Bin Laden strategy working with Muslims
By Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
If Osama bin Laden's aim in releasing an audiotape was to gauge his enemies' reaction, he must have been gratified to find that America's leaders and opinion-makers understand him little better than they did on 9/11. The proof is in how his offer of a "long-term truce" was treated.
The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, declared: "We do not negotiate with terrorists." Vice President Dick Cheney saw bin Laden's offer as "some kind of ploy." Newsweek described it as "something new: an offer of an olive branch." Most saw it as a sign of weakness.
Yet, while bin Laden has seldom used the word "truce," the vision outlined in the rest of the message is not new: a withdrawal of the United States from Muslim lands and a rebalancing between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. (One al-Qaida spokesman has insisted that only when America has lost 4 million people would the field be even.) In other words, this "truce" must be preceded by total capitulation.
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 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."
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 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-Qaida 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.
Two other phenomena also show the movement to be strengthening. The first is the emerging breed of self-starter terrorists with few or no ties to bin Laden, like the Madrid and London bombers, and others who have been arrested before they were able to carry out attacks in Pakistan, Australia and elsewhere.
The second is the emergence of an indigenous jihad in Iraq. Much is said about the foreign fighters in Iraq, but the truly dramatic development is the radicalization of Iraqis who will continue the insurgency or travel abroad to kill, like those who bombed three Western hotels in Jordan in November.
Despite so much evidence that the jihadists are winning sympathy, America has provided no counter-story to their narrative. Rather, the president has repeatedly objected to the notion that the Iraq war is having a radicalizing effect by arguing that America was attacked before we ever stepped foot in Iraq.
This, of course, is a non sequitur — douse a guttering fire in gasoline and you will get a bigger fire. A movement that was staggering after the Taliban was toppled has come back with a vengeance.
Realistically, we cannot deploy a counter-narrative — one that emphasizes that we are a benign superpower — so long as our troops are in Iraq. That will make it difficult to separate moderates from extremists, as an ideological struggle requires.
We must focus more on developing that story and getting out of Iraq with the least damage to our interests and less on the phony truce offers of a guileful enemy.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon are co-authors of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right." They wrote this commentary for The New York Times.