Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Bin Laden’s Grand Miscalculation

Bin Laden’s Grand Miscalculation

Osama bin Laden, as best anyone can tell, wants Muslims to unite in a grand alliance, with him at its helm. The concept is not new. The British confronted the Mahdi in the Sudan in the 1890s, and this fanatic rebel, too, fancied himself a millenarian leader, bound to unify all believers under a banner of conquest and vanquish the infidel. The Mahdi in the Sudan failed, because, confronting the premier military and economic power of the day, his own forces were puny, and he lacked the means to recruit followers even to communicate his message beyond his immediate environs. Osama bin Laden in key respects is a far more dangerous and cunning opponent than this and other forebears. However, in an extraordinary irony, he and his cause could meet with an even more resounding defeat. Whether or not he forges a Pan-Islamic movement united against the West, bin Laden is near to triggering the establishment of an alliance far more fearsome than any conceivable alignment of Muslim countries. America, Russia, and China— a weight that indeed no other geopolitical combination whatsoever could withstand— may well and indeed should on bin Laden’s provocation themselves join together in an alliance no less grand than that he hopes to create against us.

The plan bin Laden has formulated to achieve his world- spanning aims involves a simple progression: commit acts of unbridled terror against America, causing America to retaliate against one or more Muslim countries and thus provoking Muslims into a single enraged community eager to elevate bin Laden to the status of messiah he so craves. The Saudi dissident has gone about his work with some cleverness. Take his manipulation of the media and opinion in the Muslim world. First, he has avoided public credit for the attacks of September 11, and polls show that most Arabs, ignoring the outrageousness of the proposition, believe that the United States itself orchestrated the devastation in Washington and New York, in order to furnish pretext for an attack on Muslims. Second, our response well-measured by objective and historical standards is believed by most Arabs and many Muslims beyond the Arab world to constitute a terrific and bloody assault on millions of innocent civilians. So effective has this part of the bin Laden gambit been, that one suspects that if the United States did no more than send a politely worded note to Kabul requesting an apology, Near Eastern opinion nonetheless would hold that neo-crusaders had unleashed against Muslims a form of apocalypse. Thus the Muslim world, fuelled by false premises and gross exaggeration, lurches toward unity.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell focuses on knitting together a hodgepodge of disparate countries to work alongside us in rooting out terrorists. Great emphasis is placed on bringing multiple Muslim countries into the “alliance,” even as it becomes ever clearer that some of the Muslim countries at the heart of Powell’s planning contain such radicalized polities that their participation is mere fiction. Turkey, exceptionally, stands firmly with us, and Pakistan, though a powder keg of Islamic discontent, may yet fulfil its pledge of support. Beyond these countries, however— and even between the two of them, Pakistan remains a question mark — the situation is grim. To build the “alliance” that the United States now so emphasizes, we have had to find common denominators for all the states we aim to incorporate into it. Combining a welter of Arab and other Muslim states with various western countries, themselves of widely varying resolve, makes for a geopolitical structure so loosely defined and unstable as to have no meaning at all. bin Laden may well be creating a Muslim alliance of broad scope, focused on his own fanatical goals, whilst the alliance we have aimed thus far to build must remain a mirage.

Secretary Powell’s alliance, while perhaps placating European fence-sitters, has little chance of serving any purpose in the actual combat that must ensue. The interests of the constituents of that mirage of an alliance are simply too varied and, moreover, their perceptions of the threat we now face too divergent for them to agree to meaningful action in concert. But three countries do share fundamental interests and, more importantly, do share similar perceptions of the threat. Our leaders should recognize that the United States, Russia, and China are the logical alliance in the war against Islamic terror.

Americans on September 11, on our own territory, witnessed the fury of radical Islam. But Russia has confronted this problem for some time, and the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has upbraided the United States for failing to understand the nature of the problem his government confronts in Chechnya and other Muslim regions of the former USSR. China’s leaders have shown little tolerance for religious movements of any stripe when these hint at challenge to the state. And China, though much further from the headlines, has also struggled with Islamic radicals, Chinese officials, for fear of assassination, long dreading service in the western, Uigher-inhabited reaches of the People’s Republic. That Chechen and Chinese Muslims have joined bin Laden at his camps in Afghanistan tightens the link.

Countries, absent a clear threat, very seldom have bound themselves together in pursuit of peacetime objectives. We should be careful before assuming that the multiple rounds of GATT talks represent anything like the norm. Defense against a common danger, by contrast, has proved a prime mover in the creation of geopolitical alignments. It happened against Frederick the Great, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler. Fear of communist encroachment kept the long- feuding states of Western Europe together even longer than in the past. To be sure, the risk of natural disasters, ranging from smallpox to ozone depletion, more recently has also produced broad-based co-operation, but these projects, though carried out in time of peace, are themselves essentially defensive.

The attacks of September 11 finally brought into focus that the world faces a new threat demanding concerted action. Not just isolated cells of suicidal holy warriors, but vast stretches of Muslim opinion have arrayed themselves in battle formation. Their goal is to destroy the international order as we know it, even though they can offer nothing to replace it. This enemy, then, follows in the footsteps of the very worst revisionists of the past. The response, just as in the past, must come, not from disparate minor players and the ranks of the revisionists themselves, but, rather, from the premier incumbent powers of our day. That is to say, the alliance against terror must center around the largest and most powerful members of the system that is now in peril.

America, Russia, and China their differences notwithstanding constitute the core of contemporary geopolitical incumbency. The position of America in this is clear enough, for our power and prosperity are unrivalled and radical revision of world order is never the vocation of the premier state in the international system. China has found a formula for political stability and economic growth at home and enhancement of diplomatic power abroad. The current trajectory, in most its features, suits the People’s Republic very well. It may appear that, of the three powers, Russia is the one least possessed of the attributes of incumbency. But to assume that Russia has less interest in preserving the current world order would ignore cardinal facts. Russia remains, in territorial extent, the largest state in the world. It possesses the first or second largest arsenal of thermonuclear weapons, along with the means to deliver them. Its resources are vast, and income from hydrocarbon exports growing. Russia, like the United States and China, holds a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.

Herein lies the fatal flaw of bin Laden’s strategy. He has declared his intent to revise the world order in radical ways. This is bound, at the very least, to put the incumbent powers on guard to protect their position. But bin Laden has done much more than that. By carrying out mass destruction on the very soil of the premier power and forming a support network that aids violent and disruptive Muslim radicals everywhere, he also threatens the domestic security of the incumbent powers. In this, his challenge is unlike that in the past when disaffected groups have tried to revise the way the world functions. The Mahdi at Khartoum did nothing to threaten Britons on their own shores. America, China, and Russia, by contrast, today face far worse than a disadvantageous reshuffling of international rank. Defeat in the present contest would not simply entail lowering our flags at distant outposts. The means our enemy has chosen to effect his desired reshuffling of international order imperils our very domestic order as well. Toward America, China, and Russia, then, bin Laden has posed a threat of unparalleled unifying potential. It is a double threat: to unseat us all as international powers and to deny us tranquillity even at home. His scheme of alliance-building is quite simply in the process of backfiring on a scale of epic proportion.

The present motions of international diplomacy as led from Washington, DC give only veiled indication of the emergence of a tripartite super-pact. But the forces of mutual interest and mutual perception of threat work their own logic. If the Islamic revisionists were to carry out more attacks against civilians on our own territories, then progress toward unified action amongst the three great powers might well prove inexorable. It may well be that unified action is about to happen in any event.

President George W. Bush, meeting in Shanghai with his Chinese counterpart, President Jiang Zemin, appears to have obtained a meaningful commitment from China to fight terrorism. Perhaps more tellingly, the leaders agreed that there is a need to protect global stability. This begins to sound like incumbent powers at last recognizing the fundamental similarity of their interests in the face of a revisionist threat. Just as striking are recent words from Russia suggesting a willingness to accommodate the United States on missile defense and even on NATO expansion. It could be that the go-ahead from Moscow some weeks ago to permit American forces to deploy in the former Soviet territory of Uzbekistan signalled that the Russia-United States leg of the triad was already in place. It also bears noting that shortly after the Shanghai discussions between Bush and Jiang, Pakistan, a state over which China exercises considerable influence, increased its commitment to the war on terrorism by announcing that “alliance forces” would be using a major base in the west of the country.

Bin Laden has miscalculated. He may or may not yet prove able to foment a Muslim uprising of great breadth, but, by inadvertence, he seems to have made a far more potent alliance nearly inevitable. Only a strategic blunder even greater than his own will prevent the United States, China, and Russia from joining now in common cause to protect the order and security of which they uniquely are guarantors.