An excellent article by George Friedman of Stratfor, sent to me by John Mauldin of investorsinsight.com.
War, Psychology and Time
By George Friedman
There are moments in history when everything comes together. Today is the sixth anniversary of the al Qaeda attack against the United States. This is the week Gen. David Petraeus is reporting to Congress on the status of the war in Iraq. It also is the week Osama bin Laden made one of his rare video appearances. The world will not change this week, but the convergence of these strands makes it necessary to pause and take stock.
To do this, we must begin at the beginning. We do not mean Sept. 11, 2001, but the moment when bin Laden decided to stage the attack -- and the reasoning behind it. By understanding his motives, we can begin to measure his success. His motive was not, we believe, simply to kill Americans. That was a means to an end. Rather, as we and others have said before, it was to seize what he saw as a rare opportunity to begin the process of recreating a vast Islamic empire.
The rare opportunity was the fall of the Soviet Union. Until then, the Islamic world had been divided between Soviet and American spheres of influence. Indeed, the border of the Soviet Union ran through the Islamic world. The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union created a tense paralysis in that world, with movement and change being measured in decades and inches. Suddenly, everything that was once certain became uncertain. One half of the power equation was gone, and the other half, the United States, was at a loss as to what it meant. Bin Laden looked at the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and saw a historical opening.
His problem was that contrary to what has been discussed about terrorist organizations, they cannot create an empire. What they can do is seize a nation-state and utilize its power to begin shaping an empire. Bin Laden had Afghanistan, but he understood that its location and intrinsic power were insufficient for his needs. He could not hope to recreate the Islamic empire from Kabul or Kandahar. For bin Laden's strategy to work, he had to topple an important Muslim state and replace it with a true Islamist regime. There were several that would have done, but we suspect his eye was on Egypt. When Egypt moves, the Islamic world trembles. But that is a guess. a number of other regimes would have served the purpose.
In bin Laden's analysis, the strength of these regimes also was their weakness. They were all dependent on the United States for their survival. This fit in with bin Laden's broader analysis. The reason for Muslim weakness was that the Christian world -- the Crusaders, as he referred to them -- had imposed a series of regimes on Muslims and thereby divided and controlled them. Until these puppet regimes were overthrown, Muslims would be helpless in the face of Christians, in particular the current leading Christian power, the United States.
The root problem, as bin Laden saw it, was psychological. Muslims suffered from a psychology of defeat. They expected to be weaker than Christians and so they were. In spite of the defeat of the atheist Soviets in Afghanistan and the collapse of their regime, Muslims still did not understand two things -- that the Christians were inherently weak and corrupt, and that the United States was simply another Crusader nation and their enemy.
The 9/11 attack, as well as earlier attacks, was designed to do two things. First, by striking targets that were well-known among the Muslim masses, the attack was meant to demonstrate that the United States could be attacked and badly hurt. Second, it was designed to get a U.S. reaction -- and this is what bin Laden saw as the beauty of his plan: If Washington reacted by doing nothing effective, then he could argue that the United States was profoundly weak and indecisive. This would increase contempt for the United States. If, on the other hand, the United States staged a series of campaigns in the Islamic world, he would be able to say that this demonstrated that the United States was the true Crusader state and the enemy of Muslims everywhere.
Bin Laden was looking for an intemperate move -- either the continued impotent responses to al Qaeda attacks in the 1990s or a drastic assault against Islam. Either one would have done.
For the American side, 9/11 did exactly what it was intended to do: generate terror. In our view, this was a wholly rational feeling. Anyone who was not frightened of what was coming next was out of touch with reality. Indeed, we are always amused when encountering friends who feel the United States vastly exaggerated the implications of four simultaneous plane hijacks that resulted in the world's worst terrorist attack and cost thousands of lives and billions in damage. Yet, six years on, the overwhelming and reasonable fear on the night of Sept. 11 has been erased and replaced by a strange sense that it was all an overreaction.
Al Qaeda was a global -- but sparse -- network. That meant that it could be anywhere and everywhere, and that searching for it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But there was something else that disoriented the United States even more. Whether due to disruption by U.S. efforts or a lack of follow-on plans, al Qaeda never attacked the United States again after 9/11. Had it periodically attacked the United States, the ongoing sense of crisis would not have dissipated. But no attack has occurred, and over the years, actions and policies that appeared reasonable and proportionate in 2001 began to appear paranoid and excessive. a sense began to develop that the United States had overreacted to 9/11, or even that the Bush administration used 9/11 as an excuse for oppressive behavior.
Regardless of whether he was a one-trick pony or he did intend, but failed, to stage follow-on attacks, the lack of strikes since 9/11 has turned out to be less damaging to bin Laden than to the Bush administration.
Years of vigilance without an indisputable attack have led to a slow but systematic meltdown in the American consensus that was forged white hot on Sept. 11. On that day, it was generally conceded that defeating al Qaeda took precedence over all other considerations. It was agreed that this would be an extended covert war in which the use of any number of aggressive and unpleasant means would be necessary. It was believed that the next attack could come at any moment, and that preventing it was paramount.
Time reshapes our memory and displaces our fears from ourselves to others. For many, the fevered response to 9/11 is no longer "our" response, but "their" response, the response of the administration -- or more precisely, the overreaction of the administration that used 9/11 as an excuse to wage an unnecessary global war. The fears of that day are viewed as irrational and the responsibility of others. Regardless of whether it was intentional, the failure of al Qaeda to mount another successful attack against the United States in six years has made it appear that the reaction to 9/11 was overblown.
The Bush administration, however, felt it could not decline combat. It surged into the Islamic world, adopting one of the strategies bin Laden hoped it would. There were many reasons for this, but part of it was psychological. Bin Laden wanted to show that the United States was weak. Bush wanted to demonstrate that the United States was strong. The secretary of defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, used the term "shock and awe." That was precisely the sense the United States wanted to deliver to the Islamic world. It wanted to call bin Laden's bet -- and raise it.
That was more than four years ago. The sense of shock and awe, if it was ever there, is long gone. Rather than showing the Islamic world the overwhelming power of the United States, the United States is now engaged in a debate over whether there is some hope for its strategy. No one is arguing that the war has been a slam dunk. Whatever the complex reasons for invading Iraq, and we have addressed those in detail, time has completely undermined the psychological dimension of the strategy. Four years into the war, no one is shocked and no one is awed. The same, it should be added, is true about Afghanistan.
Time has hammered the Bush administration in two ways. In the first instance -- and this might actually be the result of the administration's success in stopping al Qaeda -- there has been no further attack against the United States. The justification for the administration's measures to combat al Qaeda, therefore, is wearing thin. For many, a state of emergency without any action simply does not work after six years. It is not because al Qaeda and others aren't out there. It is because time wears down the imagination, until the threat becomes a phantom.
Time also has worn down the Bush administration's war in Iraq. The Islamic world is not impressed. The American public doesn't see the point or the end. What was supposed to be a stunning demonstration of American power has been a demonstration of the limits of that power.
The paradox is this: There has been no follow-on attack against the United States. The United States did dislodge Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and while the war goes badly, the casualties are a small fraction of those lost in Vietnam. Most important, bin Laden's dream is gone. No Muslim state has been overthrown and replaced with a regime that bin Laden would find worthy. He has been marginalized by both the United States and by his rival Shiite radicals, who have picked up the mantle that he dropped. His own jihadist movement is no longer under his effective control.
Bin Laden has been as badly battered by time as Bush. Unable to achieve any of his political goals, unable to mount another attack, he reminds us of Che Guevara after his death in Bolivia. He is a symbol of rebellion for a generation that does not intend to rebel and that carefully ignores his massive failures.
Yet, in the end, Guevara and bin Laden could have become important only if their revolutions had succeeded. There is much talk and much enthusiasm. There is no revolution. Therefore, what time has done to bin Laden's hopes is interesting, but in the end, as a geopolitical force, he has not counted beyond his image since Sept. 11, 2001.
The effect on the United States is much more profound. The war, both in Iraq and against al Qaeda, has worn the United States down over time. The psychology of fear has been replaced by a psychology of cynicism. The psychology of confidence in war has been replaced by a psychology of helplessness. Exhaustion pervades all.
That is the single most important outcome of the war. What happens to bin Laden is, in the end, about as important as what happened to Guevara. Legends will be made of it -- not history. But when the world's leading power falls into the psychological abyss brought about by time and war, the entire world is changed by it. Every country rethinks its position and its actions. Everything changes.
That is what is important about the Petraeus report. He will ask for more time. Congress will give it to him. The president will take it. Time, however, has its price not only in war but also psychologically. And if the request for time leads to more failure and the American psychology is further battered, then that is simply more time that other powers, great and small, will have to take advantage of the situation. The United States has psychologically begun tearing itself apart over both the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Whatever your view of that, it is a fact -- a serious geopolitical fact.
The Petraeus report will not address that. It is out of the general's area of responsibility. But the pressing issue is this: If the United States continues the war and if it maintains its vigilance against attacks, how does the evolution of the American psyche play out?