Deception can be an effective tactic: the Trojan horse; Roosevelt promising in the 1932 campaign to cut government spending and balance the budget; the Allies fooling the Germans about where the D-Day invasion would land. What is neither generally recognized nor recorded in the annals of history is a tactic that has achieved far greater victories, the most powerful tactic of them all: getting one’s enemies to fool themselves.
Governments and their people are natural enemies. The former are parasites; the latter are hosts. For governments to survive, they must trick their people into believing they are necessary and beneficial, not coercive and parasitic. The easiest way to do so is to convince them that their security is threatened and that only the government can protect them.
Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
Interview with Gustave Gilbert in Hermann Göring’s jail cell during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (18 April 1946)
So it’s a simple matter for rulers to make war and get their people in line. Gilbert’s rejoinder is either disingenuous or quaintly naive. Göring’s formulation is correct as far as it goes, but his failure to realize its inherent contradictions is emblematic of the failure of the Nazis. Ultimately the lies rulers tell the ruled to justify and expand their power end up their own undoing as reality catches up with them. The Nazis solidified their grip on the German people, but because they waged war to establish and maintain their empire, which eventually exhausted their resources, and because their grip was based on lies, they failed. No regime has ever stood the tests of reality, truth, and time.
Which suggests a little understood strategy: use your enemies’ own lies to defeat them. Osama bin Laden has brilliantly demonstrated the awesome power of this strategy.
In the late 1990s, he led a small band of well-armed and fanatic Sunni Muslims in the caves of Afghanistan, with a few cells scattered around the globe. He despised the infidel West and particularly the US, which had established military bases in his native Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. He may have been envious of the West. Islam, with its harsh Sharia law, institutionalized subjugation of women, antipathy towards other faiths, sectarian conflict, and prohibition of interest on loans had sunken far below the West’s standard of living. For bin Laden and al Qaeda to consider attacking his economically and militarily powerful enemies, never mind defeating them, was seemingly insane.
As the leader of an ant colony trying to take down an elephant, bin Laden had to use his imagination. Like the ants, al Qaeda couldn’t attack frontally in force. To invade and subjugate the US would be virtually impossible; it could not be defeated on its own territory. He had to get his enemy to turn its power on itself. Ants would send small units to infiltrate the elephant and sting its most sensitive parts. For bin Laden, this meant a brazen attack on symbolically sensitive targets in New York and Washington. The goal of ants and al Qaeda was the same: inflame and enrage the enemy.
To employ the martial arts’ tactic of using an opponent’s weight against him requires proximity. Vietnam had demonstrated that the US could be defeated, or—to accept the characterization favored by that war’s few remaining proponents—outlasted, if it could be drawn into guerrilla warfare on unfamiliar territory. In their rage after 9/11, Americans were ready to believe their government’s lie that al Qaeda constituted an “existential threat.” That lie served the purposes of the US Military-Intelligence-Industrial complex—denied its raison d’être and potentially its lifeblood funding after the collapse of the last “existential threat,” the Soviet Union—and bin Laden’s. Within months he had a guerrilla war on his, not the enemy’s, territory.
Bin Laden’s was also well-served by the US decision to expand the war to Iraq in 2003. The American public, fed more lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons and ties to al Qaeda, endorsed more of the same tactics that were coming up short in Afghanistan. Hussein was deposed and executed, but the US-backed, Shiite-dominated “democracy” that replaced him inflamed the always flammable Sunni-Shiite schism. Displaced, in many cases imprisoned, Sunnis who had enjoyed positions of power in Hussein’s government and military became the base for al Qaeda in Iraq. The rest, as they say, is history. Al Qaeda in Iraq would join with al Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria, and ISIS would be their progeny.
Look what bin Laden and his successors have wrought in 15 years! The US government is embroiled in wars across the Middle East from which it has no idea how to extricate itself. Its bombings, drone strikes, military advice and assistance, financial aid, boots on the ground, intelligence support, and overt and sub rosa political machinations have done nothing but waste blood and treasure, deepen its involvement, and create more recruits for al Qaeda and its offshoots. One offshoot, ISIS, controls significant portions of Syria and Iraq. The war there has drawn in not just the US but Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Hezbollah. It has also sent millions of refugees to Europe. Some are the vanguard of terrorist attacks, and potentially for future Islamic insurrection and domination. Al Qaeda has also capitalized on the US and NATO’s feckless removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, contesting for control of that virtually anarchic state and spreading its tentacles across Northern Africa.
Al Qaeda and its subsidiaries’ ever-expanding influence, in some cases domination, now extends from the island nations of Southeast Asia across the Middle East to northern Africa and Europe, a domain larger than either Alexander’s or Caesar’s empires. The ants have indeed found and repeatedly stung the elephant’s trunk, eyes, ears, and gonads, sending it crashing in a mad, self-destructive frenzy through the jungle (and desert). It has to rank as the greatest victory in the shortest time with the fewest resources in history. Anyone interested in knocking off governments should carefully study this campaign. Osama couldn’t have done it without the US government and its allies’ lies, delusions, and descent into evil. The “clash of civilizations” that once was, on the one hand, no more than self-serving propaganda dished up by the US powers that be, and on the other hand, nothing more than a fantastical bin Laden pipe dream, has now become the outcome towards which the world careens.
IT’S TIME FOR A GREAT BOOK