Harley Filben looks at the damage wrought by US power in its convulsive decline
To speak of Osama bin Laden is in a sense to reprise the Frankenstein myth – Mary Shelley’s novel, the opening shot of modern science fiction, sees the hubristic eponymous scientist building a living being out of dismembered corpses. He spurns his creation as a monster, and so do the rest of humanity; the monster develops an all-consuming hatred of his creator, and the running battle between the two takes them to their mutual destruction.
Bin Laden became an iconic figure in the resurgence of Islamist reaction, but he was nevertheless in all crucial respects a creation of the United States. It was the US-backed Saudi regime which produced the first stirrings of obsessional religious piety in the young Osama; it was America’s support for jihadist forces against the Soviets in Afghanistan that created an environment in which he could be religiously and politically radicalised. Secular nationalism was, for US foreign policy, a dangerous thing in the cold war, too apt to be politically influenced by Soviet-friendly forces and other leftists. Radical Islam was unlikely to be tempted by the godless evil empire.
The cold war ended, and with it US imperialism’s reliance on the likes of bin Laden – but the latter did not go anywhere. Now that they had been summoned forth, radical Islamists were unlikely to just disappear; and relations with imperialism were always going to sour. For bin Laden, the turning point was the first Gulf war, which saw enormous US forces stationed in Saudi Arabia – for him, a profound act of heresy. With the USSR gone, bin Laden needed a new ‘great Satan’. The brash posturing of the sole remaining superpower, and the increasing tendency for its military interventions to end only in generalised chaos, provided him one.
So bin Laden, and his newly founded al Qa’eda organisation, holed up under the protection of any regime that would have them. Most of their grand plans for spectacular terrorist outrages were failures – the bombings of two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were his first real successes, and he can only have been emboldened by the bungled US response, which accidentally destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
Then came September 11. In many respects, the attacks of that day are the all-time high point of terrorism (once we strip the word back to its original meaning – making political statements through spectacular acts of violence – from the enormously expanded definition it has achieved over decades of state department propaganda). The number who died on 9/11 pale in comparison to the death toll of the wars it provoked, true – yet to wreak such devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US needed cruise missiles, state-of-the-art bombers and drilled and trained soldiers. To demolish a great symbol of American global power – and with it, America’s sense of invulnerability – bin Laden needed a handful of willing martyrs, some box-cutters and a plan.
In all probability, bin Laden did not expect quite so brutal and extended a response from the USA. He did not reckon, at the end of the day, on his own success. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers, however, sent America headlong into an ideological turmoil, which in any case loomed. The evidence is everywhere – the continued proliferation of 9/11 conspiracy theories, which blame everyone from Bush to the Jews, to aliens for the attacks; religious nutcases who cited America’s moral turpitude for causing god to withdraw his protection; the revival of irrationalist social theory, of which Samuel Huntingdon’s ‘clash of civilisations’ idea is the best-known example.
Bin Laden did not cause all this – these phenomena are indices of the decline of the US as a world hegemon, of the failure to turn the end of the cold war into any kind of lasting pax Americana. The reconfiguration of neo-conservatism from a radicalised anti-communism (and, as is well known, a by-product of late-Shachtmanism) into a generalised apology for US power was another. The neo-conservatives’ influence over the then US president. George W Bush, was already considerable before the September 11 atrocities. Afterwards, their calls for a more muscular assertion of US state power found their moment. The ruling class faction that under the Clinton administration had been nicknamed ‘the crazies’ suddenly found themselves hegemonic.
Today, of course, their moment has been and gone – the Project for a New American Century was wound up years ago, and Bush ditched them, as Iraq turned ever more into an intractable quagmire. Yet all this goes to show is that the irrationality of US state power does not lie in the harebrained utopian schemes of the neo-cons, or even in their alliance under Bush’s tutelage with a particular brand of millenarian, crusading Christianity. It is an objective reality of the global conjuncture. The return of ‘realists’ to US administrations has not resulted in a realistic ‘exit strategy’ from Afghanistan. It is worth remembering that ‘bringing bin Laden to justice’ was the official justification for going into Afghanistan in the first place; yet today an end to the carnage is no more in sight than it was before May 1.
Bin Laden’s death has been greeted with no little delight by people in the west. Yet one feels that, under the circumstances, the euphoria will be ephemeral. Getting bin Laden even five years ago may have been a genuinely big deal – if only as a justification for the large-scale exercise of US military might. That it has taken America the best part of 10 years to find bin Laden is a real embarrassment. More seriously, the recent ‘Arab spring’ uprisings have revealed how shallow the support of radical Islam really is. Islamists barely had a sniff of influence in Tunisia, and even the powerful Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was broadly sidelined in Egypt’s revolutionary wave – now the MB supports the army’s trifling constitutional reforms.
9/11 was exceptional in another way (along with the subsequent Madrid and London bombings): among bin Laden’s atrocities, it did not produce much in the way of ‘friendly fire’. Most al Qa’eda operations have killed more Muslims than infidels, which has tended over the years to make bin Laden’s appeals to a peculiar pan-Islamism look hollow. His adherence to an Islam which most official clerisies (including the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia) would regard as heretical was not so much an issue when he could portray himself as bravely fighting back against western crusaders, rather than simply provoking global police actions of considerable brutality.
Nonetheless, if al Qa’eda’s support is on the wane, it has obviously not shrivelled completely – thus, the manner of Osama bin Laden’s end is telling in every detail. Firstly, there is the remarkable revelation that he was hiding, as it were, in plain sight – not in the caves of Tora Bora, not in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan, but in Abbottabad, a substantial settlement near the pre-eminent training centre of Pakistan’s officer corps. This raises the possibility that some faction of Pakistani state officials colluded in hiding him; it should not be overstated, yet it would hardly be surprising that Pakistani-American relations, strained by Afghan mission creep, might lead some in the state apparatus to consider it.
Secondly, there is the US raid on bin Laden’s compound itself. This has been sold as a specifically American operation, of which even the Pakistani government was unaware. This surely has to be an embellishment of the truth – how exactly would the US explain a transport helicopter flying right up to the doorstep of the Pakistani top brass? Yet it is a convenient lie for both sides: it allows the US to take all the credit for ridding the world of its supposed great adversary, and it allows the Pakistani regime to deflect Islamist reprisals onto the US. Provided anyone believes it, of course.
What comes out of both these aspects is, again, the damage wrought by US power in its convulsive decline. Three thousand people die in terrorist attacks in Pakistan every year – up from a couple of hundred before the invasion of Afghanistan. The failure of the US to impose any kind of order on Afghanistan, and the spread of hostilities to the border regions of Pakistan, have caused the latter country to teeter on the brink of becoming a failed state. Pax Americana is, and always has been, a myth – the reality is the corrosion of social order, wherever US military might blunders onto the scene.
The final telling detail of Osama’s death is, precisely, his death. No attempt was made to capture him and put him on trial. After all, who knows what he might have said? Unarmed, he was shot once in the chest and once in the head; his body was apparently dumped in the sea. America wants to stay at the level of this simple narrative: he was a bad guy, we found him, we killed him, it is over. Marxists are not fooled. In bin Laden, imperialism, unwittingly, manufactured a new great enemy for itself. What destruction it has wrought on the way to firing two bullets into him.