Bin Laden Won

Osama bin Laden is dead.  So is much of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.  The Taliban no longer control Afghanistan.  Popular uprisings refuting the fundamentalist notion that “Islam is the answer” have swept the region, laying claim to temporal power absent accompanying claims of authority from a higher power.  All this and no major attack on US soil in a decade.  A triumphal post-9-11 landscape?

Look closer.  The price tag for the “War on Terror” has been staggering.  The ten-year campaign in Afghanistan has cost between one- and two-trillion dollars.  To that add the bill from the catastrophically misbegotten sideshow in Iraq, which Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates could exceed $3 trillion, and the monetary impact of higher oil prices stemming from the invasion.

Then there’s $1 trillion in homeland security spending, a 70 percent increase in bloated defense outlays since 2001, and the costs associated with the slack monetary policies instituted in the wake of invasion, which contributed to the credit bubble that burst in 2007 and 2008.

The tally also includes lives lost.  According to icasualties.org, 1,752 US servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion of that country in 2001.  Another 13,447 have been wounded.  Meanwhile, 946 soldiers from 48 coalition members have been killed, with thousands more injured.  Separately, 4,474 US soldiers have died and 31,000 wounded since Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced in 2003.  More than 300 coalition troops have lost their lives in the campaign.

(The focus here is the wars’ cost to the US and its partners, but the conflicts’ toll on Iraqis and Afghans deserve mention: in Afghanistan, over 14,000 civilians may have died over the last decade of fighting, while the Associated Press claims that between March 2003 to April 2009 over 110,000 Iraqis perished, though some surveys put that number over one million.)

The defenders of the interminable slog in Afghanistan and preventative war in Iraq will highlight positive impacts of both.  And there are some.  But bin Laden saw the two as great victories—for al-Qaeda.  The Saudi radical, a veteran mujahidin who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, knew something about imperial overstretch.

Bin Laden’s articulated plan was to lure the US into the same trap that ensnared the Soviets.  In 2004, he observed: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.”  While bin Laden’s strategic miscalculations ultimately cost him his life and potentially did in al-Qaeda, his red hanky waving proved spectacularly successful, prompting the US to inflict more harm on itself than a band of primitive radicals ever could by getting bogged down in two quagmires.

Yet by far the greatest cost to the country since the Trade Center collapsed is far more intangible.  President Bush often reminded Americans that terrorists—“evil doers” in his argot—attacked the US because they hated our values.  The assessment may have been characteristically simplistic, ignoring a host of geopolitical and other factors contributing to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but it captured an essential truth.  Such religious radicalism is at least partially a manifestation seismic-like tension created when modernity impacts on ostensibly pre-modern societies.  Al-Qaeda and its allies may hate us for what we do, but they also hate us because of who we are.

Our response over the past decade to the terrorist threat has eroded the same liberal values that we were supposedly defending.  The passage of successive tax cuts (mostly for the wealthy) during a time of war, something no major civilization has ever attempted; the callous disdain for any shared sacrifice during the troubled aftermath of 9-11; the bogus narrative offered up to justify the invasion of Iraq; the erosion of civil liberties; and the countenancing of torture are just some examples of what essayist Frank Rich in a different context calls a “cancer into the American body politic that threatens it today.”

It did not have to be this way.  Crises can be ennobling.  They can draw out goodwill that in more placid times lies dormant, unrealized.  But our decade of distress has done the opposite.  It has made us more coarse, more callous, more cynical.  We are, as a result, a lesser people, a lesser country.  Nineteen fanatics with box cutters could not destroy America.  Only we could do that.  We sure gave it shot.

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