December 30, 2004

Should Bush Debate Bin Laden?

No, really. Osama bin Laden, as most people know, just released his latest string of broadcast tapes, in which he denounced elections in Iraq and Palestine, as well as the itsy-bitsy political reforms in Saudi Arabia. President Bush responded directly, noting that bin Laden's "vision of the world is where people don't participate in democracy." As the New York Times points out, this is the first time Bush has done such a thing, and his staff has agonized over whether he even should:
His aides have said it would be a strategic error to respond to every one of Mr. bin Laden's tape-recorded threats, or to seem to elevate his status by putting him in a long-distance debate with the president.
That's one consideration, certainly, though I don't know how much more elevated bin Laden could get in the eyes of his fans. In the Arab world at least, I wonder if it's Bush who might get a status boost by debating Bin Laden. Maybe.

So what would happen if Bush and bin Laden started debating "publicly"? It depends, I think, on the audience. In Iraq, I don't think this stuff matters much. When Bin Laden denounces democracy, he's speaking for the Sunni Arabs, who have a lot to lose by participating in democracy anyways. Sure, he's pissing off the Shiites, but the Shiites and bin Laden were never going to be best friends anyways. One interesting point, though, as Dan Darling noted, was that bin Laden expressed sympathy for the Kurds who were gassed in Halabja. Seems like bin Laden wants to curry favor with the Kurds just in case democracy doesn't work out and the Kurds feel threatened by Shia hegemony in Iraq. In that case, bin Laden could perhaps try to incite long-standing Kurdish feelings of betrayal towards the U.S. I don't know how probable this is, but it's something to worry about.

Now what about the rest of the world? In his speech today, Bush pitted his vision of democracy against bin Laden's vision of a global caliphate. One hope is that, by publicly taking the side of democracy and defining himself against bin Laden, Bush can push bin Laden towards even more strident anti-democratic rhetoric. Make OBL sound like the raving lunatic he really is, and allow al Qaeda to equate itself with the forces of autocracy, and hence, discredit itself. Especially in Palestine, wherein bin Laden denounced elections (or at least Mahmoud Abbas). That's one happy possibility.

The other possibility, though, is that the reverse will happen. That is, democracy will become associated with Bushism (rather than the converse), and the already rather glowing reputation of bin Laden throughout the world will help discredit democracy as an extension of American imperialism. In other words, in a public debate of this sort, OBL manages to discredit Bush's ideals precisely because they come from Bush. That's not such a happy outcome.S
-- Brad Plumer 7:14 PM || ||