Osama bin Laden has given us notice he believes the future lies in the past, or at least his highly edited and bowdlerized version of the last thousand years.
Meanwhile, back on the Potomac, American leaders mutter wonk terms like “strategic end state” Pentagon- and State-speak for what the world ought to look like after the guns fall silent and economic aid is dispensed.
In sound bite format, the strategic collision between bin Laden-type extremists and the United States may well be one of “imperial restorationist” vs. “liberating reform.”
Bin Laden has complained of the terrible 80 years of Muslim indignation and suffering since the end of the Islamic caliphate. Turkey’s reforming general and political genius, Kemal Ataturk, must rate a special place in any hell designed by bin Laden. Ataturk, as part of a program to replace Ottoman political structures and modernize Turkey, ended the caliphate in 1924.
In the angry babble of his psyche, bin Laden just knows that should not have happened. History, going wrong for Islamic expansionists at least since the 16th century, really failed when the caliphate went poof.
In bin Laden’s future, the caliphate is restored. The decadent modern world fades as U.S. power dies, though techy bits of modernity are OK, such as videophones and nuclear weapons. Global rule of bin Laden-interpreted Islamic law follows.
Don’t snicker. Violent imperial restorationists have an ugly track record. Benito Mussolini and his Italian fascists dreamed of restoring the Roman empire. The obvious choice for Caesar was Benito. Who but bin Laden serves as caliph? Add that title to Osama’s “end state.” It underlines the autocratic and despotic motives that lie behind the schemes of various religious absolutists, ethnic zealots, ultranationalists and eco-crazies around the world who reject the moderation and compromise that participation in the global system requires. Remember, violent eco-crazies battle for the “restoration of nature” a green empire.
But what of U.S. strategic goals?
We intend to eradicate terror networks and punish terrorist-harboring nations. To reach those goals takes years of effort and perseverance Churchillian blood, sweat and tears.
Numerous pundits, however, argue that to truly defeat global terrorism, the United States must ultimately focus on “the root causes” that seed terrorist appeal. The usual roots are poverty and inequality. Unfortunately, many of the pundits advocating this “reformist” goal are trapped in utopian socialist amber, with buzz phrases like “North-South divide.” They treat U.S. wealth as something despicable, instead of an asset.
In so many hard corners of the world, autocratic rule (the denial of individual political voice and economic opportunity) and systemic corruption are the real roots of local poverty. The same corrupt political and economic practices that feed terror networks are the ones that create conditions of endemic suffering and embittered resentment. The local autocrats have an investment in encouraging their people to blame the United States. It deflects the heat from them.
Liberty (the right to responsibly pursue happiness) is the creative source of American wealth and power. For all but a handful of U.S. citizens, the “futures” presented by the planet’s bin Ladens pale utterly when compared with the opportunity to pursue “the American Dream.” Certainly, examples of American excess and silliness abound, but examples of American success and largesse are even more abundant. Here’s the fact at the throat of U.S. enemies: When the vast majority of Earth’s oppressed get a chance to vote with their feet, the destination isn’t Baghdad, it’s Broadway.
Extending political and economic opportunity into the world’s hard corners, by curbing the power of corrupt autocracies, should be strategic goals of the U.S. war on terror. It’s pragmatic, not grandiose. Squeezing corrupt banks and financial networks (a key Bush administration endeavor) is the starting point. Increased financial transparency and accountability exposes kleptocrats.
Eliminating terrorists ultimately reduces the daily fear experienced by political moderates men and women who vastly outnumber the extremists but live, literally, under the gun. In the hard corners that harbor terror, moderate voices are silenced by the threat of assassination. These moderates are the reformationists in their own lands, the entrepreneurs who can expand wealth and the political activists able to adapt democracy to local conditions.
The reformists are the U.S. strategic allies in our counterterror war. A well-waged counterterror war will help free them from fear. A well-formed political strategy will encourage them to pursue their liberty.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.