Usamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri murdered 3,000 Americans, and they both issued tapes in the past week, blustering and threatening us with more of the same. Most of us aren't wild about paying for the Bush administration with our taxes, but one thing we have a right to expect is that our government would protect us from mass murderers and would chase them down and arrest them. It has not done that. When asked why he hasn't caught Bin Laden, Bush replies, "Because he's hidin'." Is Bush laughing at us?There's two big take away messages here. First, al-Qaeda is not a mortal threat to the United States, and it is ridiculous to think so. Police work is exactly what is needed to clean up this gang, just as they cleaned up the European terrorists of the 70s. Second, the Bush administration has utterly botched up dealing with this band of bozos, and has probably aided bin Laden in recruiting people and gaining monetary support. Further, his actions have crippled the US on the international scene exactly when Russia and China are gaining power. We cannot rally allies to our side as we once could, and our military is grossly misused.
On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it? Was this the beginning of a new political force in the Middle East that could hope to roll in and take over, the way the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan in the 1990s? People asked such questions.
Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous. Muhammad al-Amir (a.k.a Atta) and Ziad Jarrah were highly competent scientists, who could figure the kinetic energy of a jet plane loaded with fuel. There don't seem to be significant numbers of such people in the organization. They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation.
The Bush administration and the American Right generally has refused to acknowledge what we now know. Al-Qaeda is dangerous. All small terrorist groups can do damage. But it is not an epochal threat to the United States or its allies of the sort the Soviet Union was (and that threat was consistently exaggerated, as well).
In fact, the United States invaded a major Muslim country, occupied it militarily, tortured its citizens, killed tens of thousands, tinkered with the economy-- did all those things that Muslim nationalists had feared and warned against, and there hasn't even been much of a reaction from the Muslim world. Only a few thousand volunteers went to fight. Most people just seem worried that the US will destabilize their region and leave a lot of trouble behind them. People are used to seeing Great Powers do as they will. A Syrian official before the war told a journalist friend of mine that people in the Middle East had been seeing these sorts of invasions since Napoleon took Egypt in 1798. "Well," he shrugged, "usually they leave behind a few good things when they finally leave."
Because they exaggerate the scale of the conflict, and because they use it cynically, Bush and Cheney have grossly mismanaged the struggle against al-Qaeda and Muslim radicalism after September 11. Here are their chief errors:
BushCo has made the US more vulnerable to both terrorists and major state actors, while gaining nothing for the nation. He has enriched his own social class obscenely. Insofar as that is the true policy objective of his administration, it has all worked out very well for him.