In recent speeches, both President Bush and Osama bin Laden defended war as their most important mission
This is a tale of two speeches by two wartime leaders, each rallying his followers to fight for justice and combat evil aggressors. Placed side by side, the two speeches, nearly equal in length, are near-mirror images of each other. One speech was delivered by President Bush, the other by Osama bin Laden.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Bush called for a continuation of the war on terror. Bin Laden's taped speech, broadcast by the Al Jazeera television network 16 days before Bush's, called for a continuation of the war on America.
Bush opened by describing America as “a nation called to great responsibilities…on the offensive against the terrorists who started this war.”
Bin Laden also said a war is raging: “My message to you concerns inciting and continuing to urge for jihad… So, lend me your ears and open up your hearts to me.” Lest anyone misunderstand the purpose of jihad and consider it a purely spiritual exercise, Bin Laden was explicit: “It is a religious-economic war… There can be no dialogue with the occupiers except through arms.”
Both leaders said in their speeches that they regard the pursuit of the war as their most important mission. “Our greatest responsibility,” said Bush, “is the active defense of the American people.”
Bin Laden vowed to his followers: “By God, I am keen on safeguarding your religion and your worldly life.”
“The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States — and war is what they got,” proclaimed Bush. “Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror.”
To Bin Laden, however, it is the Muslim world that is surrounded by infidels, its holiest places occupied and its existence in peril. U.S. forces and their allies occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, have military bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and operate in Pakistan. U.S.-supported Israeli tanks kill Palestinians and knock down their homes. Muslims must therefore mobilize “to repulse the grand plots that have been hatched against our nation.”
Bush contended that “we have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire.”
But Bin Laden compares the Americans to the ancient Romans, ever pushing out their frontiers of control.
Bush regards the war on terror as a finite undertaking, with a beginning — Sept. 11, 2001 — and an end.
By contrast, war is a perpetual condition, according to Bin Laden: “The struggle between us and them, the confrontation and clashing began centuries ago, and will continue … until judgment day.”
Both speeches had the quality of sermons. Both leaders invoked God, and neither had any doubt about whose side God was on. And both interpreted God's intentions.
“God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom,” said Bush. “Each individual has dignity and value in God's sight. … may God continue to bless America.”
Al Jazeera broadcast only one-third of Bin Laden's message, but in the 17 minutes aired, the Al Qaeda leader mentioned God no fewer than 17 times, invoking “jihad in the cause of God,” “fear God,” “God will judge them” and “the rules set by God.” “God suffices us and he is the best supporter.”
Speaking in an election year, Bush had democracy, here and abroad, on his mind. Political reform and the extension of democracy in the Middle East were primary goals.
Bin Laden rejected political reform as an excuse for not pursuing jihad. To him, parliaments and democracy were an affront to religion, which he said must govern all worldly affairs.
It was the tone of their speeches that differed most sharply. Bush's mood was upbeat as he ticked off the achievements in the war on terror. “America is on the offensive against the terrorists… We're tracking Al Qaeda around the world, and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed.” Terrorist regimes have been toppled, or, like Libya, have been persuaded to change their behavior.
Bin Laden's tone, by contrast, was dark. He warned that “the situation is serious and the misfortune is momentous.” Two sentences later, he amplified: “These are pitch-black misfortunes.”
In Bin Laden's view, it was not Al Qaeda that suffered “pitch-black” misfortunes; it was Islam. Bin Laden can point out that Al Qaeda has survived an intensive global offensive for more than two years. The organization has lost some of its most talented planners, but its known top leadership remains intact, and there are thousands of loyal Afghan veterans and capable operatives who have not been identified. Al Qaeda continues to communicate, recruit and raise money.
The terrorist network recruits by using a variety of messages: heroic deeds of its “martyrs;” the suffering of the pious; the continuing slaughter of Muslims, from the time of the Crusades to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, at the hands of the infidels; the repression of the Palestinians; and the occupation of Iraq. All this is seen as the product of “the Zionist-crusader chain of evil,” Bin Laden's version of Bush's “axis of evil.”
To combat the “chain of evil,” Al Qaeda has accelerated the tempo of operations since Sept. 11, 2001, carrying out 12 major attacks that killed more than 400 and wounded 1,700. The attacks have also cost its opponents hundreds of billions of dollars.
If Bin Laden wanted confirmation of jihad's success, he would find it in the fact that Bush devoted almost the entire first half of his State of the Union remarks to America's continuing struggle against Al Qaeda.
Both speeches signaled resolve, and with it the recognition that the war was far from over. While noting progress, Bush warned of “serious, continuing danger” in Iraq and of the “dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat.”
Bin Laden said of the American-led “raids”: “No one knows where they will end.”
Most Americans hope that the war will end with the destruction of the terrorist organizations that now threaten the peace and security of so much of the world. Bin Laden's followers hope the war will end with the destruction of America.
Both sides remain destined to wage a long and bloody struggle.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on February 1, 2004.