The Bin Laden Decade
Visiting the Middle East last week, and then coming back to Washington, I am left with one overriding impression: Bin Laden really did a number on all of us.
I am talking in particular about the Arab states, America and Israel — all of whom have deeper holes than ever to dig out of thanks to the Bin Laden decade, 2001 to 2011, and all of whom have less political authority than ever to make the hard decisions needed to get out of the holes.
Let’s start with the Arabs. In 2001, Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just a few months later, in 2002, the U.N. issued the “Arab Human Development Report,” which described the very pathologies that produced Al Qaeda and prescribed remedies for overcoming them. The report, written by Arab experts, said the Arab states suffered from three huge deficits: a deficit of freedom and respect for human rights as the bases of good governance, a deficit of knowledge in the form of decent schooling and a deficit of women’s empowerment.
Instead of America and the Arab world making that report their joint post-Bin Laden agenda, they ignored it. Washington basically gave the Arab dictators a free pass to tighten their vise grip on their people — as long as these Arab leaders arrested, interrogated and held the Islamic militants in their societies and eliminated them as a threat to us.
It wasn’t meant as a free pass, and we really did have a security problem with jihadists, and we really didn’t mean to give up on our freedom agenda — but Arab leaders, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, sensed where our priorities were. That is why Mubarak actually arrested the one Egyptian who dared to run against him for president in his last election, and he and the other Arab autocrats moved to install their sons as successors.
As the Arab leaders choked their people that much tighter, along came Facebook, Twitter and cellphone cameras, which enabled those people to share grievances, organize rebellions, lose their fear and expose their leaders: “Smile, your brutality is on Candid Camera.”
That’s the good news. The challenging news is that because of the Bin Laden decade, these newly liberated Arab states are in an even deeper hole in terms of economic development, population growth and education. They each have a huge amount of catch-up to do that will require some painful economic and educational reforms.
But as one can quickly detect from a visit to Cairo, right now Egypt has a political vacuum and, if anything, is tending toward more populist, less-market-oriented economics. Yet, in return for infusions of cash, Egypt will probably have to accept some kind of I.M.F.-like austerity-reform package and slash government employment — just when unemployment and expectations are now sky high. Right now, no Egyptian party or leader has the authority that will be required to implement such reforms.
In America, President George W. Bush used the post-9/11 economic dip to push through a second tax cut we could not afford. He followed that with a Medicare prescription drug entitlement we cannot afford and started two wars in the wake of 9/11 without raising taxes to pay for them — all at a time when we should have been saving money in anticipation of the baby boomers’ imminent retirement. As such, our nation’s fiscal hole is deeper than ever and Republicans and Democrats — rather than coming together and generating the political authority needed for us to take our castor oil to compensate for our binge — are just demonizing one another.
As the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi points out, governance is based on authority “that is generated in one of two ways — by trust or by fear. Both of those sources of authority are disintegrating right now.” The Arab leaders governed by fear, and their people are not afraid anymore. And the Western democracies governed by generating trust, but their societies today are more splintered than ever.
Israel has the same problem. The combination of Yasir Arafat’s foolhardy decision to start a second intifada rather than embrace President Bill Clinton’s two-state peace plan, followed by the rise of Bin Laden, which diverted the U.S. from energetically pursuing the peace process, gave the Israeli right a free hand to expand West Bank settlements. There are now some 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Absent some amazing Palestinian peace overture, and maybe even with one, I do not see any Israeli leader with enough authority today to pull Israel out of the West Bank. So, for now, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Bin Laden both win: In the short run, Bibi gets to keep the West Bank, with 300,000 Jews occupying 2.4 million Palestinians. And in the long run, Bin Laden helps to destroy Israel as a Jewish democracy.
For all these reasons, I find myself asking the same question in Cairo, Washington and Jerusalem: “Who will tell the people?” Who will tell the people how deep the hole is that Bin Laden helped each of us dig over the last decade — and who will tell the people how hard and how necessary it will be to climb out?