The Magazine

Bin Laden, Beware

Here's how to break the spirit of the holy warriors.

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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With their liberal, lonely hearts working overtime, the Israelis threw themselves into the peace process in exactly the way the Department of State had always wanted: Concessions became the sine qua non of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s negotiating style. Also, the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was a catastrophe for Israel, and by extension, us, because the Israelis demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were wearying of the fight. Barak’s concession on East Jerusalem was, of course, the coup de grâce, giving Arafat and everybody else in the Middle East the impression that Israel, and America right behind her at the negotiating table, had gone completely wobbly—or to put it in the way most often reported in the American press, Israel had shown unexpected flexibility, moderation, and courage. Israel’s loss of nerve in Lebanon and its "flexibility" in the peace process were, of course, complemented and much compounded by America’s increasingly inept handling of an ever-stronger Saddam Hussein. For bin Laden and his holy warriors, and the Middle Eastern audience to which they constantly play, it was blindingly obvious by 1998, when Al Qaeda struck the U.S. embassies in Africa, that America was on the run.

To defeat bin Laden and his kind, we have to restore our awe, and the only way you acquire and retain such majesty in the Islamic Middle East is through the use of military power. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cruise-missile an empty pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and rock-hut training camps in Afghanistan. It doesn’t mean that we fire cruise missiles for a couple of weeks at the Taliban (though that would be a good beginning). It means that we get up-close and personal, as Winston Churchill did at Omdurman.

It also means that we have the political and cultural stamina to sustain American troops in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to track down and kill bin Laden. Logistically, we obviously cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage to the fickleness of our allies, who support us now but may not support us so enthusiastically when CNN starts broadcasting the bloody images of America’s revenge. It also means that America must be prepared to inflict immense damage on any other terrorist organization or terrorist-supporting state, even if that means we have to scorch southern Lebanon or Revolutionary Guard dormitories and depot facilities in Tehran. We may have to commit the necessary resources and manpower to topple Saddam Hussein.

As we calculate the costs, we will be inclined to deceive ourselves with easy, silver-bullet solutions. The idea of covert action will no doubt rise again. We should immediately bury the thought in the Iraqi ashes of the Agency’s last covert-action fiasco. The Central Intelligence Agency, which has probably never seen bin Laden coming unless a foreign security service, or the eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency, gave them a tip, is incapable of conducting such operations. The CIA’s problems with counterterrorism are enormous, and they are systemic; they certainly do not spring, as former President Bush recently suggested, from human-rights restrictions on clandestine operations (would that CIA case officers even saw terrorists, let alone worried about the morality of recruiting them).

"Better intelligence"—how often have we heard that hopeful phrase?—isn’t going to save us now from making the hard military decisions. Even a first-rate intelligence service, which of course takes years to build, would still have a very difficult time tracking the activities of Usama bin Laden. Unless we get extraordinarily lucky, which means the Pakistanis actually become effective clandestine allies or the Taliban lose their nerve, we aren’t going to be able to assassinate bin Laden through proxies or a Delta Force commando squad. The battle against terrorism won’t be "the new warfare of the twenty-first century"; it’s going to be nineteenth-century warfare in the twenty-first century.

As we can already tell, the war against Usama bin Laden will be for the Middle East and us a defining experience. The fate of the Bush administration, which just a week ago focused on the economy, education, and the Social Security lockbox, will surely hinge on how well it fights this war, which means at the moment whether the U.S. military can kill bin Laden.

With bin Laden dead, we will no doubt see again Americans slaughtered by Islamic holy warriors. But when we down him and take back the awe that is ours, we will have turned the tide. After that, we will just have to persevere and slowly burn the hope out of Islam’s holy warriors.

The painful integration of the Muslim and Western worlds, which has been relentlessly moving forward for more than two hundred years, will then continue, God willing, with less bloodshed on both sides.