(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)
Islamic extremists always have hated the presence of US armed forces in the Middle East. In an effort to coerce us into leaving, they called for a holy war and mounted a massive terrorist attack. The result: a lot more US forces in the Middle East. Terrorists may be good at blowing people up, but they are not political geniuses. The best way to remove US troops from a given territory is by waging peace on us, not war.
In his 1998 fatwa urging the killing of Americans everywhere, and in his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” Osama bin Laden bewailed the American military bases in Saudi Arabia. He vowed to “expel the Jews and the Christians out of the Arab Peninsula” by initiating a guerrilla [terrorist] war. “And by this war, great losses will be induced on the enemy side, that would shake and destroy its foundations and infrastructures, that will help to expel the enemy defeated out of the country.”
Bin Laden partially got his wish, but not in the way he intended. The U.S. did withdraw Air Force operations from Saudi Arabia, for the most part. It happened only after we “induced” great losses on bin Laden’s side, rather than the other way around.
Bin Laden’s attack on September 11, 2001 proved to be one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of all time. While he no doubt relished the thought of having killed thousands of Americans, his broader objective backfired. Apart from he eventually being killed, it prompted the deployment of more American soldiers in the Middle East than bin Laden probably ever dreamed of. There are more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops there.
In his war declaration, bin Laden mocked the US’s quick withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983, from Yemen following a 1992 bombing of a hotel there, and from Somalia after 18 US Army Rangers were killed there in 1993. He apparently concluded that a new round of attacks would produce a similar outcome. That sentiment probably was reinforced by our tepid response to the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when we launched a few cruise missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan.
But bin Laden did not understand that different kinds of terrorist attacks provoke different kinds of responses. We as a nation are slow to anger. But when we get angry, we are ferocious. We not only pummeled bin Laden’s terror network but annihilated two regimes that harbored it.
Smarter Muslims who dislike the US presence in the Middle East should have been furious with bin Laden after what he did on 9/11, not only from a moral standpoint but also from a strategic one. Radical Muslims, by contrast, continue to cheer that terrorist attack. Little do they realize how badly their own interests were damaged.
Even less obvious to radicals is that waging peace is the best way to keep us out of the Middle East. US forces got heavily involved in the Middle East because a radical Iraqi ruler decided to invade his neighbor to the south in 1990, with tremendous repercussions for the interests of the US and rest of the world. That ruler’s threat to peace over the ensuing 12 years made us stay there. Only now, after he’s been long removed, has the US finally decided to substantially reduce its forces in Iraq.
Of course, the continued presence of bad guys in that region will keep us there for the foreseeable future, as is the case elsewhere, like the Korean peninsula.
This should be a lesson to those who are under the mistaken impression that the US deploys its military abroad for reasons of “hegemony” or “empire.” No, the actual reason is to counter bullies, terrorists, or warring factions. And once they are gone, we go home. The steep reduction of US forces in Germany following the Cold War is a good example.
But extremists do not think in rational terms like this. That is one reason why they are called extremists. It leaves us with the messy job of trying to eradicate them before they can inflict further terror on civilization. Meanwhile, because of their actions, it looks like we will be taking up residence in their home territory for years to come.
Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.