Sunday, June 13, 2004

Blaming Reagan for al Qaeda 

Tired of being nice about a deceased president that you've intensely disliked while he was in office? Want to criticise his record, but make it at the same time contemporary and topical, so that people will think that you're making a valid political point?

It's not as difficult as it seems: just remind everyone that Ronald Reagan was ultimately responsible for the creation of al Qaeda. You know how the story goes: the Gipper was so obsessed with communism that he financed Islamic fundamentalists who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and thus helped to create and unleash bin Laden. It's called blow-back. It's also very morally satisfying: no Reagan, no S11, no problem. For some recent examples see here, here, here, and for a somewhat more sophisticated version of the story, see Fred Kaplan's piece in "Slate".

A popular president, who happens to be a good communicator, temporarily allies himself with unsavoury totalitarians for the purpose of defeating a deadly enemy; he provides them with vital technical and logistical assistance which helps to win the war. But it's all in vain; the totalitarians now turn against him and America is dragged into a long, hard and deadly struggle with her former ally of convenience.

But enough about Franklin D Roosevelt. Isn't it funny though how the left, which never tires of blaming the right-wingers in the White House for the Afghanistan blow-back, somehow never criticises FDR for helping to keep the Soviet Union afloat during World War Two, only to see it repay all the assistance with the Cold War.

But let's return to the Reagan-al Qaeda link. Here's why it's bullshit:

1) fundamentalist, anti-Western Islamism pre-dates the Reagan presidency by decades. To credit Reagan with creating this problem is to engage in ingenious historical revisionism. People like bin Laden weren't our friends who suddenly turned on us; they always knew that the United States was their enemy too; they just had more pressing things to do in the meantime - like fighting the Soviets. So did we.

2) the mudjahedin resistance in Afghanistan would have taken place with or without the American assistance. In fact, for the first few years it did. Ditto the involvement of the so called "Arab fighters", the foreign jihadis who flocked to Afghanistan to fight the infidel communists. The foreign fighters, the future core of al Qaeda, didn't have to - and didn't - wait for the official White House fatwa to go and fight alongside their Muslim brothers against foreign invasion. I challenge any of the critics to come up with just one foreign mudjahedin who would say: "I fought in Afghanistan because Ronald Reagan and the CIA told me to do so."

3) yes, the critics say, but the United States helped to finance the mudjahedin thus helping to water the seedling that in time grew into a pretty ugly tree. True, the United States did spend a lot of money in Afghanistan, but most, if not all, of that money and support was directed at indigenous Afghan resistance. And isn't it funny how Afghani nationals nowadays simply don't figure very prominently in any of the al Qaeda's foreign operations against Western targets? Hardly a blow-back? True, Afghanistan did provide al Qaeda with its most recent base of operations, but the Taliban are a post-Afghan war phenomenon, formed out of exiles educated in Saudi-financed madrassas in Pakistan.

4) does anyone actually think that had the United States stayed away from Afghanistan, so would everyone else? There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia would have been involved regardless, funding the resistance; ditto for Pakistan and its secret service. Bin Laden himself hardly needed funds from the Americans; he used his own family money and he fundraised furiously around the Gulf states in order to finance his Afghani jihad.

Blaming Reagan for creating al Qaeda might be politically satisfying; it might even be useful as a way of distracting attention from Bill Clinton's eight years of wasted opportunities, but it's bad logic and bad history pursued in bad faith. Which means we're likely to hear a lot more about it from the left.


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