Focus on Trade No. 68, October 2001

After over two weeks of Anglo-American bombardment of Afghanistan, once one gets beyond the sound and fury of American bombs and the smokescreen of CNN propaganda, it appears that in the war between the United States and Osama bin Laden, the latter is coming out ahead.

“Making the Rubble Bounce”

It is doubtful if Washington has achieved anything of tactical or strategic value except to make the “rubble bounce”, as the consequences of multiple nuclear explosions in one area were cynically described during Cold War. Indeed, the bombing, which has taken the lives of many civilians, has worsened the US’s strategic position in Southwest and South Asia by eroding the stability of the pro-US regimes in the Muslim world. A radical fundamentalist regime is now a real possibility in Islamabad, while Washington faces the unpleasant prospect of having to serve ultimately as a police force between an increasingly isolated Saudi elite and a restive youthful population that regards bin Laden as a hero.

Meanwhile in the rest of the developing world, the shock over the September 11 assault is giving way to disapproval of the US bombing and, even more worrisome to Washington, to bin Laden’s emergence in the public consciousness as a feisty underdog skillfully running circles around a big bully who only knows one response: massive retaliation. A telling sign of the times in Bangkok and many other cities in Southeast Asia is the way young people are snapping up bin Laden T-shirts, and not only for reasons of novelty.

Anglo-Saxon Brotherhood

CNN images of US President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell ticking off the latest statement of support for the US mask the reality that Washington and London are losing the propaganda war. Their effort to paint the military campaign as a conflict between civilization and terrorists has instead come across as a crusade of the Anglo-Saxon brotherhood against the Islamic world. So jarring has British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s public relations drive to make Britain an equal partner in the war effort that the foreign minister of Belgium, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, has felt compelled to criticize Blair for compromising the interests of the EU.

In the aftermath of the September 11 assault, a number of writers wrote about the possibility that that move could have been a bait to get the US bogged down in a war of intervention in the Middle East that would inflame the Muslim world against it. Whether or not that was indeed bin Laden’s strategic objective, the US bombing of Afghanistan has created precisely such a situation. Moderate leaders of Thailand’s normally sedate Muslim community now openly express support for bin Laden. In Indonesia, once regarded as a model of tolerant Islam, a recent survey revealed that half of the respondents regard bin Laden as a fighter for justice and less than 35 per cent regard him as a terrorist.

The global support that US President George Bush has flaunted is deceptive. Of course, a lot of governments would express their support for the UN Security Council’s call for a global campaign against terrorism. Far fewer countries, however, are actually actively cooperating in intelligence and police surveillance activities. Even fewer have endorsed the military campaign and opened up their territory to transit by US planes on the way to Southwest Asia. And when one gets down to the decisive test of offering troops and weapons to fight alongside the British and the Americans in the harsh plains and icy mountains of Afghanistan, one is down to the hardcore of the Western Cold War alliance.

Translating Guerrilla War to a Global Setting

Bin Laden’s terrorist methods are despicable, but one must grant the devil his due. Whether through study or practice, he has absorbed the lessons of guerrilla warfare in a national, Afghan setting and translated it to a global setting. Serving as the international correlate of the national popular base is the youth of the global Muslim community, among whom feelings of resentment against Western domination were a volatile mix that was simply waiting to be ignited.

The September 11 attacks were horrific and heinous, but from one angle, what were they except a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory? According to Guevara, the aim of a bold guerrilla action is twofold: to demoralize the enemy and to empower your popular base by getting them to participate in an action that shows that the all-powerful government is indeed vulnerable. The enemy is then provoked into a military response that further saps his credibility in what is basically a political and ideological battle. For bin Laden, terrorism is not the end but a means to an end. And that end is something that none of Bush’s rhetoric about defending civilization through revenge bombing can compete with: a vision of Muslim Asia rid of American economic and military power, Israel, and corrupt surrogate elites, and returned to justice and Islamic sanctity.

Lost Opportunity

Yet Washington was not exactly without weapons in this ideological war. In the aftermath of September 11, it could have responded in a way that could have blunted bin Laden’s political and ideological appeal and opened up a new era in US-Arab relations.

First, it could have foresworn unilateral military action and announced to the world that it would go the legal route in pursuing justice, no matter how long this took. It could have announced its pursuit of a process combining patient multinational investigation, diplomacy, and the employment of accepted international mechanisms like the International Court of Justice.

These methods may take time but they work, and they ensure that justice and fairness are served. For instance, patient diplomacy secured the extradition from Libya of suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, and their successful prosecution under an especially constituted court in the Hague. Likewise, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, set up under the auspices of the ICJ, has successfully prosecuted some wartime Croat and Serbian terrorists and is currently prosecuting former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, though of course much remains to be done.

The second prong of a progressive US response could have been Washington’s announcing a fundamental change in its policies in the Middle East, the main points of which would be the withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia, the ending of sanctions and military action against Iraq, decisive support for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, and ordering Israel to immediately refrain from attacks on Palestinian communities.

Foreign policy realists will say that this strategy is impossible to sell to the American people, but they have been wrong before. Had the US taken this route, instead of taking the law-as usual-in its own hands, it could have emerged as an example of a great power showing restraint and paved the way to a new era of relations among people and nations. The instincts of a unilateral, imperial past, however, have prevailed, and they have now run rampage to such an extent that, even on the home front, the rights of dissent and democratic diversity that have been one of the powerful ideological attractions of US society are fundamentally threatened by the draconian legislation being pushed by law-and-order types like Secretary of Justice John Ashcroft that are taking advantage of the current crisis to push through their pre-September 11 authoritarian agendas.

No Win Situation

As things now stand, Washington has painted itself into a no-win situation.

  • If it kills bin Laden, he becomes a martyr, a source of never-ending inspiration, especially to young Muslims.
  • If it captures him alive, freeing him will become a massive focus of resistance that will prevent the imposition of capital punishment without triggering massive revolts throughout the Islamic world.
  • If it fails to kill or capture him, he will secure an aura of invincibility, as somebody favored by God, and whose cause is therefore just.

As Tom Spencer, a policy analyst of Britain’s Conservative Party, has observed, bin Laden has been turned into a “Robin Hood”.

September 11 was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but the US response has converted the equation in many people’s minds into a war between vision and power, righteousness and might, and, perverse as this may sound, spirit versus matter. You won’t get this from CNN and the New York Times, but Washington has stumbled into bin Laden’s preferred terrain of battle.