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Understanding bin Laden’s Appeal

The Grievances He Represented Are Still Present in the Region

SOURCE: AP/Al-Jazeera, file

Osama bin Laden’s appeal, though cynical, was rooted in real grievances against longstanding U.S. support for undemocratic regimes.

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It goes without saying that the end of the terrorist mass murderer Osama bin Laden does not mean the end of the terrorist threat against the United States. Nor does it end the debate over the nature of that threat and the best methods of defeating it. But hopefully the death of America’s most notorious enemy—and an easing of the fears of millions that were bound up with him—will provide us an opportunity to think more rigorously about what it is he represented and what that means for the United States’ future relationships with the Arab publics to whom Osama bin Laden pitched his appeal.

The New York Times’s Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick reported Tuesday that bin Laden’s legacy in the Arab world is not a simple one. The overwhelming majority in that region rejected his ultraconservative ideology as well as his reprehensible terrorist methods. But there was and still remains some measure of admiration for the man who defiantly declared war on the regimes that have oppressed Arabs for decades and on the Great Power patron who facilitated that oppression.

One of the great ironies of U.S. policy after the September 11 attacks was that President George W. Bush seemed to grasp that bin Laden’s appeal, though cynical, was rooted in real grievances against longstanding U.S. support for undemocratic regimes and that this regional status quo was unsustainable.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” President Bush said in a 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”

And yet having diagnosed the problem, his administration’s bizarre prescription—invading and occupying Iraq as a way to kick-start regional change—directly resulted in its having to abandon its democracy agenda and double down on support for those same dictators, pleading with them to help stem the extremist tide that the Iraq debacle unleashed.

In other words, President Bush voiced support for regional democrats and then withdrew it and scuttled back behind the usual Arab authoritarian enforcers. In so doing, he helped bring the United States’ reputation in the Middle East to a historic low point. America’s power and ability to shape events in the region was significantly diminished.

Fortunately, Al Qaeda’s own strategic stupidity prevented the organization from profiting too much from this. Its staggering brutality in Iraq and other countries such as Jordan—where a massive hotel bombing in 2005 resulted in anti-Al Qaeda demonstrations—managed to alienate rather than embolden and inspire new recruits (though of course many of those who did join up to fight in Iraq have returned to their respective countries to carry on the fight).

It would be a mistake to interpret Al Qaeda’s failure in this respect as a U.S. policy success. We’ve seen spectacularly over the past few months that the grievances to which bin Laden appealed are still present in the Middle East. The difference is that they’ve been expressed in a far more admirable and inspiring way, by those who’ve demonstrated in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere.

But the truth is the U.S. foreign policy community hasn’t been able to squarely consider what made bin Laden’s propaganda resonate as much as it did and what a radical shift this might require for U.S. policy in the region. The Arab Spring of revolutions—or what I desperately hope will be an Arab Spring—makes it more imperative than ever that we do so.

What bin Laden got right is the strong perception among Muslims that the United States’ relationship with the Muslim Middle East has not been very good for most Muslims in the Middle East. To say that relationship has been built upon security imperatives is facile. All relationships between states are built upon security to a great extent.

More specifically, this relationship has been built on a shortsighted and long-outdated vision of security in which the primary point of American engagement was its military who buttressed authoritarian leaders who promised to keep their people quiet and the oil flowing. The people of the Middle East have now resoundingly rejected this deal. (And they have also, thankfully, stridently rejected bin Ladenism.) The United States must as well.

There’s now a dangerous idea in certain D.C. circles that if we help the people of the Middle East have true democracy, they’ll choose governments and policies the United States likes. This is simply not true. These governments will not act as America’s willing enforcers any more if and when they come to truly reflect popular will.

For instance, the current Egyptian government may not yet be fully democratic. But it’s clearly more democratic than the previous one in the sense that it is more responsive to popular will, which is strongly supportive of the Palestinians. This responsiveness is part of what led it to violate clearly marked U.S. red lines and broker a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. This is what the democratic future of the Middle East will look like.

The bottom line is this: While Americans may see our efforts in Muslim lands through the lens of freedom bringing, many if not most of the people there don’t see it that way. Recognizing that fact is essential because soon—hopefully—these people will be voting, probably for leaders and policies Americans won’t always be pleased with.

This doesn’t mean the United States should withdraw from engagement in these lands—quite the opposite. We need to broaden and deepen that engagement beyond the point of a gun to develop America’s relationship with the people of the Middle East and not just with its regimes.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.

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