May 4, 2011

OBL and Hitler?

A debate has been going about the relative success of bin Laden in his goal of destroying the United States.  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in Foreign Policy that we did not understand OBL's strategy, and that it was smarter and more successful than many suppose.  Apparently OBL was aiming to damage the US economy:
One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy. 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.
The idea was to draw the US into Afghanistan, the "graveyard of empires," where we would be bled dry. Ezra Klein agrees that the strategy was quite successful:
Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates that the price tag on the Iraq War alone will surpass $3 trillion. Afghanistan likely amounts to another trillion or two. Add in the build-up in homeland security spending since 9/11 and you’re looking at yet another trillion. And don’t forget the indirect costs of all this turmoil: The Federal Reserve, worried about a fear-induced recession, slashed interest rates after the attack on the World Trade Center, and then kept them low to combat skyrocketing oil prices, a byproduct of the war in Iraq. That decade of loose monetary policy may well have contributed to the credit bubble that crashed the economy in 2007 and 2008.

Then there’s the post-9/11 slowdown in the economy, the time wasted in airports, the foregone returns on investments we didn’t make, the rise in oil prices as a result of the Iraq War, the cost of rebuilding Ground Zero, health care for the first responders and much, much more.

But it isn’t quite right to say bin Laden cost us all that money. We decided to spend more than a trillion dollars on homeland security measures to prevent another attack. We decided to invade Iraq as part of a grand, post-9/11 strategy of Middle Eastern transformation. We decided to pass hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts and add an unpaid-for prescription drug benefit in Medicare while we were involved in two wars. And now, partially though not entirely because of these actions, we are deep in debt. Bin Laden didn’t — couldn’t — bankrupt us. He could only provoke us into bankrupting ourselves. And he came pretty close.
Kevin Drum, on the other hand, goes the other way:
Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq and homeland security cost us a lot and have contributed to our parlous fiscal state. But bin Laden had nothing to do with the Bush tax cuts, nothing to do with the housing bubble, and nothing to do with an unfunded prescription drug benefit. And most importantly of all, bin Laden had nothing to do with the upcoming growth of Medicare, something that we've known was coming for decades. There's simply no question that our short-term deficit was caused mostly by tax cuts and the Great Collapse of 2008, just as there's no question that our long-term deficit is caused mostly by spiraling Medicare expenses. By comparison, the cost of our response to al-Qaeda has been fairly modest.
It seems to me that bin Laden was a kind of a mad genius in the Hitler mold, combining some extremely astute judgments with others that are utterly ludicrous. Hitler played German and European politics masterfully from 1923-39. His embrace of innovative tactics and doctrines laid some of the groundwork for the legendary blitzkrieg (though I understand that was due more to luck than the popular story would have it). Combine that with his lunatic ideas about race—first the idea of lebensraum, where the Ukraine was supposed to be the homeland for a new generation of "Aryan" settlers, or his conviction that the Jews were in control of the international banking system and the US.

Similarly, bin Laden proved himself an excellent judge of what the US would do when attacked on 9/11: badly overreact.  Afghanistan didn't work out as well as he supposed, but we did him one better and invaded Iraq too, which turned into basically the disastrous occupation that he was anticipating.  However, he was completely wrong about the war in Afghanistan being the sole reason the Soviet Union collapsed, and he was also wrong about the economic resilience of the capitalist model.  More strangely, he was convinced that the US was decadent, immoral and weak, and a small war would be enough to bring down the whole system.  He thought (like Hitler) the US economy and media was controlled by Jews and homosexuals.

Now, I'm not making a simple equivalence here, more like some amateur psychological observations.  Bin Laden was an astute and successful enemy in many ways; in others he was a complete idiot.

UPDATE:  Kevin Drum adds on:
My take on al-Qaeda's actions and motivations comes largely from Steve Coll's Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. And Wright does say that bin Laden "wanted to lure the United State into Afghanistan, which was already being called the graveyard of empires" (though he doesn't source this contention). But bin Laden himself seemed to have more prosaic views, namely that the United States was inherently decadent and weak and would retreat from the Middle East if faced by a sufficiently determined jihadist guerrilla movement, and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to believe that striking the United States (and thus drawing the U.S. into battle) would serve primarily as a way of inspiring young jihadists to join the cause.
I should mention that I'm also getting most of my analysis of bin Laden from The Looming Tower, which I recommend highly.

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