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Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2001 / 11 Kislev, 5762

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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Dead men walking… -- THE Islamic world after the terrorist attack of September 11th is teetering on the edge of massive change. There may well be global realignment as extensive as the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in 1989. In retrospect Osama bin Laden may be seen as the most effective terrorist since Gavrilo Princip killed the Hapsburg heir Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

Young Princip's goal was the removal of the Austro-Hungarian rule of Serbia, not the destruction of the entire structure of monarchic Europe that resulted. But Osama bin Laden should be credited with knowing exactly what he was trying to achieve. In effect bin Laden exerted formidable pressure at the juncture of the weak and unsteady tectonic political alliances that still holds the growing Islamist fundamentalist threat in check from Morocco to Indonesia. And the earthquake he wanted has begun. Whether the threat of change to regimes as varied as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Iran and the like can be managed for or against his ultimate goals remains the key question.

But there is scandalously little understanding of the real "Great Game" bin Laden has set in play. Instead it is being covered by the media as if it were a glorified sports contest between the United States and the Taliban over Afghanistan. One of the major drawbacks of the 24/7 news environment endured by the West today is the blizzard of repetitious particularity that overwhelms the shape of events. There may be a special providence in the fall of a sparrow but when has a helicopter wheel ever received so much airtime?

To complicate matters further, the formerly great news organizations of the West are just as clearly out of touch with the requirements of foreign reporting as its formerly great intelligence and security organizations. "The end of history" seemed a perfect opportunity to reduce costs by shutting down and consolidating the expensive worldwide independent reporting apparatuses they had created and run since World War II. Today's press is unrivaled in its ability to turn the most insignificant press conferences and press releases into instant "news" without any perspective on their relative importance. And today's governments and corporations alike constantly take advantage of the press's institutional inability to pierce the detail to see the real events hidden in plain sight before them.

Contrasting the Clinton Administration's war in the Balkans and the current Bush Administration's work in progress against terrorism is a useful exercise. Initiated by a phony Rambouillet demand by Secretary of State Madeline Albright and pursued in a phony NATO military campaign which shot up far more haystacks and cardboard tanks than Serbian military targets, the Clinton Administration's masterful razzledazzle of press communications fooled everyone, including President Clinton himself, until UK Prime Minister Tony Blair woke him up and the bombing of Belgrade brought the war to an end barely a month later. But the press proclaimed a "famous victory" and Clinton policy wonks have been dining out on it ever since.

There was considerable leverage against the Serbs who at least had a modern state with something to lose. But what seems to be constantly overlooked is that in the Bush Administration's war against terrorism, the American coalition is confronted with the first major incident of "fourth generation warfare" (4GW). It is facing Al Queda, which has no status as a nation state and has no army, navy, or air force yet it effectively attacked the United States on its home territory at the World Trade Center leaving more casualties than Pearl Harbor. And Al Queda has nothing to lose and potentially the entire Islamic world to gain. Attacking the United States was a masterful way to turn smoldering Muslim resentment of the United States into a blazing fire of support.

The Bush Administration's initial response was Clintonian--a phony new cabinet position to oversee "Homeland" security. As Doug Badow pointed out, the United States already has a cabinet position that has that responsibility-Secretary of Defense. And clearly no one understood the need to reconfigure his department to deal with the challenge of 4GW more than Donald Rumsfeld. He had already stirred up enough leaked wrath from Pentagon brass like outgoing Joint Chiefs' chairman, GEN Henry Shelton, to occasion a premature obituary in Time for his second tour as SecDef just prior to 9/11.

A rogue nation-state like Serbia or Iraq is like a fixed cancer that can be isolated and eliminated or controlled; Al Queda is more like a virus which mutates when challenged and masks its presence through conflicting symptoms and locations. And worst of all, it also can be transmitted easily. It is spread by fundamentalist Islamists underwritten by the devil's bargain made by the Saudi royal family who secure their regime by pouring millions of oil dollars into Wahabi hands all over the world. So eliminating Osama bin Laden or the Taliban does not begin to solve the basic problem.

The problem is the virus has already spread all over Islam. Islamists have been cheated out of an election in Algeria, forcibly put down by a Turkish military dedicated to the secular principles of Ataturk, and bribed and sent elsewhere to do their dirty work in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They had already killed Egypt's Anwar Sadat, when they were far weaker than they are now. The virus has been contained but it keeps changing and getting stronger. Who can doubt that to Al Queda supporters Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Musharaff, and the Saudi royals are "dead men walking" who will live only until the death sentences clearly implied by Ben Ladin's Al Jazeera television appearance are carried out?

In the Balkans War much was made of the fact that religious differences made peace, much less a nation state like Yugoslavia, between Muslims, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Catholics almost impossible. But as Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney points out, at least most of them are Slavs. Pakistan is made up of four entirely different ethnic groups-the Beluchis, the Sinds and Punjabis, and in the north, all too close to the capital Islamabad for comfort, militant Pushtuns exactly like those in Afghanistan across the Khyber Pass who are supporting the Taliban government-- with another several million refugee Afghanis among them. And Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

Will there be a coup against Musharaff? His army and his ISI are mainly Punjabi, but its officers aren't polo playing "whisky" Sandhurst graduates any longer. Their foreign duty is largely in Saudi Arabia and they are strongly Wahabi and sympathetic to bin Laden. Musharaff's brave attempts to restructure his general staff and the ISI and contain Islamist radicals by placing the head of his nation's most important Islamic party under house arrest may be too little too late. One can sympathize with rumored discussions about moving Pakistan's nuclear weapons to China. But without some miraculous early breakthrough by the US coalition forces against the Taliban in Kandahar, Musharraf's already shaky support may disappear and a fundamentalist government come to power.

Just as ominously in February the annual Haj pilgrimage begins in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the Islamic world will pour into Mecca. In total numbers they may make up almost 20% of the population of 15 million Saudi nationals. And those Saudi nationals have suffered a 50% drop in their standard of living in the past decade under the current corrupt regime. It is hard to believe that Al Queda will neglect this golden opportunity to raise the flag of jihad at Mecca and attempt to take over a virtually defenseless state that proclaims itself Islam's protector and yet allies itself with the United States

The Clinton Administration ran perhaps the most negligent American foreign policy since the 1920s and the Bush Administration is struggling to deal with the potentially catastrophic consequences of that indifference. So far it is managing its challenge brilliantly. It is doing its best to lower expectations and create extraordinary historic breakthroughs in America's alliances with Russian and the independent Islamic republics of central Asia that have outflanked the difficulties with both Saudi and Pakistani support for the coalition. Given time they should provide the basis for excellent new policy options in the future throughout the region. But bin Laden's earthquake has a momentum of its own. And now it is not only the expectations of Americans that have to be satisfied.

In the short run, while the inescapably slow American buildup in armed forces and basing is still underway, bin Laden's Al Queda has more options than its enemies. The next three to four months are crucial. America should remember that in classic 4GW style, Osama bin Laden used American planes and American training to destroy the World Trade Center. Terrorists become extraordinarily resourceful playing weak hands against the strong and rich. So do revolutionaries. And it is time to realize bin Laden is both.

A revolutionary American naval hero, John Paul Jones, demonstrated one of bin Laden's most intriguing options. With his ship Bonnehomme Richard sinking under him, Jones, offered the opportunity to surrender, responded "I have just begun to fight!" Jones and his crew then conquered the British HMS Serapis and climbed on board to fight again from the deck of another nation' s ship, now his prize. What will it really matter if the American coalition conquers the rocky wasteland of Afghanistan only to find Al Queda in control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, or the oil riches of Saudi Arabia-and with strong popular support?

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An an editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.

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06/14/01: Abandoning Miss Liberty for Ms. Reno
05/07/01: Saving Lt. Kerrey
02/28/01: Marc Rich and the Clintons' Court Jews
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11/03/00: Clinton’s gotterdammerung
10/20/00: Gore wins the debate --- Bush wins the electorate
06/20/00: Fire Richardson now
05/01/00: Congressional hearings on Reno’s raid are not the way to go

© 2000, Thomas H. Lipscomb