As my old friends at The Spectator in London pointed out on Monday morning, I scooped the entire planet in breaking the news of Osama bin Laden’s death: “Osama bin Laden is dead, says Mark Steyn.” This was in The Spectator’s edition of June 29, 2002, which turned out to be a wee bit premature. I jumped the gun, much like Osama’s missus in Abbottabad, but by nine years.
Nor, to be honest, was a teensy-weensy near-decade discrepancy in the date the only problem with my scoop. Much of that Spectator piece was preoccupied with the usual assumptions about Public Enemy No. 1 — caves, dialysis, remote wild Pakistani tribal lands where Western intelligence hasn’t a hope of penetrating unless you turn a cousin of the village headman, etc. All these assumptions prevailed until a few days ago, when it emerged that Osama, three wives, and 13 children had been living in town in a purpose-built pad round the corner from the Pakistani military academy for over half a decade. Brunch every Sunday with a couple of generals at his usual corner table at the Abbottabad Hilton? Eggs Benedict, hold the ham?
The belated dispatch of Osama testifies to what the United States does well — elite warriors, superbly trained, equipped to a level of technological sophistication no other nation can match. Everything else surrounding the event (including White House news management so club-footed one starts to wonder darkly whether its incompetence is somehow intentional) embodies what the United States does badly. Pakistan, our “ally,” hides and protects not only Osama but also Mullah Omar and Zawahiri, and does so secure in the knowledge that it will pay no price for its treachery — indeed, confident that its duplicitous military will continue to be funded by U.S. taxpayers.
If this were a movie, the crowds cheering “USA! USA!” outside the White House would be right: The bad guy is dead! We win! The End. But the big picture is bigger than Hollywood convention. In the great sweeping narrative, the death of Osama bin Laden is barely a ripple, while the courtesies afforded to him by the Pakistani establishment tell us something profound about the superpower’s weakness and inability to shift the storyline. Bin Laden famously said that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse they naturally prefer the strong horse. Putting a bullet through his eye is a good way of letting him know which role he’s consigned to. But the strong horse/weak horse routine is a matter of perception as much as anything else. On September 12, 2001, General Musharraf was in a meeting “when my military secretary told me that the U.S. secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, was on the phone. I said I would call back later.” The milquetoasts of the State Department were in no mood for Musharraf’s I’m-washing-my-hair routine, and, when he’d been dragged to the phone, he was informed that the Bush administration would bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if they didn’t get everything they wanted. Musharraf concluded that America meant it.
A decade later, we’re back to September 10. Were Washington to call Islamabad as it did a decade ago, the Pakistanis would thank them politely and say they’d think it over and get back in six weeks, give or take. They think they’ve got the superpower all figured out — that America is happy to spend bazillions of dollars on technologically advanced systems that can reach across the planet, but it doesn’t really have the stomach for changing the facts of the ground. That means that once in a while your big-time jihadist will be having a quiet night in watching Dancing With The Stars when all of a sudden Robocop descends from the heavens, kicks the door open, and it’s time to get ready for your virgins. But other than that, in the bigger picture, day by day, all but unnoticed, things will go their way.
In the fall of 2001, discussing the collapse of the Taliban, Thomas Friedman, the in-house thinker at the New York Times, offered this bit of cartoon analysis:“For all the talk about the vaunted Afghan fighters, this was a war between the Jetsons and the Flintstones — and the Jetsons won and the Flintstones know it.”
But they didn’t, did they? The Flintstones retreated to their caves, bided their time, and a decade later the Jetsons are desperate to negotiate their way out.
When it comes to instructive analogies, I prefer Khartoum to cartoons. If it took America a decade to avenge the dead of 9/11, it took Britain 13 years to avenge their defeat in Sudan in 1884. But, after Kitchener slaughtered the jihadists of the day at the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, he made a point of digging up their leader, the Mahdi, chopping off his head and keeping it as a souvenir. The Sudanese got the message. The British had nary a peep out of the joint until they gave it independence six decades later — and, indeed, the locals fought for king and (distant imperial) country as brave British troops during World War II. Even more amazingly, generations of English schoolchildren were taught about the Mahdi’s skull winding up as Lord Kitchener’s novelty paperweight as an inspiring tale of national greatness.
Not a lot of that today. It’s hard to imagine Osama’s noggin as an attractive centerpiece at next year’s White House Community Organizer of the Year banquet, and entirely impossible to imagine America’s “educators” teaching the tale approvingly. So instead, even as we explain that our difficulties with this bin Laden fellow are nothing to do with Islam, no sir, perish the thought, we simultaneously rush to assure the Muslim world that, not to worry, we accorded him a 45-minute Islamic funeral as befits an observant Muslim.
That’s why Pakistani bigshots harbored America’s mortal enemy and knew they could do so with impunity. Bin Laden was a Saudi with money, and there are a lot of those about, funding this and that from South Asia to the Balkans to Dearborn, Mich. They’ve walked their petrodollars round the Western world buying up everything they need to, from minor mosques to major university Middle Eastern Studies departments. By comparison with his compatriots, Osama squandered his dough. In that long-ago Spectator piece, I wrote, “Junior’s just a peculiarly advanced model of the useless idiot son — a criticism routinely made of Bush but actually far more applicable to Osama, who took his dad’s fortune and literally threw it down a hole in the ground.”
A lot of American policy followed it. A decade on, our troops are running around Afghanistan “winning hearts and minds” and getting gunned down by the very policemen and soldiers they’ve spent years training. Back on the home front, every small-town airport has at least a dozen crack TSA operatives sniffing round the panties of grade-schoolers. Meanwhile, at the U.N., the EU, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and in the “Facebook revolutions” of “the Arab spring,” the Islamization of the world proceeds: Millions of Muslims support bin Laden’s goal — the submission of the Western world to Islam — but, unlike him, understand that flying planes into buildings is entirely unnecessary to achieving it. Will being high-flying Jetsons with state-of-the-art gizmos prove sufficient in a Flintstonizing world? The Pakistanis are pretty sure they know the answer to that.