The Truth About Jihad

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

“We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deepset as could be.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky


Recall, for a moment, the mood in Washington immediately after September 11. There was grief, and rage, and bewilderment, followed closely by a grim determination to strike back. This last response evolved, in parts of the policymaking establishment, into a will to go beyond mere punishment or containment of the aggressor, and instead to exploit the moment in order to advance a much broader agenda.

This was understandable. America’s past offers many examples of seeming setbacks being turned to dramatic and lasting advantage. The sinking of the battleship Maine is one that comes to mind, or of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, or of half the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. More recently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed a vein that allowed America and its allies to bleed the decaying Evil Empire, just as Saddam Hussein’s lunge at Kuwait in 1990 revealed an opportunity to score a number of American goals, from smashing this dangerous man’s army, to testing and displaying the power of new weapons, to warning potential rivals away from the Gulf’s crucial oil resources.

All these strategic overreactions had something in common. In each case, the identity and nature of the enemy were abundantly clear. In most such cases, too, little discussion took place to clarify the stakes involved, the advantages to be gained, or the optimum means for winning them. (Which usually meant the application of overwhelming force.)

Yet while the strikes against New York and Washington seemed to fit the first part of this historical template, they did not quite suit the rest. Here was yet another of the “sneak attacks” that seem to have punctuated America’s rise, demanding yet another crushing response. But where and who was the enemy? What was his motivation for attacking in the first place? What, beyond merely destroying this adversary, was the strategic prize waiting to be gained, a prize that surely must be worthy of an unchallenged global superpower? Which were the appropriate tools to be used for this broader mission? What were the risks?

By now it is clear that in pursuing the grand counterstroke, American policy has gone somewhat astray. Perhaps our proclaimed values of liberty, tolerance, and the rule of law will, eventually and in some fashion, be seen to have triumphed. Perhaps America will be seen to have secured tangible strategic gains.1 Yet it is safe to say that the immediate opportunity offered by September 11 either to promote ideals or extend influence was misused.

The so-called Global War on Terror, or GWOT, as the Bush administration initially labeled America’s offensive against vaguely defined dark forces, certainly has achieved some successes—notably in Afghanistan where, for all the…

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