There’s a great review in the Times today of Lawrence Wright’s new book, The Looming Tower. It offers some surprising insights into Bin Laden and how he was molded into the super-star of terrorists by his sidekick Zawahiri. It’s the last two paragraphs of the review, however, that pack the hardest punch.
Mr. bin Laden’s goal in striking the American embassies and bombing the American destroyer Cole in 2000, says Mr. Wright, was to “lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan”: “His strategy was to continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; then the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds. It had happened to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union. He was certain it would happen to America.” When neither the embassy bombings nor the Cole bombing was enough to “provoke a massive retaliation,” Mr. Wright suggests, Mr. bin Laden decided “he would have to create an irresistible outrage.”
That outrage, of course, was 9/11. Though American forces would not become bogged down in Afghanistan – at least not immediately in the fall of 2001 – another, longer war was on the horizon. On March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the start of the war against Iraq; more than three years and more than 2,500 American deaths later, the United States is still there, fighting just the sort of asymmetrical war Mr. bin Laden so fervently desired.
I always feared 9/11 would end up a complete and total victory for the attackers. Unlike Bush, they truly could proclaim, “Mission Accomplished.” Look at where we were prior to that day and where we are now, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or the homeland. They have us where they want us, and thanks to Bush’s lofty rhetoric, there is absolutely no way out without a monumental loss of face. No matter what we do, we lose, as Zawahiri and Bin Laden go free, leaving in their wake a Middle East more radicalized and anti-America than ever before.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.