The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have been just the tip of the iceberg. What lies hidden is not a plan to hijack more commercial airliners and use them as bombs. Osama bin Laden’s secret strategy owes more to jujitsu than firepower. America’s most wanted criminal, who learned military tactics in the heyday of the Cold War, is using the power of his opponent against itself.
Bin Laden’s secret strategy is to prod the United States into bankruptcy. This is not a short-term strategy. Osama bin Laden and his supporters around the world are digging in for the long haul, waiting for the day when the United States can no longer afford the war on terrorism and begins to wilt under the weight of unilateralism.
Bin Laden has spoken of his successful campaign against the Soviet Union. The mujahedin kicked the Soviet army out of Afghanistan and, they believe, caused the demise of the empire. In those days, bin Laden and Ronald Reagan were strategic bedfellows. They expected the Soviets to be defeated militarily. The mujahedin tested this theory on the ground. While the Reagan administration contributed to this effort with weapons and training, it was also simultaneously waging a campaign of economic warfare. Ronald Reagan engaged the Soviet Union in a budget-busting arms race designed to bankrupt its rival superpower.
Bin Laden has apparently absorbed the Reagan strategy. It is difficult to know whether he really thought that a handful of terrorist acts would hobble the United States or that al Qaeda and the Taliban could defeat the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. What he must have anticipated, however, was the predictable U.S. response: to throw money at the Pentagon.
The Bush administration has obliged by lifting defense spending into the stratosphere. The proposed 14 percent increase brings the military budget to $379 billion. Another $17 billion will be spend on defense programs outside the Pentagon. By 2007, Bush predicts a staggering $451 billion military budget. These figures don’t even include the enormous sums devoted to paying for past wars through veterans’ payments and interest on the debt associated with military spending ($229 billion in 2001). Coupled with tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy, the proposed defense budget will eliminate the budget surpluses and do nothing to improve the health, educational level and long-term employment opportunities of U.S. citizens.
All talk of “discriminate deterrence” seems to have evaporated. The U.S. is considering military engagement against the “axis of evil”–North Korea, Iraq, and Iran–and has already targeted alleged terrorists in the Philippines and Somalia. Few if any limits have been set on U.S. actions.
The successful realization of bin Laden’s secret strategy will happen not with a bang but with a whimper. Having failed to use the unipolar moment for the world’s advantage, the United States runs the risk of following the examples of Russia and England and Turkey, all faded empires whose ambitions overreached themselves. In the worst case scenario, the U.S. will become the sick man of North America, a victim of military hypertrophy, extremes of wealth and poverty, decay of civil infrastructure, and loss of competitive economic advantage.
The U.S. may look healthy enough at the moment, with the world’s largest economy and largest military. But we also shoulder nearly $6 trillion in national debt, which current military spending and tax cuts are only increasing. The war on terrorism, with no end in sight, may very well push us over the economic edge.
It’s not too late to prove Osama bin Laden wrong on his long-term goal. The United States can still temper the arrogance that is prompting us to go it alone. We can listen to our allies who warn against precipitous attacks on Iraq and North Korea. We can redirect military spending to aid those in need at home and abroad. The World Food Program needs only $3 billion annually to provide lunches to schoolchildren around the world. For $6 billion, according to the UN Development Program, all children can receive basic education. Every family in the world can receive clean water and sanitation for another $9 billion a year.
A prosperous country that works hand-in-hand with the world to battle hunger, disease, and illiteracy is a far greater threat to Osama bin Laden than Battleship America.