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Bin Laden has exceeded even his wildest dreams

>Bush is right in saying that America does not want empire. The trouble is it keeps trying to do half empire SOMEWHERE in a cave on the Afghan/Pakistan border, a haggard man with a long black beard chalks a list of scalps on the wall. He gives an occasional whoop of delight. Each day’s news fills his eyes with tears of joy. But this week has exceeded his wildest dreams. He has been toying with scalps he never thought to capture, those of the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States. Could he really bring about their downfall?

The mountain hideout of Osama bin Laden must be Exhibit A in any history of the early 21st century. Its victims now range far wider than the twin towers and the Pentagon. They embrace the hated Saddam Hussein and his Baathist infidels, the Government of Spain, the Geneva Convention, the authority of the United Nations and the Editor of the Daily Mirror. They embrace habeas corpus in Britain and America, a British Cabinet minister and the Chairman of the BBC.

The wall also celebrates the demise of the Middle East “road map” and the restoration of the Afghan warlords and the opium trade, easing the return of the Taleban. It celebrates the disarray of European diplomacy and a diplomatic war between France and America. It celebrates the American team not daring to wave its flag at the forthcoming Olympics. All this was beyond fantasy two years ago. Bin Laden can now confidently anticipate anti-Western fanatics taking power in Iraq and the corrupt House of Saud losing its valued American sponsors.

Not only has the Government of Spain fallen, those of Japan, Italy and Poland have been rocked. But even bin Laden could not have hoped to turn the bonny smile on Tony Blair’s face into an ashen mask and have his Cabinet scheming to get rid of him. He could not have imagined Donald Rumsfeld swinging in the congressional wind on charges of torture, and George Bush facing plummeting opinion polls. And all because the World Trade Centre was made of tin.

Listening to Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, on Monday I wondered how long before he too joins bin Laden’s list. He was on another planet. He burbled about victory, democracy and “finishing the job” in Iraq. We all know that behind his back every military planner has one obsession, how to get out of Iraq fast. Mr Blair, now perpetually abroad to escape his critics, declared in Turkey this week that “we will not cut and run from Iraq”. He said the same to the Afghans before cutting and running.

Total confusion now surrounds command and control of British troops in Iraq after “sovereignty transfer” in July. We hear that they will depart if asked to go by the new Iraqi authority, but that the Iraqi authority is being relied upon not to ask them to go. Therefore 3,000 extra troops are on their way, apparently to Najaf of all places, but they are no more than an expensive facelick from Mr Blair to Mr Bush. It is not expectation of success but fear of undignified retreat that keeps coalition troops in Iraq, nothing else.

The Anglo-American will to sustain surely this last great imperial adventure is waning. As in Fallujah and Kurdistan, so in the rest of Iraq the guns of militiamen and the cries of mullahs outrank Western fantasies about implanting liberal democracy on Muslim soil. Militant Islam has proved a sturdier foe than militant communism. Bin Laden will have more laughs before he is done. Only then might we be able to stop bombing Muslims and concentrate on bringing this man to some sort of justice.

For two years since 9/11, the ramifications of America’s response have been daily headline news. It is the longest-running story of my lifetime. Yet it is inconceivable that America and Europe will keep their armies on the land mass of Asia for ever, whatever excuse they may concoct. They cannot tax their citizens and pollute their civil liberties indefinitely. Western democracy is too shrill for that. One day it will bring the militarism and scare mongering to account.

The victors of the Cold War are enduring the most appalling hang-over. Having discovered the glory of military power, they are now discovering its limits. They can smash nations but not rebuild them. They are Terminators not construction workers. The actual rebuilders of the new Iraq are cooling their heels round the pool in Baghdad’s green zone, unable to work and desperate to go home. Hardly a cent of the billions allocated to “the new Iraq” is visible on the ground. It has been si phoned off into banks in New York and Amman. Little of it will ever see the light of day.

In a mischievous book published this week, the historian Niall Ferguson charts the “rise and fall of the American empire” under the ironic title of Colossus. The thesis is simple. To Ferguson the world has always needed empires and is the worse without them. But empires must be driven by guts and grit. They must have staying power. The British empire did. It lied and cheated, and cost the lives of thousands. But it stayed in India, in Africa and the Far East for more than a century. It was never “empire-lite”. British rulers brought prosperity and justice to distant nations, but not democracy or liberty.

To Ferguson the American empire — hegemony, outreach, liberty crusade or what you will — is perpetually in denial. Mr Bush denies that America “leaves occupying armies” to enforce its will. His soldiers “do not do nation building”. In Afghanistan Mr Rumsfeld asserted that America “could not tell other countries what kind of arrangements they ought to have to govern themselves ”. The truth is that America does all these things but seldom for long enough. It does not stay the imperialist course. When the cost becomes too great, says Ferguson, when too many Americans die and voters lose patience, the empire vanishes.

I believe that just as globalisation has made possible the revival of empire, so it has made it unsustainable. The greatest safeguard against American imperialism is American democracy. Electors will not tolerate the expense. They may fight a quick, just war and return home. If tricked into a quick, unjust war, they return home faster. Democracies have short attention spans. Mr Bush is right in saying that America does not want empire. The trouble is that it keeps trying to do half empire. It may stay a while where it is welcome, in Germany or Bosnia, but not where it is merely needed. Its treatment of Afghanistan, where almost no reconstruction has been undertaken, is a disgrace. Ferguson’s imperialism may be fine in theory, but in the hands of a democratic superpower it is unrealistic and properly so. Imperialism and democracy are contradictory.

When the current madness passes, Osama bin Laden will prove to have been no more than a pin-prick on the arm of the Terminator. His devastating impact was the result not of his Wahhabi genius but of American power, hijacked by a neo-conservative Washington cabal and then “leveraged” by al-Qaeda terrorists. Thus does a lightweight judo player use the power of a much larger opponent to engineer his fall.

But bin Laden will have served a purpose. He will have shown how thin is the protective shield that guards Western nations from panic. He will have shown how easy it is to goad weak politicians into counter-productive wars against pathetic nations. He will have shown how fragile are the liberties that the West boasts it will require of subject nations. The Patriot Act, the Blunkett laws, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib will be remembered long after the troops have departed Iraq.

If Mr Blair means a word of what he says about confronting global evil and rescuing victims of tyranny, what is he doing about Sudan? Its million refugees today are ten times more afflicted than were Iraq’s in 2003. Where are the Royal Marines in Sudan? Where are Jack Straw’s fine words in Sudan? Where is Mr Blair’s jetset diplomacy in Sudan?

The answer is nowhere. That is the trouble with neocon imperialism. It cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. Its morality seems partial and spasmodic. It is not empire-lite but empire-hypocritical.