The Phantom Victory

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon once again flog their al-Qaeda is really winning meme in The New York Times – and again, their analysis borders on the disingenuous. They argue:

The author of the 9/11 attacks did not, of course, think that his musings would jump-start a negotiation. Had Americans instead listened with the ears of those for whom the message was intended – Muslims around the world – they would have heard something very different. Instead of a weak Osama bin Laden, they would have heard a magnanimous one who could offer a truce because “the war in Iraq is raging, and the operations in Afghanistan are on the rise in our favor.” Mr. bin Laden staked his claim to leadership of the Muslim world on 9/11, striking us as others only dreamed of doing. On the tape, he shows strength by taking credit for America’s humiliation in Iraq and continues to do what we are not: fighting for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

It is too early to say how this tape will affect Muslim opinion, but there is no doubt that Mr. bin Laden’s strategy has been paying off. According to a poll released last month by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and Zogby International, when Muslims in several countries were asked what aspect of Al Qaeda they “sympathize” with most, 39 percent said it was because the group confronted the United States. Nearly 20 percent more sympathized because it “stands up for Muslim causes,” which is really just a polite way of saying the same thing.

What Benjamin and Simon neglect to mention is that support for al-Qaeda in the Muslim world has dropped precipitously according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted last year. Furthermore, it is much harder for al-Qaeda to claim to “stand up for Muslim causes” when their primary business has been blowing up fellow Muslims. The vicious attack on a Jordanian wedding party did more to harm bin Laden than anything else – it exposed in a deep and visceral way that al-Qaeda isn’t a group of determined idealists, but a bunch of hardened thugs who don’t give a damn if their victims are Muslim or not.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the insurgency is fracturing as native Iraqis realize that al-Qaeda wants to subjugate them even more than their American “occupiers”. The Sunni population in Iraq continues to embrace the political process as the primary form of change rather than armed conflict.

Benjamin and Simon have been flogging this same line for quite some time now, and repetition doesn’t make it any less accurate. Al-Qaeda’s agenda is doomed by its own glaring internal contradictions – al-Qaeda may make use of the latest technologies in it’s global jihad, but it’s incapable of creating an environment where people can have decent lives – the Middle East is slowly lurching towards increasing freedom, and al-Qaeda stands in opposition to that trend. The Arab and Muslim world is not stupid – they can see the value of al-Qaeda’s empty promises and are embracing democratic change. That trend has the full weight of history and human nature behind it, al-Qaeda’s retrograde ideology does not.

Bin Laden’s proposal for hudna comes from a position of weakness. His words disclose a hidden meaning – the US is winning in Afghanistan and Iraq, and bin Laden can only get his way once we’re gone. As efforts at reconstruction and civil society in those two countries continue, al-Qaeda’s grip becomes less and less strong. Al-Qaeda flourishes in societies where autocracy divorces the polis from the polity – and bin Laden is right, democracy stands at odds with his extremist version of Islam.

The war is not won, but it will be the West’s vacillation and weakness that would produce a victory, not the strength of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden has studied the West long enough to know our weaknesses intimately – and he knows that the path to victory is convincing the West that it cannot win a war that it is winning before the sparks of democratization in the Muslim world become a conflagration. Sadly, it is our own defeatism and lack of courage that has become our enemy’s greatest weapon.

One thought on “The Phantom Victory

  1. Trying the wrench defeat from the jaws of victory, ahhh the VietNam redux. To bad Walter Cronkite isn’t able to help them this time.

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