November 08, 2004 | Graham

Osama’s ‘Gift’ – he votes Republican

According to reports of work by John Kerry’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, Osama bin Laden’s tape helped George Bush’s re-election. Without denying that Greenberg has a vested interest in promulgating this theory, it is probably true, because that was one of bin Laden’s aims.
I have yet to hear a convincing argument from a commentator as to why bin Laden made his tape. The only one that has made any sense is that it was a pre-emptive strike to show his competitors that he was still cock of the walk, yet this is a weak argument.
bin Laden is a diminished force. If he could have launched a terror attack in the US during the presidential election, he would have. Instead all he could manage was a video taped taunt. The US is a large country. If bin Laden could not manage to even blow up a bridge it is because his network has been severely degraded. Alternatively it is fully committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggesting that perhaps Bush’s overseas adventures have made the US more secure, if for the perverse reasons. So the taunt showed bin Laden’s weakness, not his strength.
Not that taunts don’t have their place. Industrial age warfare was a mass produced form with assembly line, rather than personal, combat; the war against terror is small scale and up close and personal. Courtesy of the new technologies it has a lot in common with pre-industrial wars, as does the whole psyche of the Mohammedan jihadist warrior, which might lead to bin Laden adopting inappropriate models of engagement.
When pre-industrial armies met it was not uncommon for a champion to leave his own lines and parade in front of his enemy, daring them to strike – think Goliath of Gath, or Achilles. It was cost effective in terms of human life; it demoralised the enemy; and it satisfied the urge for glory. But it only ever really worked if you had a superior army. An inferior army can’t really play the gambit because they are giving nothing away. Taunting only works if you are going to win anyway because then there is an incentive for the weaker army to even the odds by risking their strongest warrior against yours so negating your advantage. bin Laden is the weaker party, so the taunt, and his failure to act on it, makes him less, not more, terrifying – that’s why the polled response to this in the US was muted. And of course, while the tactic draws on a model from ancient warfare, we are not involved in an ancient war, so has none of the other aspects, except perhaps a perverted sense of “glory”.
Like all of us bin Laden will have multiple reasons for doing what he does, many, or even most, particularly in his case, not rational at all. Some of them should be pretty obvious to a generation brought up on James Bond movies. Courtesy of the Internet and satellite TV the baddies no longer have to invest billions in electronic systems to hijack television signals – they can just drop a bit of advertorial in Al Jazeera’s post box and have them simultaneously broadcast it and put it on the web for them. But the motivation is still the same. Psycopaths like Dr No and bin Laden get off on this sort of thing.
Terrorism is the work of the untrammelled ego, and needs no excuse for displays of exhibitionism. In other circumstances bin Laden might be trench coat wearing flasher, or spend his time drinking and doing wheelies in a red Chevy corvette. With his resources, nothing like this could be exciting enough. To get the same effect as a world figure, he appears to need to lounge in gold brocade, in front of a much larger audience, threatening global Armageddon.
Of course, this is self defeating behaviour – if you keep your depravities secret you will survive undetected much longer, putting them on public display hastens your day of apprehension. But that is the point of the game. The exhibitionist actually wants to be caught. They don’t do what they do because they want to be loved but because they want to be humiliated. It’s not us that they hate the most, it is themselves.
That is probably true of the taunter as well. Again, think Goliath of Gath, or Achilles. The “hero” has always been conscious of his own mortality and disdained a long life. Warrior culture is ultimately self-destructive. The life of the warrior therefore has a symbiotic relationship with his own death. There can be no glory without risk.
Let’s look at that another way. Without George Bush, what would Osama be? Maybe he wasn’t doing it self-consciously, but he should have known that his video would have enhanced Bush’s chances of re-election, because the same dynamic in the opposite direction – the American “interference” in his world – ensures his support and a steady stream of recruits.
In a way bin Laden needed the more belligerent of the two candidates to win. Even though Bush’s belligerence may eventually succeed in killing him, that effectiveness actually increases bin Laden’s power in the short-term.
Which is not an argument in favour of voting for Kerry or leaving bin Laden alone. “Asymmetric warfare” is the modern jargon for terrorist warfare, but warfare with a psychotic is always assymmetric because whichever way you go, they win. If you leave them alone, they won’t leave you alone, and if you attack them, they will attack you back. In this case, even when you win, they win, because martyrdom is one of the prizes they want.
It’s a basic truth that most of the so-called “expert” commentary on the War in Iraq, and the US election, seems to have missed, just as it’s missed the nature of bin Laden and Bush’s symbiotic relationship. The war in Iraq appears to be a win-win for both, as does the 2004 Presidential election.

Posted by Graham at 9:56 pm | Comments (5) |


  1. Using my “cattle” theory of American politics,
    ….Yes,…the “Osama” Tape did help bush in the election
    — because it raised the spectre of the
    Big Bad Wolf—a spectre guaranteed to scare the daylights out of American cattle voters.
    You Australians are probably not aware of how easily frightened are American cattle voters
    (I am an American—by the way—so I write from experience)

    Comment by Bob Donatelle — November 9, 2004 @ 6:31 am

  2. I’m afraid we are very aware of the Australian Cattle Voters.
    They come running in heards whenever a scare campaign on interest rates is run. And like a cattle stampede – they all end up running in the wrong direction.

    Comment by alphacoward — November 10, 2004 @ 10:26 am

  3. Or, bin laden planned some sort of attack to coincide with the tapes release but it didn’t pan out. If some American commentators were struggling to figure out whether the tape would help Bush or not, you can hardly blame someone like bin laden and his lieutenants for making the same mistake. I believe Bush said the history of this campaign will be written in 50 years. I wasn’t sure of the exact context that he said these words, but maybe he was referring to the time when intelligence will be available to account for some other things that have occurred. My two cents…

    Comment by Stan — November 10, 2004 @ 5:25 pm

  4. Hahahaha! “Cattle voters”!
    Keep it up, lefties — insulting the populace like that will keep you safely out of power for a long time to come.

    Comment by Evil Pundit — November 12, 2004 @ 2:30 pm

  5. Really, Evil, there is no need to gloat. I actually disagree with the “cattle” thesis because it is a tad arrogant and presumes that just because people do not think like you (not you, Evil – I don’t want to say what people are like who think like you) they must be dopey or gullible. Perhaps it is just that they think differently and that the Democrats in the US, like Labor here, did not make a strong enough case for why they should be elected.

    Comment by Darlene — November 12, 2004 @ 4:45 pm

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