“And among the most important items contained in [President George W] Bush’s speeches since the events of the 11th [September 11, 2001] is that the Americans have no option but to continue the war. This tone is in fact an echoing of the words of neo-conservatives like [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [former defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board] Richard Perle, the latter having said previously that the Americans have no choice in front of them other than to continue the war or face a holocaust.
– Osama bin Laden video, September 7.
PARIS – World public opinion has just been treated to the face-off of the year – as if orchestrated, with impeccable timing, in a John Woo movie.
On the Washington side is General David Petraeus, 54, the top US commander in Iraq, the Teflon general or, critics would argue, the iPod general, as he only plays the iTunes playlist selected by his owner, the White House.
On the Hindu Kush mountainside, possibly between Chitral in Pakistan and Kunar province in Afghanistan, arguably in a cave with broadband and video-production facilities, is Sheikh Osama bin Laden, 50, al-Qaeda leader and (still) the most wanted man in the world. (The United States’ bounty on his head doubled to US$50 million in July.)
It’s six years after September 11 and, once again, Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. This war is being decided on the screen. The half-trillion-dollar question is inescapable: Who’s to be trusted, the general spinning a successful “surge” for President George W Bush’s troops in Iraq, or the sheikh posing as statesman and strategist? Who’s not lying, the Pentagon or al-Qaeda?
Six years ago, it was not supposed to be this way. Al-Qaeda was turning Boeings into missiles and delivering to the US the “new Pearl Harbor” for which neo-cons so much yearned. Saddam Hussein, counting his dollars from the United Nations oil-for-food program, was building palaces and living in the lap of luxury in Baghdad. He regarded Islamist fanatics as the plague.
Then the plot got convoluted. The neo-cons pulled an Alfred Hitchcock and, just like the vanished Janet Leigh character in Psycho, introduced vanished weapons of mass destruction in Mesopotamia. Shock-and-awe was ruthlessly counter-acted with good old guerrilla warfare. Saddam was hanged after being judged by a kangaroo court. And bin Laden pulled a comeback a la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: looking younger, sporting a dyed-black beard (a stick-on?), white robe and cap and cool beige cloak, he’s now back in a starring role in garb tailored for global audiences. Meanwhile, incidentally, the US lost the war in Iraq.
I’m ready for my close-up, Mr Bush
Both the sheikh and the general have been aiming to seduce multiple layers of constituencies, but above all US public opinion. Any number of troubling questions may be posed regarding the “message from Sheikh Osama bin Laden to the American people”, acquired by Reuters “from a Web trawler in Europe” last Friday, but only, suspiciously, after the US government and the neo-con-drenched, Washington-based terrorism-monitoring SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Institute had already bagged it.
Anyway, the iconic jihadi might have boasted that a record 60% of Americans, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, agrees with him: they now believe the Iraq invasion was a mistake, the war will be lost, and the US should send the troops home according to a timetable, and “stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq”.
Under these circumstances, who cares if Frances Townsend, Bush’s homeland security adviser, believes the sheikh is “virtually impotent”? When he seizes the moral high ground and analyzes – in intimate detail – the failure of the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, he has his finger much closer to the pulse of the American street than either Republicans or Democrats, not to mention the Pentagon.
Enter bin Laden not only as film star but visionary film director. Had he been the screenwriter of all the plot twists since the fateful September 11, the sheikh would have written exactly the same parts played by key Bush administration characters.
As for Petraeus, he was the central character in a book about the invasion of Iraq. He played himself: commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division. He’s a classic intellectual warrior (a PhD in the lessons of the Vietnam War from Princeton; the author of the current Pentagon counterinsurgency manual). He might have been Martin Sheen’s Lieutenant Willard tracking Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He mixes war and politics with consummate ease and, like the sheikh, simply cannot resist self-promotion in front of the media glare. His Dutch ancestry betrays the ruthlessness behind his cool projected persona.
In an ideally sane scenario, he would have been in charge of a task force tracking the sheikh and engaged in dismantling al-Qaeda as part of carefully designed global police work. Right now, for instance, he would have to be focused on the Chitral-Kunar corridor in the Hindu Kush, the most probable location of that mythical bin Laden cave. Better yet, he would be focused on finding al-Qaeda’s information-technology manager, the guy who makes the global distribution of all those videos possible.
Instead, the iPod general, after “shock and awe”, was sent to supervise the occupation of Mosul and to train Iraqi forces. No spinning may disguise the stark reality; “pacified” Mosul today happens to be a major stronghold of Sunni Arab guerrillas, and only six battalions of Iraqi security forces behave with real independence.
As expected, after a tsunami of leaks and speculation, the messianic (for hardline Republicans) general’s spin of a “successful” “surge” in Congress was not raw, blunt or realistic. He droned on about “ethno-sectarian” violence and was long on “achieving objectives over time” and “success” in al-Anbar province – as if wily, armed-to-the-teeth Sunni tribals would not turn against the Americans sooner rather than later.
For instance, according to two different assessments – by the Associated Press and by Iraq Body Count – Iraqi civilian deaths remain stable, or may be actually rising, contrary to the general’s optimistic numbers. Iraq averages 62 violent deaths a day, compared with 37 last year. There were no fewer than 1,809 civilian deaths last month. The “surge” has led to the acceleration of ethnic cleansing, and with no fewer than 100,000 Iraqis fleeing the country every single month, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, there are fewer and fewer people to kill on the ground. During the “surge”, 20 times as many people are leaving the country as before it began at the start of the year.
In his long-awaited close-up for the cameras in Congress, Petraeus did not say a word about the appalling living conditions in Iraq, or about the more than 4 million killed, exiled or now living as refugees. He did not say that now, on the sixth anniversary of September 11, the US opens its spanking-new, 42-hectare, US$592 million embassy, fortress rather, in Baghdad, almost as big as the Vatican, built by 3,500 people (mostly imported from Kuwait) over three years, complete with 27 bomb-proof buildings, underground bunkers, leisure and entertainment centers, beauty parlors, a gym, a swimming pool and a club.
Symbols don’t come more pregnant with meaning than this: and this one spells, “We rule, and we’re not gonna leave, ever.” As for a real drawdown of troops, not a word amid the current show to (not) amuse the galleries.
Make Islam, not war
As for bin Laden’s progress report on the “war on terror”, it reads like a wacky remixed version of Karl Marx’ and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto – all the more striking as it cuts through the neo-con-promoted atmosphere of fear in the US prior to a possibly tactical nuclear, illegal, preemptive attack on Iran.
Bin Laden quotes everything from the Holy Koran to Noam Chomsky to illustrate his take on the irreversible decline of the American empire and to develop his critique of globalized capital, including the mention that “life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations”.
This time he didn’t need a Kalashnikov as a prop, or to dwell once again on “Christian and Jewish crusaders” or the occupation of the “land of the two holy mosques” (Mecca and Medina). After all, Islamist jihad of the al-Qaeda mold is slowly reaching one of its key objectives, which is the overthrow of infidel, secularist governments in Islamic lands.
A major goal of bin Laden has been to depose the House of Saud. He’s getting there. He already has the Americans out of military bases in Saudi Arabia. The secularist Assad dynasty in Syria might also be replaced sooner rather than later by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. And best of all, the Americans got rid of secularist infidel Saddam for him.
The solution for the planet’s ills, according to the theocratic sheikh, is to “embrace Islam”. It’s as if he had felt the urge to coin a new slogan: “Make Islam, not war.” US public opinion, the anti-war movement included, obviously will not buy it. But his key target audience – the middle and lower middle classes and urban proletariat all over Muslim lands in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia – may, as they have already identified, and felt in their skin, all the sorrows provoked by corporate-driven globalization.
It’s as if bin Laden – in tune with great swaths of world public opinion – already sees on the horizon the dust storms unleashed by the shattering US defeats in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is deeply engaged, according to his and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s strategy, in transforming al-Qaeda from a sect into a global protest movement.
Those who will definitely pay a lot of attention to bin Laden’s words are young, second-generation Muslims or migrant, refugee, converted Muslims born in western Europe, “socially mutating tribes” as French expert on Islam Olivier Roy would put it, all of them ultra-radicalized anti-globalizers for whom al-Qaeda is a true anti-globalization revolutionary movement.
They are definitely not Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians – all of these not giving a damn about pan-Islamism, as they are engaged in much more complex, localized national struggles.
Once again, it’s important to stress the nonsense of the neo-con-coined “Islamo-fascist totalitarianism” label. In Black Mass, his latest book, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, John Gray, correctly describes radical Islam of the al-Qaeda mold as Islamo-Jacobinism: “Their closest affinity is with the illiberal theory of popular sovereignty expounded by [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and applied by [Maximilien] Robespierre in the French Terror.” Bin Laden may be now expounding in full a modern revolutionary ideology, but he is still the leader, as Gray would define it, of “a millenarian movement with Islamic roots”.
The whole question around the face-off of the year is not how Petraeus will “save” the US$3-billion-a-week Bush war on Iraq. The question is why bin Laden felt so relaxed as to stage a comeback as statesman/strategist to proclaim, among other things, the utter failure of the Bush-conducted imperial project.
The answer is because Bush and the neo-cons have been playing al-Qaeda’s game all along. Had Petraeus been sent six years ago on a thorough counterinsurgency mission to smash al-Qaeda, Congress today would be grappling with really relevant issues, such as health, education, the erosion of American workers’ salaries and yes, global warming. Forget Petraeus: someone in Hollywood better call Bruce Willis to fight and kill the sheikh in Die Hard 5.