What if Osama bin Laden Had Legitimate Grievances?
You’re not supposed to utter these words, but what the heck: Osama bin Laden had a point. No, his grievances, as well as those of his followers and sympathizers, didn’t excuse the mass murder of 9/11—not by a long shot. After all, I am a native New Yorker whose family and neighborhood were directly touched by the horror of those inexcusable attacks. Still, more than 17 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and twin towers, it’s worth reflecting on bin Laden’s motives and discussing the stark fact that the United States government has made no moves to address his gripes.
Now is as good a time as any. The U.S. military remains mired in wars across the Greater Middle East that have now entered their 18th year. The cost: $5.9 trillion, 7,000 dead American soldiers, at least 480,000 locals killed and 21 million refugees created. The outcome: more instability, more violence, more global terror attacks and a U.S. reputation ruined for at least a generation in the Islamic world.
Need proof? Consider the regular polling that indicates that the U.S. is considered the greatest threat to world peace. Not China, Russia, Iran or even North Korea. The United States of America.
Why, exactly, is the U.S. so unpopular, from West Africa to South Asia? This can be explained in part by the mere presence—sustained, at that—of U.S. troops in the region. As a historian, I can assure you that folks don’t usually take well to being occupied. Nevertheless, it’s more than that. And here’s the rub: Washington, unwilling to even consider the grievances bin Laden and his acolytes clearly communicated, has instead doubled down on militarism in the region—thereby turning al-Qaida’s fringe complaints into a mainstream sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world.
Let’s review the three core grievances in bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa—essentially a declaration of war—against the U.S., and then look over Washington’s contemporary policies on the issues:
- Bin Laden objected to the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia specifically and across the region more generally, due to their proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, bin Laden criticized the U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s despotic royal regime.
But rather than pull its troops “offshore,” the U.S. military has expanded its empire of bases, both in the Mideast and throughout the world. Despite the slaughter in Yemen and the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Washington still inflexibly backs the Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has even negotiated record arms contracts with the kingdom, to the tune of $110 billion. Clearly, Washington has only doubled down on this front.
- The al-Qaida chief lamented the starvation blockade that the West—led by Washington—imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Make no mistake: Saddam was no friend of bin Laden—in fact, they were mortal enemies. But the well-reported deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children, victims of the sanctions during that period, are what motivated bin Laden’s concern. The blockade was so hard and its civilian toll so gruesome that the United Nations aid chief, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest in 1998. Optically, the U.S. government response came across as both coarse and callous. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in a “60 Minutes” interview in 1996 whether the price of a half-million dead children was worth the benefits of the sanctions, she cold-heartedly replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”
Today, in addition to the unwarranted 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which caused at least another 200,000 civilian casualties, the U.S. is complicit in a new blockade, this one imposed by Washington’s Saudi allies in Yemen. Recent reports indicate that some 85,000 Yemeni children have already starved to death in the 3–year-old war on the poorest Arab country. Undeterred, the U.S. continues to provide munitions, intelligence and in-flight refueling to the Saudi military. This veritable war crime has galvanized an increasing anti-American regional public just as intensely as the 1990’s sanctions on Iraq once did.
- Bin Laden, like many global Muslims, felt sympathy for the generations-long plight of the occupied Palestinians and abhorred America’s one-sided support for Israel’s military and governing apparatus. The U.S. has been almost alone in its willingness to flout international law, U.N. resolutions and a basic sense of humanity in its backing of Israel since 1948.
Here again, nothing has changed. Washington has simply doubled down. Israel remains the principal recipient of U.S. military aid, with almost no strings attached. U.S. media and Washington policymakers rarely mention the slaughter of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators protesting along the Gaza fence line in the past eight months. The results have been striking: 5,800 wounded and at least 180 killed since March. American mainstream media may not take much note of this, but guess who does? A couple of million Muslim citizens worldwide. In fact, the ongoing protests kicked off partly in response to President Trump’s near unilateral decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that essentially announced that in American eyes, the Holy City belongs to the Jews alone.
The reasons behind American intransigence and obtuseness in Mideast affairs should come as no surprise. The U.S. is a nation built on a millenarian, exceptionalist ideology and has long been driven by a mission to spread its message across the globe. A populace—and government—infused with these ideas is unlikely to demonstrate the humility to take a proverbial look in the mirror and admit fault. This became especially unlikely in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when passions reached a fever pitch and chauvinistic nationalism became the name of the game. Even then, however, credible voices questioned America’s rush to war, including scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, and even comedians like Bill Maher.
Seventeen years into the nation’s longest war, there are plenty of crucial reasons to review bin Laden’s grievances, consider his arguments and show the strength of character to acquiesce on certain points. This is sobriety, not surrender. After all, self-awareness is a sign of strength and maturity in nations, as well as in individuals.
After years of counterproductive U.S. policies and Mideast interventions, the nation is left with a stark choice: admit error and alter policy, or wage an indefinite worldwide war on a significant portion of the Islamic population. The former option would lessen violence and ultimately lead to a safer homeland, but it would require confronting an uncomfortable truth that most Americans simply can’t face: Bin Laden was a monster, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong on all fronts.