“If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” President Barack Obama told David Remnick in a newly published New Yorker interview, by way of dismissing the current incarnations of al-Qaida. As far as planning another Sept. 11-style spectacular on American soil goes, Obama may be right. But to understand al-Qaida as an NBA franchise-style operation suggests a profound misunderstanding of the strategic purpose of the Sept. 11 attacks—which was not to create circumstances favorable to more big attacks on American soil, or to ensure organizational continuity, but rather to set off a history-altering chain reaction that would transform the Middle East into a region where the United States was no longer in charge of much of anything.
Unlike Obama, who hailed the so-called Arab Spring as the dawning of a new age of democracy in the Middle East, or Bush and his adviser Condoleezza Rice, who imagined Iraq as a model for other Arab states, Osama Bin Laden was never interested in short-term results, or in Western-style democracy. Despite his fondness for sound-bites, he thought in historical time, guided by his own strategic vision—which he hoped would lead to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
And judging from his last known private letter, dated April 25, 2011, Bin Laden died a happy man. “What we are witnessing these days of consecutive revolutions is a great and glorious event,” he mused, after watching the fall of the secular, Western-backed regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, which he watched on CNN, before the daring Navy SEAL raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. “[T]hanks to Allah things are strongly heading toward the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America.”
Even at this late date, it seems difficult for American policymakers to grasp exactly how Bin Laden’s mastery of the inherently paradoxical logic of warfare—a logic very different than the linear cause-and-effect style of reasoning that governs normal life and electoral politics alike—allowed a man without a country, heavy weapons, or even broadband Internet access to reshape the world to his advantage. The clarity of Bin Laden’s strategic insight, which now seems obvious, also suggests that the dynamic that he deliberately set in motion is still unfolding, in ways that he foresaw before his death—ways that continue to roil the Middle East and will continue to pose a threat to the safety of Americans at home.
There has been no shortage of popular attempts over the past decade to understand Osama Bin Laden’s personal history and religious beliefs, as a way of illuminating the origins and consequences of what most Western readers and policymakers still imagine as a singular and shocking expression of hate. Bin Laden has been portrayed as a spoiled rich kid discombobulated by the sudden oil wealth of his native Saudi Arabia; as a religiously motivated visionary who sought to fracture the space-time continuum and return to the seventh century, when Islam was born; as a former ally of the United States in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, outraged by the presence of American troops on Arabian soil; as the media-savvy creator of a global terror brand; and as a superannuated jihadist who spent his days solving quarrels among his three wives. But while all of these stories are dramatically compelling, and most of them are true, none of them explain why Bin Laden was any different from tens of thousands of other jihadists—or how he was able to topple America from its position of primacy in the Middle East.
What made Bin Laden so influential among his fellow jihadists before Sept. 11 was his unique strategy for turning the world’s only superpower—the “far enemy”—into a tool that could be used to reshape the Middle East in a way that would undermine the Arab regimes—“the near enemy”—which they sought to overthrow. Bin Laden’s insight was that while the jihadist movement was far too weak to overthrow the Arab regimes directly, there was a world power strong enough to make the ground shift beneath the feet of Arab rulers—namely, the United States.
American politicians and pundits still roll their eyes at the suggestion that Bin Laden was guided by a coherent long-term strategy to attack America with the aim of provoking U.S. attacks on Muslim countries, where the jihadists could bleed the Americans dry and eventually force them to withdraw, which would leave local pro-American rulers isolated and unprotected by their superpower patron, and which would in turn set off a subsequent chain of revolutionary events that would bend the arc of Arab history in his favor. The logic is too contradictory, and the thinking too long-term, for a polity that measures time in Internet news cycles. Except that’s exactly what Bin Laden foresaw—and exactly what has happened.
Bin Laden was never shy about explaining what he was doing and why. His public statements about his strategic logic and goals in targeting “the far enemy” remained remarkably consistent, from his first fatwa against America until the last letter he wrote before his death. In his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” published soon after the Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia, he explained that “it is essential to hit the main enemy who divided the Ummah”—the Muslim world—“into small and little countries and pushed it, for the last few decades, into a state of confusion.”
America’s response to an attack would be to get sucked into a war, he predicted—and when the going got tough, the United States would cut and run. Responding to then-U.S. Defense Sec. William Perry, who had called the Khobar bombers cowards and had sworn not to give in, Bin Laden asked, “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD (1403 A.H). You were turned into scattered pits and pieces at that time; 241 Marine soldiers were killed.”
Turning to the Clinton Administration’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1993 and 1994, Bin Laden was even more scathing. “Tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal.” He then ran through his strategy again in a statement in the name of the World Islamic Front, delivered to Arab newspapers in London after al-Qaida’s 1998 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors.
In public and private following the Sept. 11 attacks, he returned to the same themes, over and over again, in at least three-quarters of his public statements and in private letters to other jihadists that were seized from his compound in Abbotabad and later made public. “The goal is to weaken America until it can no longer interfere in Muslims affairs,” he explained, in a letter whose contents were entirely typical of his communications. “Once the American enemy has been defeated, our next step would be targeting the region’s leaders who had been the pillars of support for that American hegemony.”
It is proof of Bin Laden’s mastery of the unexpected logic that animates strategic thought, and of the glaring inability of America’s political leaders to think strategically, that not one but two American presidents have faithfully acted their roles in his geo-political script: George W. Bush, the hawk, with his open-ended and heavy-handed occupation of Iraq; and Barack Obama, the dove, with his precipitous and wholesale withdrawal of American military forces and influence from the Middle East. Both men—and their many advisers—should have known better.
Even more worrying is that Bin Laden easily imagined that they wouldn’t know better—not because of what political party they belonged to, but because they were Americans. While it is generally a blessing to have political leaders who graduate from places like Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, rather than from underground revolutionary organizations or the blood-drenched security structures of authoritarian states, it is also clear that foreign policy is not an area where clever sound-bites or even good intentions count for much. When it comes to strategic thinking, America might have been better off with leaders who lived in mud huts in Afghanistan and spent their spare time reading the Quran: By applying the linear logic of peacetime to a war-time situation that demanded the dialectical approach that animates strategic thought, Messrs. Bush and Obama each did their part to create a disaster whose consequences for both America and the Arab world will continue to unfold in horrifying ways for decades to come.
Is there a silver lining in the wholesale strategic disaster that Osama Bin Laden succeeded in visiting upon America in the Middle East? The paradoxical logic that separates strategic thinking from peacetime thought says yes. But right now, you would have to look pretty hard to find it.
The evolving U.S. alliance, or détente, with Iran may ensure that Muslims won’t be united in a caliphate by Bin Laden’s heirs anytime soon. Still, it’s hard to see how dumping America’s longtime regional allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in favor of a noxious Shiite clerical regime—whose agents in Lebanon blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, tortured CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley and other Americans to death, and now wage war against U.S. interests in Iraq, Syria, and beyond—will help win the hearts and minds of the Sunni Arab majority. It is also hard to see how winking at Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program will make America seem like less of a likely target—for Iran, or for future generations of jihadists who will grow up in countries shattered by America’s betrayal of its former alliances.
Bin Laden’s caliphate may not have been established yet. But it is wrong to see his heirs as scrubs, or the war that we have waged on al-Qaida as a success. Bin Laden succeeded in suckering America into the war he wanted, with the consequences he predicted, which means that he has won—and America, along with the people whose welfare we once claimed to care so deeply about, have lost.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.