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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

11 September 2005

Four years on

The forth anniversary of September 11 offers an opportune moment to ask whether the West is winning the war on terror that began on that fateful day.

At first glance, it is clear that neither al Qaeda nor the West have been able to reach their overarching strategic objective— al Qaeda’s dream to push the United States out of the Middle East is proving elusive with America occupying both Iraq and Afghanistan; and America’s quest for security has been compromised by the proliferation of jihadists that are wrecking havoc in Iraq and elsewhere.

But to move past this confusing picture, it is necessary to ask anew the basic questions: what does al Qaeda want and what does America want? What is America’s strategy and what is al Qaeda’s? Only then can we possibly engage the bigger issue of all: who is winning the war on terror?

As best we can gauge it, Al Qaeda’s goal is to transform the Islamic world, give it a theocratic character, and, in the longer term, redraw it as to wash away the boundaries that signal the regions’ encounter with modernity. For its part, America’s primary objective is security; but given that security in no absolute good, America’s aim is to achieve a level of security that is consistent with prosperity—in other words, enough security so that Americans will not fear foreign threats that will compromise their way of life.


Al Qaeda’s strategy has changed over the years. It began with the assumption that America was weak and disinclined to fight—at least, that was the lesson that the terrorists took from America’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Somalia. But a series of attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen undermined this belief—America seemed unwilling to retreat from the world in light of these attacks.

September 11 marked the response to his failure—a bigger attack was needed to bring about al Qaeda’s objective. It is unlikely that Osama bin Laden expected America’s reaction to September 11 to be soft—war was what he expected, and a war is what he got. For al Qaeda, war was acceptable; after all, the jihadists had beaten a superpower before in Afghanistan, a likely battlefield in this war as well given that al Qaeda’s landlords were the Taliban rulers of that country. What is more, a war would make the Muslim world defensive against America, offering potential recruits to Osama bin Laden and his network. The third strategic calculation underpinning the September 11 attacks was to demonstrate America’s weakness and al Qaeda’s strength, since the relative perception of power between al Qaeda and its enemy would do much to affect others’ decision of who to join.

In the long run, al Qaeda’s bet is twofold. The first possibility is for Muslims to respond to its message and topple the corrupt governments that have strayed from Islam’s true word and have allied themselves with the West. This has yet to happen: there has been no mass uprising in the Muslim world with that call. This is partly due to al Qaeda’s own strategy: by attacking both the West and its allied governments in the Muslim world, al Qaeda achieved ideological coherence at the expense of strategic advantage; the result has been an alliance between America and regional governments against al Qaeda. Remember that even the Taliban, probably al Qaeda’s model of what a theocratic Muslim state ought to look like, required outside assistance, Pakistan’s, to consolidate power and survive. Al Qaeda has sympathizers all over but no backers that can help it convert its movement into a state-like entity.

To this must be added a second reason why al Qaeda has failed to bring about the requisite change—it lacks the organizational capacity to topple regimes in the Middle East. In a way, al Qaeda has chosen to fight the West because it is easier to do so—political organization, much less armed struggle, is almost unthinkable in the countries that al Qaeda would most like to attack: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Hence, al Qaeda has substituted the war it wants to fight for the war it can fight. But al Qaeda has hardly weakened the Middle East countries’ capacity to quell down whatever political opposition al Qaeda can muster. Even more, al Qaeda lack a political message—it can articulate grievances but it does not have the organizational capability to do anything other than fight wars. Even if a power vacuum were to be created in the Middle East, it is unclear that al Qaeda would be able to fill it.

It is the weakness of this strategy that makes Al Qaeda’s have a second bet—to believe that it can win the war by forcing America to lose it. This could be accomplished in either of two ways: one possibility is that America, and the American public in particular, will tire of fighting in the Middle East, pack up and go. There are signs that Americans are growing weary of the war in Iraq; but that is partly because the situation in Iraq seems unmanageable and partly because the link between the war in Iraq and the war on terror has been severed in many public minds. What is more important, however, is that Americans are unwilling to make the sacrifices that would ensue were America to minimize its meddling in the Middle East—particularly a move away from reliance on resources which are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Middle East. Put otherwise, to withdraw from the Middle East would necessitate a change in the way of life that Americans are not prepared to make—hence, the case for attaching a high geopolitical importance to the region will remain strong.

The other prospect for al Qaeda to win this war is to force an American withdrawal; similarly to the Soviet loss in Afghanistan, this scenario would mean that America can no longer fight or maintain heavy forces abroad. But the structure of the world economy—and its financial dependence on America—and the flexibility of America’s own economy in running deficits without immediately negative consequences are both assets in America’s advantage. What is more, the American economy is sufficiently robust to handle high levels of military spending without forcing a reconsideration of American life or society, as happened in the Soviet Union. The one upside for al Qaeda is that many of America’s traditional allies have shied away from sticking in full with America’s policies, which explains al Qaeda’s emphasis in trying to drive a wedge between America and its European allies. But although America is finding that there are limits to what military power and unilateralism can do, this has yet to lead America to rethink its entire military posture or alliance network in the world.

What emerges from this analysis is that al Qaeda has the tactical upper hand, by remaining a continuous nuisance for the West, but the strategic disadvantage of not being sufficiently powerful to bring forth the change it aspires to in the Muslim world.


America’s search for security from terrorist groups consists of three separate components: first, America can deny terrorists the operational capacity to attack it; second, it can decrease the desire that people have to fight America; and third, it can make itself more likable in the world, thus diminishing the extent of the preoccupation that foreigners have with America. America’s strategic advantage is that its security can be preserved by achieving any of the three, while the terrorists depend on a combination of all three to win (they need people who hate America and have both the capacity and the desire to fight it).

The first component lies in the tactical battle—freezing assets, pursuing and jailing terrorists, controlling the materials they need to carry out their attacks (or materials to carry out attacks involving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons), and so on. In this battle, the verdict is mixed: yes, America has locked up many jihadists, but not only do the masterminds remain at large, but also there seems to be a large supply of people willing to die for the cause of fighting America. In other words, the tactical battle is a necessary but insufficient protection for America.

The second component requires that people become unwilling to fight. Many Europeans, for example, have the means to fight America if they chose to; others still might rejoice in seeing America humiliated. What most Europeans lack, however, is any desire to sacrifice—they have no reason to upset their normal lives to fight America. This is largely a byproduct of prosperity and democracy. It is this thinking that has led the Bush Administration to make democracy the cornerstone for reshaping the Middle East.

To be sure, democratization is welcome; but it is unclear whether America has succeeded in this objective. On one hand, there are democratizing overtures heard in various corners of the Muslim world; Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” and Egypt’s recent election being the most obvious examples, though it is still too early to grasp the full import of these events. On the other, the Middle East lacks the basic ingredients of modernization—a healthy economy, a vibrant middle class, institutions of liberty and accountability. Even more important for America’s security, it lacks the mechanisms for providing jobs to all those who see life as little more than a disappointment.

What about the third component: minimizing America’s impact on people’s lives abroad? It is important to recognize that it is America’s imprint in the world that makes people resent it, though different people perceive that imprint differently—some detest America’s power and allure, others oppose America’s policies; some have legitimate grievances, others a litany of irrelevant complains. Put otherwise, anti-Americanism can be thought of as a political failure—the failure to secure American interests abroad without provoking a backlash against the pervasiveness of American influence. It is the failure, to offer an obvious example, to secure a reliable supply of oil in the West without making common cause with the House of Saud and its domestic policies. The question for American security, then, is: how can America achieve what it wants abroad without being so omnipresent in people’s minds that many people identify whatever goes wrong in their lives with America? While there is no easy answer to this question, it is clear that America’s high-pitched rhetoric and powerful military forces in all corners of the globe ensure that America cannot, in the near future, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”


The scorecard is confusing since both sides seem to lose points before they manage to gain them. Al Qaeda is nowhere nearer to achieve its strategic goal of establishing a theocracy in the Middle East than it was in September 11, 2001. America, for its part, has learned that stability cannot be purchased at the expense of democracy; but while it has struck blows to the terrorist network that attacked it, the harder part is sure to come. In other words, this is a recipe for prolonged struggle—both sides sufficiently powerful to harm the other, but neither sufficiently capable to win.      



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