western society, even though it may have been politically expedient and emotionally cathartic to characterize him that way. Instead, bin Laden endeavored to stir up turmoil in the Middle East that would lead to the establishment of additional Islamic theocracies in the region.
In a speech less than two weeks after the attacks, President Bush argued that the U.S. was locked in bitter combat with an enemy bent on nothing less than “remaking the world—and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” Because Bush assumed that bin Laden was motivated purely by his hatred of “America and other free nations,” his administration crafted a foreign policy based on aggressive, preemptive action. No longer would the United States merely defend itself from imminent threats, as we rightfully did in Afghanistan. Our leadership wanted the option to eliminate any threat that might become imminent, regardless of the uncertain consequences.
The first clues that bin Laden had much more focused goals were apparent within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks. By all accounts, al Qaeda was a vast and powerful organization, benefiting from sophisticated command structures and substantial financial resources. Despite these capabilities, however, al Qaeda did not press the offensive—a strategic decision, not a tactical blunder. The Sept. 11 attacks were not intended to be an opening salvo in a sustained campaign against the U.S. homeland. They were intended to elicit a military-political response from the United States that would be perceived by the moderate peoples of the Middle East as an attack on Islam itself, thereby galvanizing support for the creation of Muslim theocracies in the Gulf.
The arrests of six members of an alleged al Qaeda cell in Lackawanna, NY in Sept. 2002 indicates that bin Laden’s organization maintained clandestine operatives in the country after the Sept. 11 attacks. Furthermore, the Associated Press reported that the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—an important al Qaeda operational planner captured in March—produced evidence that bin Laden himself was responsible for managing the tactical scale of the attacks. Taken together, this information suggests that al Qaeda had the operational sophistication, the opportunity and the in-place assets to plan and execute broader strikes against domestic targets in late 2001, but chose not to do so.
While bin Laden may dream of the destruction of the U.S., evidence suggests that he is too smart, too well-educated and too strategically sophisticated to believe that it is a rational possibility. It is likely, instead, that bin Laden and the al Qaeda network are working towards the more limited goal of Islamic revolution in the Gulf States and the eventual establishment of autocratic Islamic theocracies. Of all things, bin Laden despises the United States for the presence of its military forces in Saudi Arabia. His motives for the strategic attacks against the United States, therefore, were the same as when he fought with the Mujahedeen against the Soviets 15 years earlier—to drive the infidel from the homelands of Muslim peoples, no homeland being more important than his own.
Recognizing that he could not lead a standard insurgency in Saudi Arabia—largely because the U.S. military was there by invitation, not force—bin Laden instead needed to galvanize the moderate Arab majorities in the Gulf to oppose the U.S. and support Islamic revolution. To achieve this, he progressively escalated his strikes against the U.S.—the East African embassies, the U.S.S. Cole and finally the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—in an effort to wake the proverbial sleeping giant. It is logical to speculate that bin Laden was counting on a violent U.S. military response to convert the Arab masses to his cause and facilitate political upheaval in the Gulf States.
While bin Laden probably did not anticipate the rapid collapse of the Taliban, he has nonetheless achieved partial success. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are at their lowest point in decades. During this year’s invasion of Iraq, the Saudis refused to allow us to conduct conspicuous military operations from their soil, and the majority of U.S. forces stationed there have been withdrawn. We have invaded Iraq and deposed a regime that bin Laden hated only slightly less than the United States, but was nonetheless incapable of openly challenging himself. The popular response on the Arab street, as suggested by the massive protests in Cairo and Amman, clearly indicate growing animosity towards the U.S. Finally, the U.S.’s inability to quickly stabilize and reconstruct Iraq—regardless of fault—has created a focal point for anti-American Islamic militants to recruit new operatives and violently engage American troops.
Simply regarding bin Laden as a fanatic—albeit a well-organized and violent one—vastly underestimates his intentions, and consequently, his capabilities. The frightening reality is that he is an intelligent, rational geopolitical strategist. As all good geopolitical strategists do, Osama bin Laden has developed a clear endgame. But given the Bush administration’s willingness to alienate allies and Arabs through inflammatory rhetoric and unilateral action, I sometimes wonder when Bush will get around to doing the same.
J. Brendan Mullen is an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Council of International Hospitals, a division of The Advisory Board Company.
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