Good Reads

The Far East links to "The Long Hunt for Osama", an article in this month's Atlantic Monthly. The article is written by Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert that interviewed bin Laden in 1997, and it details our efforts to find the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, as well as why it is so difficult to find him. According to Bergen, bin Laden is likely alive and well somewhere in the Northwest Tribal Provinces of Pakistan. If this is the case, it will likely take a lot of luck to find him. What I found really interesting is what might happen if we do catch him:
Osama bin Laden may eventually be apprehended, or he may eventually be killed. A U.S. intelligence official told me that little thought has been given in Washington to what happens next. Which outcome is more desirable? What are the implications of either of those outcomes? If bin Laden is captured alive, for instance, where should he be put on trial? A case could be made that he be tried by an international tribunal, similar to those set up for crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And a useful precedent exists for handling a captured bin Laden: the pictures beamed around the world after Saddam Hussein's capture, of Saddam submitting to a doctor's probings, did more than anything else to puncture the Iraqi dictator's mystique. Similar pictures would do much to deflate bin Laden's mythic persona. Of course, on several occasions bin Laden has said that he's prepared to die in his holy war—a statement that should be taken at face value. Khalid Khawaja, the former Pakistani military-intelligence official who has known bin Laden for almost two decades, told me, "He will never be captured. He's not Saddam Hussein. He's Osama. Osama loves death." In the short term bin Laden's death would probably trigger violent anti-American attacks around the globe. In the medium term it would be a serious blow to al-Qaeda, which depends to a critical degree on the charisma of its leader. But in the long term bin Laden's "martyrdom" would most likely give an enormous boost to the power of his ideas. Sayyid Qutb, generally regarded as the Lenin of the jihadist movement, was a relatively obscure writer before the Egyptian government executed him, in 1966. After his death his writings, which called for offensive holy wars against the enemies of Islam, became enormously influential. The same thing would happen after bin Laden's death, but to an infinitely greater degree.
Great. This is just one of the many great articles in the last couple Atlantic Monthly's. In the current issue, James Fallows examines "Bush's Lost Year", which is the year after 9/11 when the planning for the Iraq War diverted our attention from bin Laden and al Qaeda. I though this was really interesting:
As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable is of course ferociously controversial. That the war was necessary—and beneficial—is the Bush Administration's central claim. That it was not is the central claim of its critics. But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration's record, they tend to see America's response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history—or only the worst since Vietnam. Some of these people argue that the United States had no choice but to fight, given a pre-war consensus among its intelligence agencies that Iraq actually had WMD supplies. Many say that things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond. "Let me tell you my gut feeling," a senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder."
Wow. Even though I think Bush doesn't deserve re-election regardless of what he did in Iraq, the fact is, I think, that had Bush not gone to war in Iraq (or even planned it better) he would be sleep walking to re-election. The other article I strongly recommend is also by Fallows, although it is in last month's edition of the magazine. Its called, "When George Meets John", and it looks at the debating history of the two Presidential candidates. Fallows does a pretty good job of sinking the stereotype that Bush is a horrible debater, and anyone who thinks that Kerry will talk circles around Bush should really read this article. That being said, Kerry is a pretty formative opponent, too. I think the major difference in these debates for Bush, is that he is running on a record, where as in 2000 and in 1994, he ran as a reformer/outsider. It is much easier to debate in that context than when you have four years of baggage around your neck (in 1998, Bush won reelection as Governor, but his opponent was not that good so I don't really count those debates). Thursday's debate is on foreign policy, which means Iraq will be the center of attention. I'm probably biased, but I can't see how Iraq is defensible at this point. If Kerry can keep his attacks succinct and persuasive, and look like he knows what he is doing, he should be able to make a pretty strong case that Bush has f'd things up badly. That being said, there are a number of X factors that might turn the tide of the debate. Will one candidate look sluggish? Will someone glance at his watch or sigh? Who will have the best soundbyte? These things aren't as important as the actual issues of the debate, but are usually the things that turn voters on or off to a particular candidate.