Al Qaeda’a Demands

The question, “Why do they hate us?” was, for a short period, earnestly asked by Americans of all stripe. Least doubt grow in the superior stewardship of those charged with our protection, the question has been safely contained by Bush’s simplistic formulation that they are evil and we are good, buffeted by a fusillade of conservative accusations of America hating against anyone who has offered any alternative to Bush’s sage analysis.

Now, the September 11th Commission offers its answer:

Bin Ladin also relies heavily on the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood11 executed in 1966 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government, Qutb mixed Islamic scholarship with a very superficial acquaintance with Western history and thought. Sent by the Egyptian government to study in the United States in the late 1940s, Qutb returned with an enormous loathing of Western society and history. He dismissed Western achievements as entirely material, arguing that Western society possesses “nothing that will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.”12

Three basic themes emerge from Qutb’s writings. First, he claimed that the world was beset with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jahiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given to the Prophet Mohammed). Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahiliyya. Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jahiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam. Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan. All Muslims — as he defined them — therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.13

Bin Ladin shares Qutb’s stark view, permitting him and his followers to rationalize even unprovoked mass murder as righteous defense of an embattled faith. Many Americans have wondered, “Why do ‘they’ hate us?” Some also ask, “What can we do to stop these attacks?”

Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions. To the first, they say that America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as “your agents.” Bin Ladin has stated flatly, “Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.”14 These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers.

Bin Ladin’s grievance with the United States may have started in reaction to specific U.S. policies but it quickly became far deeper. To the second question, what America could do, al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture: “It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” If the United States did not comply, it would be at war with the Islamic nation, a nation that al Qaeda’s leaders said “desires death more than you desire life.”15

  1. The Muslim Brotherhood, which arose in Egypt in 1928 as a Sunni religious/nationalist opposition to the British-backed Egyptian monarchy, spread throughout the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century. In some countries, its oppositional role is nonviolent; in others, especially Egypt, it has alternated between violent and nonviolent struggle with the regime.
  2. Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (American Trust Publications, 1990). Qutb found sin everywhere, even in rural midwestern churches. Qutb’s views were best set out in Sayyid Qutb, “The America I Have Seen” (1949), reprinted in Kamal Abdel-Malek, ed., America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature: An Anthology (Palgrave, 2000).
  3. For a good introduction to Qutb, see National Public Radio broadcast, “Sayyid Qutb’s America,” May 6, 2003 (online at www.npr.org/display_pages/features/feature_1253796.html).
  4. “Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America,'” Observer Worldview, Nov. 24, 2002 (trans., online at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,845725,00.html). The al Qaeda letter was released in conjunction with the release of an audio message from Bin Ladin himself.
  5. Ibid.

This passage is very good, but it should be more clear that al Qaeda’s objectives are two. The second is the murderous, uncompromising advancement of fundamentalist Islam, an objective the West cannot accommodate. The first objective, however, is merely territorial: al Qaeda and fellow travelers want the agents of Western influence out of the dar al-Islam (abode of peace, or Islamic territory). The writers of the 9/11 Commission Report have attempted to portray first objective as equally hysterical to the second by characterizing Islamic militants’ territorial objectives as wholly the result of a paranoid and endlessly wounded pride. Nonetheless, they do point out that one of the goals of al Qaeda et. al. is limited and, hence, rational.

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First Impressions of The 9/11 Commission Report

Kevin Drum starts off his first post on the 9/11 Commission Report saying, “I would rather stick bamboo shoots under my toenails than actually read the entire 9/11 report.” This is too bad because the report is very well written, more like any other book you might read on the post-September 11th world than a government commission report. It might be even more important than other books in its category because it was written with the highest level of access imaginable. It’s endnotes include references not just to witness testimony and classified government documents, but academic and popular literature on the subject, NPR segments and so on.

The strange thing about the report is its sensitivity and the restrained, yet dramatic use of language with which it is written. Let me make three examples from the first chapter.

  • After a few pages of material about the hijackers checking in at the airports, the quality of the metal detection wand screenings, and respective times of airplane departure that are true to the tedium of the airport experience, the report suddenly changes direction, hitting the reader with the poignant cause for all this seemingly innocuous information:

    The 19 men were aboard four transcontinental flights. They were planning to hijack these planes and turn them into large guided missiles, loaded with up to 11,400 gallons of jet fuel. By 8:00 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, they had defeated all the security layers that America’s civil aviation security system then had in place to prevent a hijacking. (4)

    I recently took another look at some photographs from that morning. The one of the south tower with the impossibly huge fireball coming out of the side opposite the impact was as shocking as if it had happened yesterday. That last sentence in the above passage gave me a similar pause — and was, I suspect, calculated to do so. A sentence of calculated emotional efficacy in a government report is highly unusual.

  • In the the story of the hijacking of United flight 175, the report recounts telephone calls from Peter Hanson and Brian Sweeney to their parents:

    At 8:58, the flight took a heading toward New York City.

    At 8:59, Flight 175 passenger Brian David Sweeney tried to call his wife, Julie. He left a message on their home answering machine that the plane had been hijacked. He then called his mother, Louise Sweeney, told her the flight had been hijacked, and added that the passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit to take control of the plane away from the hijackers.

    At 9:00, Lee Hanson received a second call from his son Peter:

    “…I think we are going down — I thing they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building — don’t worry, Dad — If it happens, it’ll be very fast — My God, my god.”

    The call ended abruptly. Lee Hanson had heard a woman scream just before it cut off. He turned on a television, and in her home so did Louise Sweeney. Both of them saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. (8)

    This story adds nothing to our understanding of the causes and the security failures that led to the successful attacks, nor the reforms necessary to prevent future attacks. What it does add is something of an understanding of what those directly affected when through that day.

    There is almost an element of “a people’s history” of September 11th. When future historians turn to one of their primary sources on the subject, it will contain the names and stories of some of the people, usually overlooked or addressed only as “the three thousand”, who died that day. The report calls out the names of the pilots of the flights, all the terrorist hijackers, the stewardesses such as Betty Ong who made phone calls to alert ground staff, Daniel Lewin, the former Israeli military officer whose throat was slashed as he jumped up to stop Mohamed Atta, not realizing that one of the hijackers was seated right behind him, Barbara Olson’s calls to her husband, the Solicitor General of the United States. It is terrifying reading.

  • Recognition is growing that the passengers of United flight 93 did something amazing the morning of September 11th. The Commission Report makes a near memorial of itself when recounting their efforts with the stark sentences,

    With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.

    Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93. (14)

    The use of the lofty term, “the American Republic,” suggests much more than a mere government report.

Interpreting their mandate as “sweeping,” the commission goes way beyond the immediate failures of intelligence enabling the September 11, 2001 attacks, and lays out an entire history of militant Islam and a strategy to combat it.

I think that David Brooks (“War of Ideology,” The New York Times, 24 July 2004), is accurate when he writes,

When foreign policy wonks go to bed, they dream of being X. They dream of writing the all-encompassing, epoch-defining essay, the way George F. Kennan did during the cold war under the pseudonym X.

Careers have been spent racing to be X. But in our own time, the 9/11 commission has come closer than anybody else.

I suspect that the 9/11 Commission Report will play a significant roll in our future policy debates. As such, it deserves as wide a reading as it may be getting.

Clinton Nostalgia

Everybody waxed fantastic about Bill Clinton after his speech at the Democratic convention. I heard a random news commentator on one of the networks call him a “rock star,” and say, “They don’t call him ‘Elvis’ for nothing.”

The Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan, who helped Kevin Drum blog the convention at Political Animal, said the following about Clinton’s convention appearance:

As for the Clintons, if you were in the Fleet Center and heard “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” blasting and watched Clinton take command of the stage and didn’t get a little geeked up…then you probably didn’t vote for him. Love him or hate him, the man is a rockstar. As I rode home tonight, the cabdriver asked me, “Why do you Americans have this rule about not electing a president more than twice? If the people would vote for him, why not let him run? I’d be the first one in line!” He liked Kerry, he told me, but thought Clinton was just on a whole different level. Similarly, the woman from Southie who cut my hair this afternoon said she’d only recently warmed to Kerry after listening to him instead of the Bush/Cheney commercials about him. But she loved Clinton.

Will Clinton overshadow Kerry? Who cares? He has a way of talking about Democratic principles that reminds people why they’re proud to be Democrats.

Even Andrew Sullivan said,

Clinton was magnificent…If the constitution didn’t prevent it, the man would still be president. After last night’s speech, you can see why.

I too can get a little wound up over “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” but I think that Clinton has been a disaster for the Democrats and for the nation. The sooner we purge ourselves of our nostalgia for the man and his policies — the sooner we free ourselves of his relentlessly seductive cooing that causes us to overlook the terrifying grip that his dead hand has on our wrist like we were some collective Paula Jones — the sooner we can get on to rebuilding our crippled party.

Of the disaster that was the Clinton administration, allow me to make a few examples.

The first Clinton foreign policy team — Les Aspen at the Pentagon, Anthony Lake as National Security Adviser and Warren Christopher as Secretary of State — was the most abysmal that I can think of. The Carter administration, widely considered to have had one of the weakest foreign policies in the post war era, looks like a team of super stars next to the Clinton line up. Why the Democrats continue to roll that Nosferatu, Warren Christopher, out of his coffin is beyond me. For losing the 2000 Florida recount battle — especially the part of in that was in the mind of the public — Christopher should be forever struck from the Democrat rolls. It is often said that the Democrats kill their wounded. If only.

This team did not just lack imagination and will, they put their vacuousness to work.

When Powell went over the head of the President-elect to write an editorial in The New York Times against intervention in Bosnia and to deliver a graduation speech at the Naval Academy encouraging officers to resign in protest of homosexual integration, arguably acts of gross insubordination warranting a dishonorable discharge, Clinton continued to woo him to accept an administration appointment, hoping to glom some of Powell’s bonifieds to himself (Christopher Hitchens, Powell’s Secret Coup, The Nation, 4 January 2001).

Of course they still didn’t like him enough to heed his councils on military-political relations. Rather than follow the advice of Powell, hitherto one of the most skillful bureaucratic players in D.C., and dodge the issue of homosexuals in the military for a cooling off period, the administration pushed ahead hoping for a quick delivery on a campaign promise. But they had neither the will to simply order it, like Truman did with racial desegregation in the military, nor the Washington experience to maneuver it to victory. So they ended up with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a compromise that permanently pissed of what is alternately the most dangerous but useful bureaucracy in the world, the Department of Defense, and has, ten years later, left homosexuals in uniform not one iota better off.

In Somalia, a humanitarian operation began while the first Bush was still pumped up on his victory in Iraq and allowed “mission creep” under Colin Powell, the Clinton administration didn’t send any heavy armor because it didn’t want to appear to be escalating the conflict, even while it did just that with soldiers’ missions. Too scared to face the public with either an abandonment of the mission or an escalation, Clintonian triangulation came to a deadly climax in Mogadishu. Despite poles showing Americans willing to sustain still higher levels of casualties than those taken in Mogadishu for the humanitarian cause, the administration withdrew from Somalia anyway, giving Osama bin Laden an example to point to when arguing that the West was decadent and would crumble with a single blow.

From then on, the Clinton administration would be unable to assert a proper constitutional civilian control over the military. When the ethnic violence of Rwanda and states of the former Yugoslavia broke out, the Clinton administration was paralyzed, forced to split legal hairs about the definition of “genocide.” I would remind you that the Clinton administration did not merely sit idly, but actively thwarted attempts by other nations to prevent the Rwandan genocide, vetoing the U.N. resolutions on the matter (it was the now lauded Richard Clarke who took then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s phone call and issued the veto order). The right still fumes over Clinton’s disputations on the meaning of the word “is” when the subject of an Oval Office blow-job was at stake. They positively insisted that he muddle the definition of “genocide” with the expediently invented if entirely synonymous “acts of genocide” when the lives of 800,000 Africans were at stake. And Clinton obliged.

By 1999, Clinton did finally get over his crash debut as Commander in Chief and do something about the “acts of genocide” in Kosovo, but his diminished stature only allowed for the kind of action that Halberstam would call War in a Time of Peace. How close Clinton came to delegitimizing NATO is not widely known, but his strategically incompetent (but domestic-politically shrewd) early ruling out of ground forces gave Milosevic the confidence that he could weather NATO’s worst. Were it not for the heavily leaked insistence by Wesley Clark that NATO begin preparations for a ground invasion — an intransigence that got him fired by Clinton’s almost equally pathetic second foreign policy team — NATO’s bluff — and maybe the alliance itself — would have collapsed in the face of this teapot totalitarian’s determination.

Conservatives are correct to call the Clinton foreign policy a “holiday from history” (Krauthammer, Charles, “Holiday from History,” The Washington Post, 14 February 2003). Administration thinkers were always trying to come up with some formulation of the U.S. post-Cold War roll: “the indispensable nation” or “aggressive multilateralism.” Behind the rhetoric, Clinton had no long term strategy and simply engaged in ad hoc crisis management. Lacking the political capital for any serious initiatives, Clinton merely postponed Iraq, North Korea and al Qaeda; he was completely rolled on missile defense; in Israel, eight year’s labor was undone by an afternoon’s jaunt by Ariel Sharon.

As I believe Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke have recently argued, having a plan at the ready can be decisive in one’s favor when the government faces a crisis. When the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred, the neoconservatives had a plan about which they had spent nearly a decade thinking and arguing. Officials often feel constrained by the actions of previous administrations, but after eight years the Clinton administration had established neither precedent nor strategy or done anything to institutionalize its assessments and piecemeal responses (what is had done was heavily ridiculed within the Bush administration as “pounding sand” or “launching a $600 million cruse missile into a $10 tent”). With nothing to displace, the neoconservative plan met no resistance; with nothing to defend, liberal critics were in disarray.

Those who think that Bush, Jr. is heavy-handed, disrespectful of Congress and some of his more reputable Cabinet members, captured by a coterie of insiders and oblivious to real-world data on policy ought to revisit the disaster of Clinton’s first year attempt to reform health care (an excellent source on this is J. Bradford DeLong’s review of Haynes Johnson and David Broder’s book, The System: The Death of Health Care Reform in 1993-1994). The hash that Clinton amateurishly made of this effort became the springboard for Gingrich’s midterm takeover of Congress. Faced with an ideological and vindictive Congress, Clinton’s agenda was permanently compromised and the path to Lewinski and impeachment was cleared.

Clinton’s only “legacy,” as he calls it, is what Jonathan Chait calls “the progressive use of fiscal conservatism” (“Clinton’s Bequest,” The American Prospect, 19 December 2001). As somewhat of a fiscal conservative myself (I might prefer “fiscal rationalist”) I consider this a welcome bequest. The problem is that Greenspan stabbed Clinton in the back when he suddenly spoke out in favor of Bush’s tax cuts. Rather than being put to any progressive use, Clinton’s fiscal conservatism became the ultimate justification for the Bush tax cuts, a policy that will prevent any subsequent administration from doing anything for at least the next decade other than trying to fix the budget mess. Hence, Clinton’s fiscal conservatism has played perfectly into Republican plans to dismantle the welfare state.

More than just playing into the Republican plot to roll back the Twentieth Century, Clinton took an active part with his initiative to “end welfare as we know it.” As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out (“Am I Exploiting My Nanny?,” Slate, 18 February 2004), feminists opposed welfare reform because they believe that poor mothers should have the option of staying home with their children (AFDC goes almost exclusively to single mothers). Clinton apparently thought that they were an expendable constituent for the Democrats.

Loathing Ralph Nader has become almost a hobby among Democrats, but Al Gore lost the election in 2000 for a multitude of reasons: his own indecisiveness, his weird performance in the debates, a hostile media, election night Fox News shenanigans, control of a key swing state by his opponent’s allies and so on. But what those who blame Nader most overlook is that the most significant factor in Gore’s 2000 defeat was Clinton’s inability to control his libido. As an astute Wall Street Journal editorial (Robert L. Bartley, “Ken Starr’s Vindication,” 30 October 2000) noted, the issue that most impelled voters into the Bush column was morality and “restoring honor to the oval office.”

Clinton cost the Democrats the 2000 election, laid the groundwork for the Bush tax cuts, capitulated in the Democrats’ twenty year fight against star wars and left the incoming administration a foreign policy vacuum that they eagerly filled with their right wing dreams.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t feel that Clinton is as bad as, say, Bush or Reagan. He was looking at a veto-proof majority in Congress to override any attempt to end the ban on openly serving homosexuals in the military. After the midterms, a less cruel version of welfare reform was probably necessary to stave off a fully cruel bill. Fixing the budget is the right thing to do; Democrats can’t inherit a screwed up fiscal situation and make it worse. Clinton’s sound economic management may have played somewhat of a roll in the late 1990’s boom, a period during which the erosion of lower and lower-middle class wages stalled. It’s not progress, but it is something. And the changing perception of which party is the fiscally responsible one — a perception furthered by the recklessness of the Bush administration working with Frist and Hastert’s Congress — may pay off in the long term. Clinton has temporarily taken the “law and order” issue off the table. He did have to fly back to Arkansas during the campaign to preside over the execution of a mentally handicapped African-American to do it, though. But too much remains undone.

Clinton could have thrown his weight behind the unionization of retail and service workers, offered NAFTA as part of a grand deal with labor, wherein the social safety net was strengthened, allowing a more flexible workforce that didn’t have to fear the dislocations of globalization — actions that could have creating something akin to a twenty-first century New Deal coalition. He could have pushed for a defense reorganization akin to the Goldwater-Nichols Act 1986, to create state-building and peacekeeping forces and lock in his foreign policy ideas.

By way of contrast, every initiative Bush has undertaken, he has done so simultaneously with an eye to the main Republican constituencies, the electorate at large, the next election, building the next Republican coalition and achieving the Republicans’ long term goals. Clinton’s DLC, Eisenhower Democrat triangulations have, arguably, weakened the party. Even his lauded “Save Social Security first” was merely a short-term budgetary tactic, dreamed up in the spur of the moment while rehearsing the state of the union address. What exactly is the Democrats’ strategy to save Roosevelt’s legacy from Bush’s idea of an “ownership society”? For eight years we had the resource of the White House at our disposal to come up with it, but there is nothing.

Democrats should remember the Clinton didn’t get the nomination because he was the leading candidate. He got it because at the time the campaign was getting under way, Bush was perceived as unbeatable after his victory in Iraq and many potential candidates decided to wait until 1996. And he didn’t win because he was such an outstanding nominee. Clinton won because Perrot split the conservative vote. He was a governor of a small state and it showed. He failed to understand the workings of Washington until it was too late and he didn’t develop his modicum of foreign policy until very late into his second term.

President Bush has ruthlessly rammed multiple tax cuts through congress, enforced the most strict discipline on his own party members, leapt upon foreign policy snarls with boldness (if also with ill consideration) and covered all of his bases. He has said, “We are not going to compromise with ourselves.”

In Washington winning begets winning — and Bush started with big wins. He has plowed his mounting political capital into ever bigger endeavors with the gusto of an arbitrage investor. Clinton on the other hand wilted in the White House. Micro-initiatives were just that: micro. But apparently he made a lot of Democrats feel better about themselves. I am tempted to say that if that’s enough to satisfy them, then they get what they deserve. What stops me is that I don’t think that the rest of America, or the rest of the world, deserves what the Republicans have in store for them.