Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Osama Tape: What It Means And What He Wants

Earlier today I spent about an hour browsing the Internet for clues about the reasoning and timing behind the recently-released Bin Laden audio tape, in which the terror mastermind both threatens and attempts to appease the United States. Conservative bloggers appear united in their attempts to spin the tape as evidence of a weakened al-Qaeda, but I doubt its subject would so transparently showcase his vulnerabilities. After analyzing the effects of the second-to-last OBL media release, I came to a similar yet somehow different conclusion—the effect of this tape, if not the intention, will be to vindicate Bush's aggressive tactics in the general public's eyes.

The Al-Jazeera satellite TV network broadcast Bin Laden's last audio tape on Dec. 27th, 2004, in time for him to exhort Iraqis not to vote in the upcoming national assembly elections. It didn't receive much media attention here in the U.S. because the Asian tsunami, which had struck just the day before, was dominating the news at the time. But OBL's videotaped message from Oct. 29th, 2004 (only days before the presidential election) produced a marked poll jump for the president and may have even sealed his victory. As the oft-quoted unnamed Bush campaign official said at the time, "We want people to think 'terrorism' for the last four days, [a]nd anything that raises the issue in people's minds is good for us." As it was then, so it is today: Bin Laden is sharp enough to know that his ominous visage and voice strike fear into the hearts of the American public, which translates into poll gains for the party perceived as tougher on terrorism. His indirect potshot at those of us who oppose the war only serves to further marginalize liberals who advocate an immediate pullout (which, according to The Right, is all of us) while strengthening conservatives. However, it's worth noting that most Americans do, according to polls, oppose withdrawing from Iraq immediately, so bin Laden's appeal to public sentiment appears ill-informed.

Most commentators have correctly observed that any overtures toward peace from al-Qaeda probably aren't sincere, but that its threats should be taken seriously. We should always keep in mind that Bin Laden is releasing these tapes for a purpose, and while it's impossible to state unqualifiably that he intends for his public statements to provoke America's militaristic impulses, it's difficult to imagine that he's unaware of their effects.

EDIT: Commenter 'antimedia' asks what bin Laden would have to gain by baiting the US into more aggressive involvement in the Middle East. The answer is simple—many, if not most, residents of Islamic countries already distrust and fear the United States, and our military incursions into their territory exacerbate those sentiments. In other words, every American bomb dropped upon a Muslim nation further galvanizes pan-Islamic public opinion against us, which can only help bin Laden.

FURTHER EDIT: Jefferson Morley of the WaPo blog World Opinion Roundup has compiled a number of similar opinions.