Posts Tagged ‘Osama Bin Laden’

The Winklevoss Twins of Getting Bin Laden

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Why are we listening to the Bush administration officials anyway? They didn’t get Bin Laden. They’re like the Winklevoss Twins of getting Bin Laden. If you were the guys who were going to kill Bin Laden, you would have killed Bin Laden!

-Jon Stewart on last night’s Daily Show.

When Bin Laden was killed, many of my more right-wing friends were oddly silent. Rather than the relief I and so many others felt, they seemed discomfited — not by the tactics or legality or potential consequences of the action, but by a cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile their visceral dislike of Obama as anti-American and perhaps even sympathetic to terrorists and their approval of his actions. Then Rush Limbaugh gave them the defense mechanism they needed — and suddenly it became glaringly obvious to them that Obama was taking too much credit for the operation, that he had used first person pronouns way too much in the speech. (Though the words of the speech don’t bear that out.)

But worse than Limbaugh’s attempts to insulate his audience from that uncomfortable feeling of challenging their preconceptions about Obama are the former Bush administration officials’ attempts to take credit for themselves, using this triumph of American military force and intelligence to justify their subversion of both.

As outrageous as it sound, the contemporaneous record reflects that the Bush administration prioritized Saddam over Bin Laden shortly after 9/11 and was unwilling to provide the boots on the ground or even drones urgently requested by the CIA and Special Forces tracking Bin Laden in the aftermath. The Bush administration was unwilling to provide the Pakistani army the air transport they claimed they needed to move troops to the border to secure it even as the Bush administration relieved relied upon and trusted the Pakistani army to secure their wild and lawless border to cut off Bin Laden’s escape. Worse still, the “intelligence” provided by illegal, tortured confessions in contradiction of America’s long military and intelligence history were used to justify the Bush administration’s belief that Saddam and Bin Laden were working together on a WMD attack on America — and later, this same intelligence sources under torture, provided the basis for shutting down the team focused on finding Bin Laden, as they pretended he was a mere figurehead. (A logical bit of information to make up if you wanted an interrogation to end and you couldn’t give them the actionable intelligence to find Bin Laden they wanted.) It was this last bit of intelligence which the former Bush administration officials claim credit for being used to find Bin Laden:

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

Obama, upon taking office, did not do anything incredible. What he did do was to apply some common sense that the panic-stricken and Iraq-obsessed Bush administration had missed — he re-focused the national security apparatus on destroying Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. That’s why drone attacks began to increase when he became president. That’s part of the reason why he surged troops into Afghanistan. That’s why — as a candidate — Obama promised that he would go into Pakistan after Bin Laden even if the Pakistanis did not sanction the operation. (This bit of common sense caused Hillary Clinton and John McCain to slam him for his position.) That’s why the Bin Laden operation was so carefully planned for, with every possible scenario gamed out — from scenarios where the Special Forces needed to fight their way out of Pakistan to teams ready to interrogate him.

There was certainly a great deal of luck involved — and if the Bush administration had been presented with the same opportunity to get Bin Laden, I’m sure they would have taken it. But surely it is not a coincidence that the administration that had higher priorities than finding Bin Laden let him slip through their fingers several times while the administration that focused the mighty resources of the United States military and intelligence apparatus on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden found the opportunity that had failed to present itself for seven long years under Bush’s leadership.

Leadership matters. It’s a little too late to take credit now.

In Response To Those Disturbed By Celebrating on the Death of Bin Laden

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started seeing this quote popping up in my Facebook feed last night. In response, let me say 2 things:

(1) It’s fake. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say that. It’s loosely based on this quote.

(2) Do you remember your first time watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid? That feeling of elation in the moments after the witch melted and the munchkins and everyone else began to sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!”?

Whether rational or not, the figure of Osama Bin Laden — and our inability to find him — has loomed over our consciousness since September 11. His survival despite America’s might directed against him, despite the abhorrence of his crimes, suggested impotence and an inability to control events and affect our own fate. The knowledge that not only did he survive, but he continued to plan to kill and terrorize — that at any moment, some decision of his which we had no way of affecting could wreck the lives of thousands, even our own — loomed over us. But on May 1, 2011, order was restored and the villain taken down. And that is a catharsis worthy of storybooks.

Voices urging restraint and caution at such moments of national catharsis are good and worthy. Because moments of catharsis can be distorted — they can turn to ugly emotions. Wisdom counsels that we “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.”  It is unseemly to celebrate murder — and all too easy to demonize one’s enemies to justify resorting to violence. But as another wise man said,  ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And it was Martin Luther King who said, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” — and even as this prophet of non-violence may not have condoned it — in Bin Laden’s violent end by American hands, there was justice.

An evil man who claimed theological justification and technological means to murder millions; who inspired, authorized and directed the killing of thousands; who wanted women confined to a second-class status; who directed the killings of the vast majority of Muslims as unclean unbelievers — an evil man who murdered 3,000 souls on one fateful September morning — this Sunday, he was removed from this world.

And the world is better for it.

And for that, we should all celebrate.

[Image by Dan Nguyen @ New York City licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Bureaucracy of Al Qaeda

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Jason Burke and Ian Black assessed the state of Al Qaeda for the Guardian last week. Their conclusion: Al Qaeda has been decimated, especially by recent attacks on its middle management, and they are having trouble gaining new recruits, in part because of various bureaucratic obstacles Al Qaeda has put in place which have detracted from the “romance” of the terrorist life, including:

  • Requiring recruits “to pay around $1,000 (£600) for their equipment, weapons and accommodation…”
  • Making Bin Laden impossible to see.
  • Forbidding recruits from going outside.
  • Running a kind of ad hoc training that: “involved little live firing; they underwent weeks of religious instruction from a junior cleric; an instructor made a bomb, but they had no opportunity to try themselves.”
  • And best of all, Al Qaeda required them to fill out “forms in triplicate before sitting exams to test his suitability for a suicide attack…”

If there’s a certain set of individuals who are willing to blow themselves up, and another set of individuals willing to fill out forms in triplicate, I would guess the overlap is relatively small.

[Image by Mike Kline licensed under Creative Commons.]

Generation Green: Connecting the Pakistani Lawyers Movement to the Iranian Green Revolution

Monday, June 15th, 2009

I’m struck by the similarities between the spirit of the Iranian election – and the subsequent protests – and the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan this March. In both cases, the government promised to honor certain principles and then went back on its word – in Iran, by holding an election; in Pakistan, as President Zardari promised to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Supreme Court.

Then both went back on their word – and the people, to their credit protested. They were cynical about the motives of these leaders – but they refused to react with world-weary cynicism. They knew hope – and in their hope, they gained strength.

The elite power brokers in both nations believed they could get away with whatever they wanted – apparently believing that elections and campaigns and laws were merely a cover for their power politics. But the people took these ideas seriously.

In Pakistan, President Zardari made a campaign promise to reinstate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court known for his independence. Justice Chaudhry had been removed from his post when he appeared to be preparing to declare President Musharaff’s declaration of martial law illegal – and this act by Musharaff was considered the final straw by many in Pakistan frustrated by how the Rule of Law was constantly subverted by the elites in their power games, thus holding their entire nation back. So began the Lawyers Movement which fought to restore the Rule of Law, to remove Musharaff from power, and to reinstate the Chief Justice. After achieving some measure of the first two objectives, forcing Musharaff to resign and electing a new president, Zardari, having promised to uphold the Rule of Law and reinstate Chaudhry – the movement seemed to have won. But after months of stalling, it began to seem as if Zardari had no intention of restoring Chaudhry. Rallies continued – led by different groups across the country – building in intensity – and in a dramatic series of events, a key opposition leader broke out of house arrest to participate in a massive protest to force the reinstatement of Chaudhry. As a final show of determination, a series of rallies was supposed to culminate in a march to the Pakistani capital from all directions as the people took back their capital. In the midst of this chaos, the police and military for the first time in Pakistani history refused to control the demonstrators and stood aside. On the verge of this demonstration, Zardari gave in – reinstating the Chief Justice this March.

In Iran, the extemist mullahs panicked as the people rejected their hardline, isolationist views in favor of the offer of rapprochement with the West offered by Obama. Despite the fact that only candidates hand-picked by the Guardian Council were running – and that the reformers were led by a candidate described as an Iranian Michael Dukakis – and despite the fact that state organs and the Supreme Leader clearly favored Ahmadinejad – a grass roots movement took root on Twitter, on Facebook, in text messages, in blogs, in enormous rallies held by Mousavi in the weeks leading up to the election, and in shouts from the rooftops after the election when all other methods of communication had been cut off. And in all liklihood, according to polls by the Iranian government before the election, and leaked results after it, Mousavi won a resounding victory. And so far, the people have not backed down – as they continue to rally and agitate. After declaring the results of the election “divine,” the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene has begun to show signs of relenting as he has ordered an investigation into vote fraud. Couple this with the rash of resignations and unprecedented public protests by top Iranian leaders and clerics, and there is the potential for real change.

It seems hard not to connect these two demonstrations for political rights in Pakistan and Iran. And to note that leading them is the exact young generation of Muslims whom we were so afraid of after September 11. One of the recurring themes of Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric – and one of the key sources of his legitimacy – is his outrage at the corrupt dictatorships ruling the Middle East – which makes these demonstrations of the people on the edges of the Middle East reminding their leaders that they cannot tread lightly over the consent of the governed all the more significant.

And perhaps, Obama saw this before most – as he called in his Cairo speech for “a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals” that “government [should be] of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power.” Obama explained that legitimacy is gained “through consent, not coercion.”

It remains to be seen if the Iranian protests will be successful – though the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered an investigation into vote fraud is a slight sign to be hopeful. A stronger sign is what forced him to call for the investigation – as over this weekend in the streets of Tehran we saw a largely peaceful and determined insistence by the Iranian people on a government by consent, not coercion.

[Image from Andrew Sullivan's blog.]

Will Bin Laden Endorse McCain?

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Do you remember when the Bin Laden tape in 2004 was spun by Fox News and the right-wing as a Bin Laden endorsement of John Kerry?

If – as Charlie Black, a top Washington lobbyist unti McCain put him on his payroll, admitted – it is the conventional wisdom that a terrorist attack before the election would “be a big advantage” for McCain in the election and help get him elected…

And as McCain’s policies of military over-extension, fiscal irresponsibility, and continued occupation and war in the Middle East fit nicely into Al Qaeda’s master plan

Wouldn’t that logically make any terrorist attack on American soil, or any surprise videos putting Bin Laden front-and-center, an effective endorsement of McCain?

Just asking…

Defying Common Sense Since 2001

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Mr. Bush would like to be remembered for his leadership in fighting terrorism, but his decisions have defied common sense, including his dismissal of the fact that Mr. bin Laden remains at large. In a 2002 press conference, he said, “I just don’t spend that much time on him.” In 2006, he told conservative columnists that sending troops “stomping through Pakistan in order to find bin Laden is just simply not the strategy that will work.”

Mr. Bush is operating according to a logic that says the right way to win against Al Qaeda is to invade Iraq, which had no connection to Al Qaeda. And the right way to dismantle Mr. bin Laden’s terrorism network is to express unconcern about chasing him down while relentlessly pursuing his driver.

The New York Times editorializing on the Hamdan case.

Osama Outraged at Magazine Cover

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Courtesy of Tripartisan, the magazine cover that islamist extremists are outraged over.

Evaluating McCain’s ‘realistic idealism’

Thursday, May 29th, 2008


[Photo courtesy of christhedunn.]

In an article in the New York Times evaluating John McCain’s foreign policy vision, Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state under the first President George Bush, described a fight currently being waged within the Republican party over the potential direction of McCain’s foreign policy: “It may be too strong a term to say a fight is going on over John McCain’s soul. But … there is at least going to be an attempt.” Eagleburger was referring to was the foreign policy chasm between the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan1 , and George H. W. Bush and the Republican party of George W. Bush; between the realists and the idealists; between the paleo-cons and the neo-cons.

John McCain been playing both sides of this intra-Republican war since George W. Bush took office. In his most prominent speech on foreign policy, he described himself as a “realistic idealist.” He explained that his particular approach to the world came from his idealistic core being tempered by “hard experience.” He claims to bridge the chasm between these two approaches, and through his career he has mainly managed to assuage both sides. On the most prominent issue in recent years, Iraq, most of the pragmatists questioned, and often publicly opposed, the decision to launch a preemptive war in the Middle East; the neo-cons were the main proponents of the war. McCain managed to placate both sides by criticizing the execution of the war and the tactical decisions of the Bush administration while defending the overall strategy strongly. In this, McCain was essentially taking the neo-con side in the long-term, but allying himself for the short-term with the realists.

Though this approach has worked well for McCain as a senator, it would be impossible to continue as president because McCain would then have responsibility for both the overall strategy of the War on Terrorism and the tactics used.

For the moment, both the realist camps and the neo-conservative camps believe McCain is on their side at heart. But he can’t be on both sides. If we are to try to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like, it is unhelpful to list the specific policies and attitudes he has stated he will adopt towards particular nations. Foreign policy is a constantly shifting, adjusting use of power – and the single area of policy most directly and completely within the control of the executive. What is useful in trying to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like is an understanding of the basic assumptions McCain has about foreign policy.

  1. A focus, first and foremost, on the overriding and existential threat of “radical Islamist extremism.”
    McCain considers problems such as China’s rise, Russia’s increasing belligerence, and global climate change as far less important than the defining “national security challenge of our time.” I posited in an earlier post that it is because of the importance of the fight against Islamist extremism that McCain has flip-flopped on so many other domestic and national security issues: “After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy.”
  2. A demand for moral clarity.
    McCain has, throughout his career, sought enemies to fight. His personal sense of his self seems to demand that he be the white knight and those opposing him be the forces of evil itself. This is an exaggeration certainly2 , but this demand for absolute clarity leads to a poor understanding of the world, especially of our enemies. For example, McCain does not merely lack an understanding of the Muslim world; his positions indicate he has imposed a particular ideological framework on his understanding – a framework which does not allow for distinctions among radical groups.3 While many on the right praise McCain’s moral clarity for condemning radical Islamist extremists as the evil-doers they are, it seems an unquestionably poor strategy in a War on Terrorism to unite our enemies instead of attempting to divide them. It is notable that McCain does not mention the clear and tactically vital divisions among our enemies and among our allies in the Middle East. The words “Sunni” or “Shia” are not mentioned in either of McCain’s two attempts to lay out his entire foreign policy. In this way, McCain is continuing the tradition of George W. Bush.
  3. Iraq as the central front in the War on Terrorism.
    McCain cites Al Qaeda as proof that Iraq is a central front in the War on Terrorism. But Sun Tzu, ancient and wise author of The Art of War, has said that one of the first steps to winning a war is to choose the battlefield that gives you the most advantages. Al Qaeda apparently feels that Iraq plays to their advantages. In many ways, they are right. In an extraordinary article in The New Republic, Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank write of the “jihadist revolt against Bin Laden.” They cite a range of Muslim religious leaders, former and current terrorists, and a man described the “the ideological father of Al Qaeda” who were sympathetic to Bin Laden, even after September 11, who have all publicly broken from Al Qaeda in the past several years4 . Bergen and Cruickshank caution that:

    Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad)

    But Bergen and Cruickshank still believe that the anti-Al Qaeda positions of these radicals are making Americans safer. John McCain refuses to differentiate between the insurgency and the forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq – an enormous tactical blunder. And it is mainly because of this confusion that he has declared that Iraq is the central front of the War on Terrorism, when in fact, it is one of the few areas that unite jihadists opposed to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda itself. 5

  4. Premised on the exclusive power of nation-states.
    In contrast to Richard Haas, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, who believes we are in an age of non-polarity with non-state forces multiplying and state power dispersing, McCain premises his foreign policy on the power of nation-states – both America’s power and that of other nations – to affect virtually every area of policy. As McCain sets forth his foreign policy vision, he describes his policy country by country; for those issues he considered global, he describes how he will get other countries to act with us. While his aims here are clearly worthy, he seems to misunderstand how the world has been developing since the end of the Cold War. This assumption also underlies his focus on Iraq in the War on Terrorism. Even as Al Qaeda did much of the planning for it’s attacks in the lawless areas of Pakistan and within the free societies of Berlin, London, and New York City, McCain, like Bush, has focused on the role of states in assisting terrorism. Although this is certainly one component of any War Against Terrorism, it clearly should not be the main focus. One of the achievements of four years of a McCain presidency would be, according to a speech given by the candidate two weeks ago, that “There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven.” Certainly a worthy goal – but it is belied by the fact that Al Qaeda can function within the freedoms offered by a Western democracy. The theory underpinning this claim, this hope, of McCain’s is that Al Qaeda can only function with some form of state sponsorship – which does not seem to be a supportable assumption.
  5. Demonstrations of toughness.
    Since John F. Kennedy suffered through his meeting with Kruschev in Vienna6 , presidents have been trying to prove their toughness to the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis was mainly a demonstration of toughness on the part of Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson pushed the line in Vietnam to show he was tough; Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada to demonstrate his toughness after retreating when attacked by Muslim extremists in Lebanon; Bill Clinton bombed countries to show his toughness; George W. Bush invaded Iraq and authorized torture. In the current campaign, each of the remaining candidates has tried to demonstrate their toughness in revealing ways. Hillary Clinton threatened to obliterate Iran; Barack Obama vowed to take out Bin Laden or a top Al Qaeda operative with or without Pakistan’s permission; John McCain has promised to continue the War in Iraq. The lesson I take from the historical examples is that “demonstrations of toughness” provide a boost domestically for a short time but rarely make the desired impression internationally, and are an exceptionally bad basis for a policy. McCain, by promising not to back down from Al Qaeda in Iraq, is buying into the Bush doctrine of replacing a genuine strategy to combat terrorism with “demonstrations of toughness”.
  6. Acting as “good global citizens.”
    This is the central difference between John McCain’s foreign policy vision and George W. Bush’s. He believes it is important that America act as a “good global citizen” and a good ally. For McCain, this means working internationally to combat global climate change, being open to persuasion by our allies, ending the policy of military torture of detainees7 , and numerous goodwill gestures. The Bush administration has begun to move in this direction in his second term already. McCain would be able to move further along, and could make genuine progress on global climate change.
  7. Inherent American exceptionalism.
    This idea is directly related to McCain’s demand for moral clarity. Just as he sees himself as essentially incorruptible, so he sees America. This idealization of America is what made his opposition to torture so inspiring. He was calling on the ideal conception of America to combat a corrupting evil which had been introduced into our system. In a similar way, he used his ideal conception of America to argue for the reform of our political process in his 2000 campaign. His foreign policy though demonstrates how this can be a very bad assumption to make. It is one thing to point to American history and to say that we have been an exceptional nation – as Obama regularly does. McCain implies an inherence to America’s goodness, one that exists irrespective of our actions. This assumption underlies McCain’s insistence that the decision to invade Iraq was right8 ; that the Bush administration’s strategy in the War on Terrorism is essentially sound; that a change in tone is what is mainly needed to rally our allies; that we remain the world’s “only monument of human rights” in spite of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret prisons, torture, and Iraq; that we must still “protect and promote” democracy to the Middle East; and that America offers a “unique form of leadership – the antithesis of empire – [which] gives us moral credibility, which is more powerful than any show of arms9 .” This is a dangerous idea in a large part because it is not shared by most of the world. For example, although we can declare we are the “antithesis of empire”, we will still be treated as one as long as we are projecting our military, economic, and political power around the world and occupying a sovereign nation.

Some questions remain about McCain’s basic views on foreign policy – many stemming from his triangulation between the neo-cons and realists for the past decade. I’ll be posting some of them later.

(more…)

  1. One could argue that Ronald Reagan was not a pragmatist, but many of his administration were, and his foreign policy was essentially pragmatism wedded to extreme rhetoric. []
  2. Hopefully. []
  3. As his comments in Iraq made clear. Those who would defend McCain as having “mis-spoke” can look to at least three instances when he expressed the same idea. []
  4. Most since 2005. []
  5. The distinction here should be a bit more subtle as the jihadists referenced by Bergen and Cruickshank oppose Al Qaeda’s tactics in Iraq, so they are not totally united on that issue. []
  6. And probably before. []
  7. Torture by the CIA is apparently still a deliberately gray area. []
  8. For if America is inherently good, it cannot be ill-motivated. []
  9. One of McCain’s top foreign policy advisors, Niall Ferguson, wrote a book explaining that by virtually any definition, America is an empire. []