Is Osama bin Laden Winning After All?

02/19/2006 05:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Until recently I would have derided such a thought. How could a tinpot fanatic who is either dead or shut in some mountain hideout hold the world to ransom for five years? It would stretch the imagination of an Ian Fleming.

Now I am beginning to wonder. Not a day passes without some new sign of bin Laden's mesmeric grip on the governments of Britain and America. His deeds lie behind half the world's headlines. British policy seems obsessed with one word, terrorism. The west is equivocating, writhing, slithering in precisely the direction most desired by its enemy. He must be roaring with delight.

On any objective measure terrorism in the west is a trivial crime. True, New York and London saw outrages in 2001 and 2004 respectively. Both were the outcome of sloppy intelligence. Neither has been repeated, though of course they may. Policing has improved. But compared with other terrorist campaigns, notably Irish and Palestinian, incidents genuinely attributable to al-Qaeda are minimal. So is the death rate, despite the advent of suicide bombing. Vigilance is always important but only those with money in security have an interest in presenting bin Laden as a cosmic threat.

Indeed if ever there were a case for collective restraint it is in response to terrorism. The word refers to a technique, usually a bomb, not an ideology. A bombing is an anarchic gesture calling for police and medical services. It becomes a political weapon only if publicised and answered with hysteria. An "innocent" terrorist death is meant to cause over-reaction, violent response, mass arrests and a decay of civilised values. Bin Laden's intention in 2001 was to portray the west as scared, emotionally vulnerable, over-reactive, decadent and careless of liberal values. The west has done its damnedest to prove him right.

I distrust "basket" analysis but events do sometimes rush in a certain direction. Last week alone brought new revelations of torture by American troops in Iraq. British soldiers were filmed beating demonstrators in Basra. British ministers sought new powers of detention without trial, a national identity data base and impediments on free speech. A sectarian leader became prime minister of Iraq and British marines were flown to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The UN demanded the closure of Guantanamo as a torture camp. The European media indulged in an orgy of finger-pointing at muslim religious sensitivity. Muslim extremists react on cue.

Were I bin Laden I could not have dreamt that the spirit of 9/11 would be alive and well five years on. I have western leaders still parroting my motto that "9/11 alters everything" and "the rules of the game are changed". I have the Taliban resurgent, financed by Europe's voracious demand for oil and opium. I have the Pentagon and Scotland Yard paying me the compliment of a "long war" of indefinite duration. My potency is said to require more defence spending than was needed to contain the might of the Soviet Union.

There is now a voluminous literature on the politics of fear and its distorting appeal for democratic leaders (increased this month by David Runciman's admirable "Politics of Good Intentions" and Peter Oborne's "Use and Abuse of Terror"). The 9/11 "changes everything" mantra began as an explanation of a national trauma and a plea for sympathy. It was hijacked to validate the latent authoritarianism of today's democratic leaders. Blair readily used the London Tube bombs to claim that bin Laden had "changed the rules". Whose rules, he did not say.

America asks the world to believe itself so threatened as to require kidnappings of foreign citizens in foreign parts, detention without legal process, the curbing of free speech and the derogation from all international law. It asks the world to believe that it must disregard the Geneva Conventions and employ foreign dictators to help it torture at random. It uses the same justification for occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. The world simply refuses to agree. Only cringeing Britain appeases such actions and calls them merely "anomalous".

Even America's most robust champions plead that this is all grotesquely counter-productive. What is frightening is not the evil of much American foreign policy at present but its stupidity, the damage it does to its own objectives. What was terrifying about Soviet power in the cold war was not its potency but the incompetence of those controlling it.

America and Britain claim the right to invade foreign countries in defiance of international law. This requires at very least a defensible moral superiority. Americans take this supremacy as read. Moral high ground comes with apple pie and the flag. Yet this supremacy, already questioned by many Americans at home, is in chronic disrepair abroad. Young Europeans and Asians no longer remember the war and do not see the world Washington's way. Their belief in America's wealth is secure. Their belief in its values and their relevance to foreign countries is evaporating, blown away by relentless American belligerence. Last year's BBC poll of 21 countries gave a majority that declared America the "chief threat to world peace".

The result is to cripple America's effectiveness as diplomat and power broker. Take Iran. The emergence of any new nuclear power is alarming. Yet it was tolerated in Israel, India, Pakistan and Korea. Partly because of its isolation, Iran now seems certain to develop a nuclear potential. To respond by increasing that isolation and thus the paranoia of Iran's turbulent and unstable rulers is daft. The sensible realpolitik must be to give Iran no reason to turn potential into actual power, let alone to want to use it.

I doubt if there is a world leader who would nominate America as best qualified to handle Iran in its present sensitive state. The war-mongering of the neo-con ascendancy, the calls for bombing and the constant listing of targets, seems to mirror the fundamentalist mullahs behind President Ahmadinajad. American policy in the Middle East is so counter-productive as to be the problem not the solution.

In desperation British and German leaders turned last week to the new "multi-polars", Russia and China, for help with Tehran. This suggests a world moving towards new axes, seeking new leadership and distancing itself from American myopia. The spectacle is similar to the free world's isolation of the Russian Comintern in the mid-20th century.

Such a recourse is fool's gold. China and Russia are no more likely to exert sustained influence on the world stage than did Europe's fragmented diplomacy over the past quarter century. Both have trade interests in Iran, and much to gain as brokers of power in the region. Neither is a substitute for America. Neither carries the moral suasion of open and competitive democracy. Both face rumbling insurgencies on their frontiers. Yet the west turns to them in its hour of need. That is measure of America's current collapse.

There never was a "terrorist threat" to western civilisation or democracy, only to western lives and property. The threat becomes systemic only when democracy loses its confidence and when its leaders are weak, as now. Terror attacks are for the police. For Bush and Blair to demand a "long war" against bin Laden and, by implication, a long suppression of civil liberty is ludicrous. Western civilisation is not some simpering weakling that cowers before a fanatic's might, pleading for leaders to protect it by all means, however illegal. It has been proof against Islamic expansionism since the 15th century. It is not at risk.

The American president and the British prime minister have spent half a decade exploiting bin Laden for political ends, in thrall to their security/industrial complex. They have relied on terrifying their electorates with new and bloodcurdling threats, with what Runciman calls "spook politics". But they will pass. The half-baked "message" laws passed by Britain's limp parliament last week will fall in disuse. The vitality of British and American democracy has always been its ability to produce antibodies when truly challenged by an internal or external menace. The west will rediscover its self-belief and restore the liberalism, properly defined as freedom, it once exemplified to the world.

Osama bin Laden is not going to win and never was. But, Goodness knows, Bush and Blair are giving him a run for his money.