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Did Osama Bin Laden Win the "War on Terror"?

Perhaps we should stop cheering for our "success."

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This, again, is entirely speculative so long as the details of the raid remain obscure. But it mirrors another argument that is not so: that Osama bin Laden's attacks provoked the U.S. into a disastrous over-reaction – drawing it into an unwinnable and often hellish ground-war in Afghanistan and ultimately costing us thousands of American lives, trillions of dollars in national wealth, an enormous amount of international prestige and, more importantly, influenceover global affairs.

That argument was ably sketched out this week by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post , based on an interview he conduct ed with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As Klein put it, Gartenstein-Ross thinks bin Laden “had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against.” His goal was not some fantasy about establishing a worldwide caliphate or imposing “Sharia law” on Greenwich Village; having seen the Soviet Union decline in large part by bankrupting itself in an arms race with the U.S., with a huge assist from the Mujahadeen fighting them in Afghanistan, his objective was to wage economic war against the United States by drawing it into a similar conflict.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Gartenstein-Ross noted that “the Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991.”

Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire's dissolution is through the costs imposed by the conflict.

“The campaign [against the Soviets] taught bin Laden a lot,” wrote Klein:

For one thing, superpowers fall because their economies crumble, not because they’re beaten on the battlefield. For another, superpowers are so allergic to losing that they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand. This was bin Laden’s plan for the United States, too.

Did it work? Well, that depends on how you look at it. The U.S. economy is far more resilient than the Soviet economy of the 1980s, and we haven't gone anywhere, so in that sense it did not. But prior to the attacks, the Congressional Budget Office projected that we'd see budget surpluses throughout the decade. We face a large deficit now, in large part, because of Bush's decision to declare a “war” on terrorism – and to wage conventional wars against Afghanistan and Iraq – and then pass the first war-time tax cuts in the history of the Republic.

I would take the analysis a step further. The decision to go to “war” against a tactic also brought with it significant restrictions on our civil liberties; no longer could we credibly claim to be a beacon of freedom that the world ought to emulate.

Finally, we have to consider some geopolitics. University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, one of the world's foremost experts on suicide terrorism, argues that all such acts have a common goal: to induce Democracies to withdrawal from lands they occupy (either directly or by proxy). The decision to declare “war” on terrorism – and a couple of nation-states – led directly to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, as well as the scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib, the CIA's secret detention facilities, extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay, and all the rest. And all of those things resulted in a very significant decline in the United States' global prestige, and our ability to influence global events.

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