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Everyone's Missing the Point

The jubilation of Americans and Western leaders at the death of Osama bin Laden, though understandable, misses the point. In many ways, the figure gunned down in Pakistan was already irrelevant—more a symbol of past dangers than a real threat for the future.

Indeed, from the point of view of America and many of its allies, the most menacing symbol in the Arab world today is not bin Laden but another Arab who recently met a violent death — Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who chose to set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt local police.

His act, of course, ignited the storm that has spread across the Arab world and has proved to be a much more serious threat to America’s allies in the region than al-Qaida ever was. Ironically, his sacrifice probably also dealt a far more devastating blow to al-Qaida’s fortunes than the assassination of bin Laden.

The Arab world today bears no relationship to the situation a decade ago after 9/11. Obsessed by bin Laden and al-Qaida, the U.S. has been sucked into a vast quagmire — a disaster for the Americans, their economy and their standing in the Arab world.

What particularly provoked Osama bin Laden—a Saudi — was the decision of Saudi rulers to accept the presence of more than a hundred thousand “infidel” U.S. troops and their allies in Saudi Arabia following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In general, he and his followers were outraged by U.S. support for corrupt, repressive regimes including those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, as well, of course, by America’s backing of Israel.

As bin Laden himself told CNN in 1997, the “U.S. wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this. If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists. … Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.”

Bin Laden’s message reverberated throughout the Muslim world. But U.S. officials remained deaf to its meaning, and remained obsessed by al-Qaida and its Taliban allies. The upshot: U.S. policy was the best recruiter bin Laden could have asked for. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, CIA killer teams, mercenaries, predators and “diplomats” swarmed across the region from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia, supported by sprawling new bases and pharaonic embassies.

The bill for all this—for an America suffering crippling cutbacks in health, infrastructure and education — will be in the trillions of dollars. But despite this massive effort, none of those targeted Arab countries could by any stretch of the imagination be considered a success story for Washington. Hostility to the U.S. is high throughout the region. In polls, the majority of those Arabs queried consider the United States a greater threat than al-Qaida.

In Pakistan, despite the U.S. lavishing tens of billions of dollars on that country’s military, it turns out that, rather than groveling as an outlaw in the isolated tribal regions, bin Laden had been living in a fortified villa near the country’s major military academy and a large army base not far from the capital city of Islamabad.

The U.S. had also launched an ambitious civilian aid program: $7.5 billion over five years, designed to win Pakistani hearts and minds and bolster the civilian government. But corruption is so rife throughout Pakistan’s government, and its officials so incompetent, that the U.S. has been unable to disburse most of the aid. As The New York Times reported Sunday, “Instead of polishing the tarnished image of America [among] a suspicious, even hostile, Pakistani public and government, the plan has resulted in bitterness and a sense of broken promises. …”

Pakistan’s economy is failing. Education, health care and other services are almost nonexistent, while civilian leaders from the landed and industrialist classes pay hardly any taxes. Pakistanis see the aid as a crude attempt to buy friendship and an effort to alleviate antipathy toward U.S. drone attacks against militants in the tribal areas.

Similar reports come from Afghanistan. A decade after the U.S. invaded, tens of thousands of American troops are still fighting what seems to be, at best, a seesaw battle against the Taliban. There also, according to another report in The New York Times, the U.S. is backing incompetent, corrupt, unpopular leaders. Millions of dollars in U.S. funds actually get diverted as payoffs to the Taliban and their allies—bribing them not to attack U.S. projects, such as a $65 million highway that may never be completed in eastern Afghanistan.

The vast expenses and unsavory alliances surrounding the highway have become a parable of the corruption and mismanagement that turn so many well-intended development efforts in Afghanistan into sinkholes for the money of American taxpayers, even nine years into the war.

Now back to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose death unleashed the Arab Spring that is still roiling the region.

Though bin Laden and al-Qaida have yet to be credited with overthrowing an Arab regime, the spark provided by Bouazizi has already led to the downfall of American-backed tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt and continues to threaten despots in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

Ironically, most of the leaders overthrown or now desperately trying to hang on to power had declared themselves implacable enemies of al-Qaida. Yet, again, it was not bin Laden but Bouazizi who turned out to be a far greater menace to them.

Precisely for that reason, it is Mohamed Bouazizi’s Arab Spring, not sophisticated U.S. killer teams, that most threaten al-Qaida and its allies. By demonstrating that secular uprisings can succeed in toppling the aged, crusty tyrannies, young Arabs across the region have—so far — undercut the appeal of the Islamic radicals. “So far” because despite the early successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the future of the Arab Spring is far from clear. The current process will take decades to play out. The political and economic establishments have been decapitated in Egypt and Tunisia, but not decimated. In the rest of the region, the old order, though seriously shaken, still reigns supreme.

The corrupt Saudi regime that fueled bin Laden’s outrage is still in power, still backed by the United States. Indeed, it has been doing its utmost to tamp the spreading revolt, spending millions to bribe Yemen’s tribal leaders and dispatching their troops to Bahrain to help crush the uprising of the Shiite majority in that country.

Indeed, that brutal repression may radicalize thousands of young Shiites, generating hosts of new recruits for al-Qaida or other extremist Islamic groups—even as the corpse of Osama bin Laden lies somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

Barry Lando
Contributor
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. The author of numerous articles about Iraq, he produced a documentary…
Barry Lando

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