Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Death of Osama bin Ladin

Every victory should be regarded with sadness, like a funeral. The only thing worse is a defeat. Having no need for victory is the real victory. Victory is merely avoidance of the appalling in favor of the barely tolerable. Thus it is with the recent slaying of Osama bin Ladin. It's better that it succeeded than if it had failed. Victory is better than defeat. But only just barely. It cannot make up for the great tragedy that either one, victory OR defeat, had to happen. We should not have had to do it. And some thought should be given to how to avoid having to do it in the future.

I use the word "tragedy" here in the classic Greek sense: misfortune arising from one's own flaws. Osama bin Ladin was our nemesis, the fruit of our hubris as a nation. He should never have existed, and if we had not betrayed our own values and our own identity as a nation he never would have. Or if he had, he would have been someone else's nemesis, not ours.

There are so many intertwined threads of truth to the death of Osama bin Ladin.

Start with the surface. He was a violent, evil man who was responsible for the slaughter of thousands. His death is no great loss to the world. On this, most everyone agrees. The only exceptions would be those who share his particularly twisted brand of violent Islamic ideology. (It's "Islamic" in the same sense as the Christian Identity movement is "Christian." I call it that because I don't know what else to call it. Normal Muslims may take exception, just as normal Christians may take exception to having racist neo-Nazi monstrosities lumped in with them. I shall here merely note the likely unhappiness, acknowledge that very few Muslims bear much resemblance in their beliefs to bin Ladin, and move on.)

But that's just the surface, taking bin Ladin's death as if it existed in isolation. It doesn't, of course. It's the most recent significant development in a saga that has included a lot of stupid, inept, opportunistic, and downright wrong-headed moves on the part of the United States. Starting from the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, our first wrong move was President Bush's choice of words to describe what we were engaged in: "War on Terrorism." (Or "War on Terror." It depended on his mood on any given day, or perhaps on how much he'd had to drink recently.) We cannot, of course, wage war on a military tactic, nor on a loose-knit criminal organization. We can fight them, as we speak of fighting crime. But this fight cannot be a "war." War is inevitably fought by armies and navies in service to nations, one national government against another. So that was our first mistake. We took a criminal act and improperly dignified it by calling it an act of war, as if al-Qaeda were a nation and Osama bin Ladin its government. This error of terminology -- if it was an error and not a brilliant and wicked deception -- led us to the invasion of Afghanistan and later of Iraq, to the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people and the deaths and maiming of thousands of our own citizens. None of these actions did anything much against the organization that attacked us in 2001. But because we were "at war," we sought enemies that could be vaguely connected with al-Qaeda (and whose conquest could prove advantageous either in geopolitical terms or in service to corporate bottom lines) on which to spend the might of our vast military machine, so much of which was useless against al-Qaeda itself.

At the same time as we emphasized the wrong targets, due to the illusion cast by that word "war," we downplayed the right targets and the right tactics. At one point, after bin Ladin escaped at Bora Bora, President Bush actually stated that he considered capturing or killing the al-Qaeda leader a low priority. What we saw recently was the success of an approach that should have been emphasized from the beginning: an approach that avoids being mystified by (or seizing the opportunity presented by) that misleading term "war."

So much for the immediate layer below the surface. But now let's dig a little deeper still. Why did Osama bin Ladin choose the United States as his primary target?

There was a certain amount of calculation in his doing so. Osama bin Ladin's long-term goal was to create a new Caliphate, uniting all Muslims under a single rule, a return to the Medieval greatness of Islam. (Preferably with himself as Caliph, one imagines.) The Muslim world is, of course, far from united. But one classic, time-honored way to unite squabbling peoples is to present them with a common enemy. By provoking the Untied States into taking ill-considered aggressive action in the Middle East, he hoped to enrage Muslims enough to have them set aside their differences in order to fight us. That didn't work as well as he'd hoped, but it explains why he launched the attack.

What it doesn't explain, however, is why he launched it at us. Why were we the right choice, the obvious choice, as the common foe of Islam? Why not attack some target in London, or in Tokyo, or in Brussels, or in Moscow? It doesn't take a whole lot of thought to arrive at the answer. America -- not Britain, Japan, the European Union, or the Russian Republic -- is the greatest of superpowers, the world's hegemon, the great power that must be defeated if Islam is to achieve greatness. America is the backer of Israel, the supporter of tyrants throughout the Muslim world, the new Rome.

And at root, that is where we went wrong, before bin Ladin was even born, and long before he launched his attacks in New York and Washington. That is why Osama bin Ladin exists, and why we had to kill him. Because we are not, in the national vision of our founders, supposed to be an empire, a superpower. We are supposed to be a land of liberty. We are supposed to be a democracy. And there is no such thing as a democratic empire. The two are incompatible, and one or the other must in the end be lost.

It's difficult for Americans nowadays to understand, because throughout my lifetime and for some years earlier we have had the world's most powerful military, so that it has come to seem normal. In reality, it is an anomaly of American history. Our nation has until the end of World War II always had a distrust of standing armies and a parsimony about military expenditure. We kept a small professional force, a cadre of officers, and when war loomed we would recruit or conscript an army around that tiny core and march off to face the enemy. During the major wars of our history -- the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I -- we built powerful but temporary armies. When the war ended, the citizens who had rallied to the flag to meet the emergency laid down their arms and returned gratefully and happily to their civilian pursuits. The military budget shrank to nearly nothing, and so it remained during the years of peace, until the next war threatened. On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States had one of the weakest armies in the world.

As part and parcel of this, we went to war only rarely. Of the major wars the U.S. has engaged in, all but World War II were at the instigation of Americans themselves (the Civil War included, because the Confederates who started the war were Americans, too). Without a powerful standing army, we were seldom tempted to do this. Wars meant raising taxes, taking an economic hit, and of course sending young men off to die; they were not popular and we lacked the standing force to make the decision easier.

At the end of World War II, we had, once again, an enormous military force. It had been necessary to build this force in order to defeat the Axis, of course. But the common expectation was that, once again, as before, we would send all the boys home, and go back to our peaceful pursuits, retaining only that tiny cadre of trained military experts around which to build an army the next time war threatened. But for some reason things were done differently this time.

The Soviet Union presented a permanent enemy, a way to justify keeping a powerful military in times of peace. Why did we do this? It's a mystery to which there may be no one right answer. Maybe people in government genuinely believed in the Communist threat. Maybe it was the arms industry and others who profited off this massive government largesse. Maybe it was something hidden in the halls of power in Washington, desirous of empire and national power. Maybe it was a combination of all three. Whatever the motives, though, the actions in service to them are plain enough. We retained a huge military force. We built a chain of military bases all over the world. We supported puppet governments either to have allies in the Cold War or for economic reasons. We found ourselves continuously at war somewhere in the world. We were never, or almost never, wholly at peace.

We built a national-security apparatus, a government within a government, operating in secrecy, unaccountable to the voters, barely controlled by the President and not at all by Congress -- a clear violation of all the principles on which America is supposedly based. This is not new in the world, although it was new for us, and wrong for us. It's the way every empire in history has always operated. It's the way empires have to operate. Empire and democracy are incompatible. We cannot have both. That means that empire and America are incompatible. We cannot have both. We have become something other than America, something that our ancestors would look upon in horror.

In 1991, we were presented with a golden opportunity to set all this aside, bring the empire to an end, and become once more America. The Soviet Union, our opponent in the Cold War and the justification for empire from 1945 until then, ceased to exist. We could have shut down the bases, dismantled most of our armed forces, declared victory and gone home. We didn't. And that surely proves that by that time the empire was pursued for its own sake and the Cold War had become merely an excuse -- if it had ever been otherwise.

Today, we have a military force that costs as much as that of the entire rest of the world combined. We have hundreds of military bases in every corner of the world. We have the ability to invade any country on earth that we choose to invade, and we have arrogated to ourselves the willingness to use that ability whenever we choose, on whatever pretext we like, or on none. We have a government unaccountable to its people, that claims the authority to detain without trial, without rights, anyone -- citizen or foreigner -- that it labels as an "enemy combatant."

That is not America. It is the American Empire. And it was the American Empire, not America the land of liberty, that Osama bin Ladin attacked on 9/11/01. He was our nemesis, attacking in response to our hubris. The entire affair of the last ten years has been our tragedy.

Now he is dead. But the tragedy goes on, and will until the American Empire, too, is laid to rest.