Why Bin Laden missed Bush’s “war on terror.”
Now we see that Obama had the concept right, and that Bin Laden was horrified at his turn. Bin Laden understood that Obama’s rhetorical shift was subverting his strategy for spreading al-Qaida’s message throughout the Muslim world, a strategy that Cheney had unwittingly abetted in his eight years as vice president (six of which he basically ran U.S. foreign policy).
This is not to say that Obama’s policies in this realm have been a total success, or that al-Qaida and its affiliates have lost all their strength (though they have lost quite a bit). On this point, too, the Bin Laden file is revealing.
In the wake of last year’s Arab Spring, the conventional wisdom here, among Republicans and Democrats, was that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East dealt a fatal blow to al-Qaida, because they revealed that popular revolts could succeed in the Arab world without resort to violence or sectarian appeal.
Bin Laden apparently thought otherwise. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 (Letter No. 10 in the West Point book), he heralded the Arab Spring as “a great and glorious event” that would allow Muslims across the region to get out from under “the control of America” and for al-Qaida’s agents to spread “The Word.” There is no doubt wishful thinking here. But Bin Laden seems to have understood that blowing the lid off an authoritarian regime opens paths to power for all sorts of elements—not just for the young democrats who blew it off in the first place—and that, in countries of Muslim majorities, these elements are likely to include well-organized Islamic organizations (as is apparent in Egypt’s current election campaigns).
Amid the festive cheer of the Arab Spring’s opening days, Obama and his advisers may have underrated this possibility (as did many of his critics). Still his general outlook—which, to Bin Laden’s dismay, draws distinctions among Muslims and doesn’t view them all as enemies in a seamless war on terror—seems better suited to dealing with relatively moderate Islamic parties, as they arise (as some seem to be doing in Egypt).
This makes sense in a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, of whom only a small fraction are al-Qaida sympathizers, much less active followers or fighters. A small fraction of 1.6 billion is nonetheless a large number. Bin Laden welcomed Bush’s rhetoric and policies for creating the conditions for swelling his ranks; he fretted that Obama’s rhetoric was diminishing them. Maybe, on this score, he knew what he was talking about.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.