Back in 2004, in a video addressed to the American people, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden described his “bleed until bankruptcy” strategy. “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies,” bin Laden taunted. “So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”
The twin goals of this strategy were to drain the U.S. of resources by baiting it into expensive, open-ended military interventions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the resulting anger over those interventions causing more people to join Al Qaeda’s cause.
I was reminded of that by these specific remarks from President Obama’s speech on counterterrorism yesterday:
The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
There was a lot to chew on in the president’s speech, and obviously we’ll have to wait and see how much weight the president actually puts behind some of the reforms he suggested, but I think this core passage represents another important shift away from the rhetorical construct of a “Global War on Terror.”
Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, four of the Senate’s leading hawks — Republican Senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC), Saxby Chambliss (GA) and Kelly Ayotte (NH) — responded as you might expect to the prospect of the loss of that rhetorical construct, which has proven extremely politically beneficial to hawks over the last decade.
“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with Al Qaeda. to somehow argue that Al Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that, to me, is really incredible,” said McCain, adding: “Al Qaeda’s ‘on the run’ is expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all places in between and to somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground. Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”
“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss declared.
Graham took the chance to ding the president on Iraq: “Iraq is a country that went through hell, was inside the 10-yard line, the surge did work and it’s falling apart because the president chose not to leave any American soldiers behind when 10,000 or 12,000 would have made a difference.”
Leaving aside why Graham thinks 10,000 or 12,000 U.S. troops would have made a difference in Iraq when over 100,000 couldn’t stop it from descending into civil war in 2006 (not to mention the tension between claiming to support democracy in Iraq while bashing the president for not working harder to circumvent democracy in Iraq in order to keep U.S. troops there), it’s remarkable that these Congressional leaders essentially want America to keep playing into Al Qaeda’s “bleed until bankruptcy” strategy.