Killing Bin Laden won't do

Posted: Oct 08, 2001 12:00 AM
Tuesday's report was that the Bush administration had persuaded U.N. officials in New York that Osama bin Laden was indeed responsible for Sept. 11. And the next day's feature was that there is a discernible enfeeblement of the Taliban government, while warning that the northern dissidents have a way of exaggerating good news, desiring the political effect of it -- which is to suggest that the protectors of bin Laden are on their last legs. All of which requires us to meditate on the centrality of bin Laden.

Suppose that, tomorrow, his life ended -- whether by suicide, assassination or execution. Suppose, then, that the Taliban government, holding up for the world to view the severed head of bin Laden, were to say: Well, here you are. Kindly return to your secular pursuits and call an end to your hysteria.

While it is true that bin Laden has served as the incarnation of the evildoing of Sept. 11, we know that an end to his life would not mean an end to his movement. About some historical figures it can be said that their movement depended on the longevity of the leader. When Napoleon was finally deposited in St. Helena, his movement ended. The assassination of Hitler would almost certainly have brought down Nazism. But the serial deaths and depositions of post-Stalin Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko) affected not at all the stamina of the communist movement.

The people who have cheered on bin Laden are, most of them, in the streets of Islamic capitals, others in furtive retreats about the world, in the 50 countries in which it is estimated the terrorists lurk, hiding and plotting. Something more than the head of bin Laden is required to short-circuit the grid that binds the terrorists in their envious, fanatical designs on the free world.

What is needed, surely, is the head of Saddam Hussein. He is more than the symbolic enemy of the West. He is the historical aggressor in that part of the world, aggressor against Kuwait, dogged and impenitent cultivator of apocalyptic weaponry.

Mr. Bush and his team have as difficult an assignment as has ever faced any great country, to wit, the pursuit of an impalpable enemy. It isn't like a war against a foreign capital, army, navy and imperial outposts. It is more like a war against a microbe: Find it first, then attempt to destroy it. If you can find the matrix, kill it. If there are matrices, find them, kill them. The principal matrix is Saddam Hussein.

We have the enormous advantage of the cautious blessings of Moscow. Mr. Putin smiles on the cooperation of Uzbekistan with our secretary of defense. Putin has to play it carefully. On the one hand, Russia does not wish to appear simply anti-Muslim. On the other hand, it has a great deal to fear from Muslim extremism in the southern tier of former Soviet states. Russia had a hideously expensive firsthand experience with the attempt to conquer or even to subdue mobilized opposition as in Afghanistan, separatist opposition as in Chechnya.

It bears constant repetition that moderate Muslim regimes have the most to fear not from the West but from their own unruly fundamentalists. In Indonesia, the East Timor convulsion of two years ago forced us to acknowledge that the non-democratic military were the wedge against the non-democratic Muslim extremists. In today's scene, we have the fortuitous geophysical situation abutting Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranians have opposed Saddam Hussein, against whom a war was fought. The Pakistanis need relief from their own extremists, seemingly anxious to link arms with bin Laden. But if he is gone, link arms with whom?

The defense against the extremists goes beyond bin Laden. We need to guard against any sense of sufficiency that might delude the West with his elimination. That is why the vector of American military and economic effort should bring Saddam Hussein to the crosshairs of our effort. Sept. 11 was nothing more than a little excursion manipulated by Osama bin Laden, never mind what we told them up at the United Nations. It was the pustulation of an international movement the most discernible feeding ground of which is in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad.