Osama Bin Laden's 1996 fatwa against America was the first domino in a chain of events that was meant to accomplish three goals.
1) Unify Muslims in a war against Western civilization
2) Topple the governments of the Muslim world, and replace them with fully Islamist regimes.
3) Build a regional and then global Muslim Caliphate
Phase 2 is now well under way. And America and European warplanes are bombing Libya to help clear the way for it. Just as we already did in Yugoslavia and Iraq. It is unknown whether Bin Laden is still alive or not, but his goals are being met. Muslims now see the defeat of Western civilization as an important and an achievable goal. Our democracy and nation building efforts have toppled much of the old order, and those best positioned to benefit from it are the Islamists.
The East underestimated the sheer amount of firepower that the West had at its disposal, but the West once again underestimated how well the East could use its strength against it, corrupt its purposes and make it serve its goals instead.
As the physically weaker civilization, the East adapts better than the West does. The byzantine cleverness of its plotting often dead ends in self-delusion, it has a weakness for conspiracy theories and its organizations and structures are rotted through at every level-- but it also adjusts itself to a situation. While the West dusts off its old set of tactics and principles, striving to apply them to every situation.
When Al Qaeda first attacked us, we treated it as a criminal problem. But when their attacks escalated and killed thousands of Americans, we treated it as a war. The flexibility problem was obvious. We could only categorize the threat either as a police problem or as a war, nothing in between.
The United States had only a limited tradition of domestic political terrorism. And has no idea how to deal with external political terrorism aimed at taking over the country. Communism was badly fumbled for the same reason, it was not conventional crime or warfare. And even though it was a real menace, the authorities could not address it, because they could not categorize it. Islam represents the same problem.
After centuries of intermittent conflict, and two decades of rising terror, we are still unable to meaningfully classify the enemy, define who he is and what his numbers are. Our tradition of protecting political dissent and religious freedom causes us to divide those who directly commit the violence, from those who indirectly commit the violence. But that is an artificial distinction that the enemy does not make. Terrorist organizations have political and military arms only as an operational distinction. Both are part of the same cause and committed to the same goal.
For all its hostility to progress, Muslims have quickly found forms and structures that can function in the West. And move toward conquering it. Structures that are ideologically camouflaged within the protected zones of Western beliefs so that they cannot be touched. The West has been able to do nothing of the kind. Even when it has brought its armies into Muslim lands, they have been swiftly leveraged by the locals to support existing factions. Rather than imposing our standards and our values on them, we have become unpaid mercenaries in their wars.
We tried to export our political systems with the force of arms, except we assumed that our political system was the natural baseline of all societies once the tyrants are removed from the equation. We still assume that right now. And so rather than imposing our systems, we instead strive to identify the Tojos, Hitlers and Mussolinis, sweeping them away and expecting a better world to form in their absence. We assume that the laws we live by are universal, but while they might be ideal, they are not culturally universal.
Western structure is strengthening but inflexible. It makes for better institutions, but limited freedom of action. Eastern lack of structure makes for immediate flexibility. A shape that can be poured into any container while retaining its essential nature. Exporting Western structures to the East is meaningless unless they change the nature of the region. And it is easy to pour Muslim immigrants into Western containers without actually changing their basic attitudes.
In the East, action, rhetoric and principle are all completely disconnected from one another. They may meet when convenient, but that is all. What a ruler says has no connection to what he does and only a passing acquaintance with his principles. There is a liquid flexibility in that which even the most corrupt Western politicians cannot match. Whereas a Western politician suborns a system of laws, for the Eastern politician laws are cards in a deck. The structures of government are unreal, cardboard sets for a play. When Western politicians think they are outmaneuvering their Eastern counterparts, they are not even in the same game. They are putting chess pieces on a dominoes board and claiming victory, when they don't even understand the rules of the game. Let alone how to win it.
What did we do wrong? For one we have never stopped refighting World War 2. Treating Korea and Vietnam as if they were parts of Europe was bad enough, but throwing the Marshall Plan at the Muslim world is completely unforgivable. After WW2 we could at least rely on being able to roll back Germany, Italy and Japan to their pre-Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo states. But what in the world did we think we were rolling Iraq or Afghanistan back to? The stone age. The Abbasid Caliphate?
Had we set out to smash the armed forces and industrial bases of the Axis of Evil, we would have been done long ago with a fraction of the casualties. Not only would we have dealt terrorist supporting regimes a major setback, but we would have limited our exposure to their culture and denied them the time necessary to form a working insurgency. Instead we assumed that reforming and rebuilding Iraq would turn it into a model of democracy for the region. And unsurprisingly, the surviving members of the Axis of Evil, made sure to amp up the terrorism, turning the nation building project into an occupation and finally a long series of compromises leading to a withdrawal.
But the falling dominoes didn't end there. We took Saddam out of play, but left Iran in the game. And Iran used its new freedom of action to gain regional influence and power. Then in a final topper, a new administration championed democracy in the Muslim world, which isolated Western allied regimes, and allowed the Islamists in an alliance with Iran to topple even Cairo. And that's how we reached Phase 2.
This is what Bin Laden wanted back in 1996. He may never replace the Saudi royals, but if he's alive, then he's closer to it than ever. And it's our work that got him there.
We applied Western standards to non-Western states without realizing that the outcomes would be completely different than what we expected. Countless analysts are still applying the 1848 model to Arab regimes right now. The realization has still not dawned on them that the Middle East is not Europe and that their values are not universal, so instead of experiencing events, they are romanticizing them by marrying them with their own historical myths.
Bin Laden's overall goal was to shift the conflict from the soft demographic and cultural invasions, to a violent campaign. A conflict that would bring the West into direct collision with Muslims and their governments. This conflict has accelerated Western resistance and subjugation, as it has accelerated Muslim violence and conquest. Today there is much wider Western and Muslim awareness of the Clash of Civilizations. Muslims are no longer content with a long term demographic and cultural victory-- they want short term conquest as well. And Westerners who have previously been voiceless in the face of the Islamization of Europe and America, have found their voice in response to 9/11 and 7/7.
Now as the conflict heads into the second phase, a new dimension will be added to it. The rise of a Caliphate will swamp any nonsense about a tiny minority of extremists. Westerners and Muslims both will be forced to confront the reality of Islam. And forced to make a choice.