Bin Laden Speaks: Will We Listen?

Saturday, 30 October 2004

Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.--Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

George W. Bush does not know his enemy, Osama bin Laden. It is unclear whether John Kerry does. Bush has no interest in knowing his enemy, preferring to rely on a poorly-drawn caricature devised in his own imagination. If Kerry is smart, and if American citizens are smart, they will take every opportunity to learn about their enemy.

This weekend Osama bin Laden released a videotaped speech directed at the American people. He once again took credit for the attacks on September 11, 2001, but for the first time he explained his reasons for planning the attack. He blamed American interference in Middle Eastern countries, beginning with American support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for his decision. He mocked President Bush's supposition about the reason behind the attacks, that the terrorists hated our freedoms. If it's freedom we hate, bin Laden asks, why didn't we attack Sweden? "We fought you because we are free . . . and want to regain freedom for our nation. As you undermine our security we undermine yours."

Bin Laden goes on to cite "the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon" as a specific example of American animosity toward Arabs and Muslims. He concludes by saying to the American people, "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands. Any state that does not mess with our security has naturally guaranteed its own security."

This is bin Laden's testimony concerning his reasons for attacking America and his future plans. Should we take him at his word? In part yes, and in part no. There is no reason to doubt that bin Laden, a former U.S. client who fought against the invading Soviet Union in Afghanistan, turned against the U.S. after he saw example after example of U.S. favoritism toward Israel and prejudice against the Palestinians and other Arab and Muslim nations. On the other hand, there is no evidence to support bin Laden's contention that he would not attack the U.S. again if we stopped taking sides in Middle Eastern conflicts. Maybe he would, but we would be foolish to take his word for it, so security must remain high. Nevertheless, if we really want to reduce the danger of terrorist attacks on American soil, it makes sense to consider his comments.

When Bush proclaimed shortly after September 11 that the terrorists hated us because of our freedoms, most of the world was shocked and somewhat amused by the poor grasp of the situation that Bush laid out for all to see. Surely this was just rhetoric designed to rally support among average citizens after the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington, they thought. As it turned out, that really was his simplistic, misguided understanding of the terrorists. He simply did not understand his enemy.

U.S. policy should not be dictated by terrorists, but it is stupid to ignore what those terrorists say when they speak directly to us. Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, because he targets innocent civilians in his attacks, but the case can be made that the U.S. and other governments do the same thing, so they are terrorists as well. To the extent that we support our government's acts of terror--dropping bombs on civilian neighborhoods, shooting missiles into houses where we know or suspect that civilians might be, imprisoning and humiliating civilians and soldiers in violation of the Geneva Conventions--we are terrorists, too. Terrible atrocities have been committed by many parties in and related to the Middle East, and committing more atrocities won't bring peace. It's time for enemies to listen to one another.

There is no doubt that the U.S. role in the Middle East has been one-sided in its support of Israel. We can't undo the past, but we can change the future. Bin Laden implies that if the U.S. acted as an evenhanded broker for peace between Israel and Palestine there would be no need for terror attacks. We can't take bin Laden at his word, but it does make sense that a more evenhanded approach to foreign policy in the Middle East would reduce tensions between the U.S. and the Arab world. The U.S. should immediately renounce its unqualified support for Ariel Sharon and his "Security Wall" (but we should affirm Sharon for his decision to withdraw Israelis from Gaza) and demand that both Israelis and Palestinians come to the peace table and make a deal. It makes sense to start with the Geneva Plan put forward by moderate Israelis and Palestinians in 2003. We shouldn't become a more evenhanded broker of peace in the Middle East because Osama bin Laden says we should; we should do it because it's the right thing to do. Maybe it will reduce the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil, and maybe it won't. One thing is for sure: it won't increase the threat.

The president says that "the best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide." Yes, we have to actively pursue terrorist threats worldwide, but if that's the totality of our anti-terrorism campaign, we've already lost. The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is not to kill terrorists, because we only encourage more people to become terrorists that way (for example, the war on Iraq has swollen the ranks of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations). The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to eliminate the root causes of terrorism: poverty, oppression, lack of opportunity to lead a fulfilling life. The U.S. will spend well over half a trillion dollars in Fiscal Year 2005 on military and homeland security (the Bush administration recently revealed that it would ask Congress for an additional $75 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan soon, money that is outside the already bloated federal military budget). How much is budgeted for poverty reduction in terrorist hot spots around the world? Almost nothing.

What would happen if we were to take just 10% of defense (i.e., war) and homeland security money, $50 billion, and use it to alleviate poverty, build schools and hospitals and roads, and provide food and medical care to those parts of the world where terrorism is most prolific. What if at the same time we gave notice to our erstwhile allies who are dictators and human rights abusers that we would no longer prop up their regimes with military aid, because we finally realize that doing so may seem to be in the best short-term interest of the U.S., but it is not in the best long-term interest of the U.S.--and besides that, it's unjust and wrong? If we did those two things, we would eliminate more terrorists than we do spending ten times as much trying to bomb them back to the Stone Age. No, we can't eliminate spending on intelligence gathering and coordinated efforts to bring terrorists to justice, but we can make those efforts much more effective by supplementing them with positive steps to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.

Bin Laden has spoken. Bush will not listen. He says that he is resolute and determined. If re-elected, he will lead America in the fight on terrorism. He will lead America right over the cliff and into the abyss. If Kerry is elected, will he listen? Will he consider America's role in the instability that threatens our globe, particularly in the Middle East? Will he strike at root causes of terrorism as strongly as he strikes at terrorists? It remains to be seen. Regardless of who is elected, ordinary American citizens need to insist that our leaders act intelligently and justly to eliminate the most obvious causes of terrorism.

(A final question for those headed to the polls Tuesday to vote. Which is more important, staying the course in our fight on terrorism, or being smart in our fight on terrorism? Bush promises the first but has no interest in the second. There is at least a chance that Kerry will consider the second.)

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