History is what no one ever expects to happen, and last week it happened again. A tape was released, purportedly from Osama bin Laden, in which he offered a truce "under fair conditions" with the United States, in order to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that the tape from Bin Laden is authentic, and that he is sincere in offering a truce. I am aware that these are both bold assumptions, but neither of them affects the question that I want to address, which is, even if it is a ploy, why would bin Laden permit himself to be cast in the light of a suppliant offering a truce? The mere offer of a truce, after all, is an admission of weakness, if not defeat. So, if the tape is authentic, we have to ask the question, Why would bin Laden risk appearing either weak or, worse, defeated, in the eyes of his many followers and admirers in the Muslim world?
It is true that he also threatened more attacks on America, and that he even offered an explanation for why there have been none since 9/11, namely, that he has chosen not to attack us. Of course, this bluster could be simply a way of saving face, of looking tough at a moment of weakness; but, again, we have to ask, Why would Osama bin Laden decide to show such a moment of weakness in the first place?
To see what I mean, imagine the public response if George Bush had made a similar appeal for a truce with al-Qaeda. How would this go over with the American public, and the rest of the world? Wouldn't such an offer, however sincerely intended, be treated as a sign of exhaustion or even appeasement -- evidence that the United States had grown weary of its struggle against terrorism, and was desperately looking for a way out? Certainly, that is exactly how our enemies would look upon it.
The above argument may, of course, be offered as evidence for rejecting the authenticity of the tape itself, but I want to go out on a limb (quite far out on a limb) and to suggest another possibility, speculative though it may be: Bin Laden is scared, but he is not afraid of our drones hovering perilously close above his head. I want to suggest that bin Laden may be scared of what is currently unfolding in the Muslim world -- not afraid of the march of democracy in the Middle East, but afraid that the Muslim world may be on the brink of tearing itself apart, of plunging back into the feud-blood between Sunnis and Shi'ites that has been the theme-with-variations of all Islamic history; and worse, a blood-feud that might be won not by the Sunni Arabs, who have won virtually all such feuds in the past, but by the Shi'ite Persians, whose history has hitherto been that of the perennial loser.
Since 9/11, the events of the world have not followed Osama bin Laden's original game plan. 9/11 was designed to unite the Arab world behind bin Laden, to anoint him as its supreme leader and spokesman. It was intended to be a glorious rebirth of the Arab Golden Age. Instead, four years after 9/11, seldom a day goes by in which Muslims are not blowing up, torturing, or beheading their fellow Muslims. In Palestine, Hamas and Fatah are at each other's throats; in Iraq, it is the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, and the Shi'ites seem to have the upper hand. Surely, that was not part of bin Laden's grandiose fantasy.
And then there is Shi'ite Iran.
Iran's new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is looming larger and larger on the world's stage, and he has behind him an enormous nation of over sixty million people, a large chuck of the world's oil supply, and an army of 350,000 men. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad appears intent on treading the same path as Pakistan, India, and North Korea in disguising his ambition to make his nation a nuclear power behind a very thin veil -- an astonishingly thin veil -- of developing "atoms for peace."
Bin Laden had not been heard from in a year. Ahmadinejad seems to be making news every week. When bin Laden speaks, it is on tapes smuggled to al-Jazeera; when Ahmadinejad speaks, it is in front of the cameras of the world. As bin Laden becomes more and more eclipsed, the focus of the world's attention has turned, with increasingly dismay and alarm, to the histrionics of Ahmadinejad. What will he say next? What will he do next? He has threatened to cut off Iran's supply of oil to the world, and it seems almost as if he has us over a barrel -- actually, over several millions barrels. And would a man who is willing to use oil as blackmail refrain from using nuclear weapons for the same purpose? What can the beleaguered bin Laden do to top that?
Hitler, in his final days in the bunker, was convinced that the West would realize the danger posed by the Soviet Union and would act to keep Stalin from taking over half of Europe by offering an alliance with Germany to fight against the Bolshevik threat. It was a fantasy, of course -- but, as we all know, Hitler's fantasy did not make the Soviets less menacing. Is it possible that bin Laden, holed up in a far more primitive bunker, may be entertaining a similar fantasy, offering us a truce, or even (gasp!) an alliance, in order to rebuild a Sunni-dominated Iraq and Afghanistan against the threat posed by the militant Shi'ite state of Iran -- an Iran led by its charismatic demagogue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his pronounced gift for grabbing the world's attention -- a kind of Persian Hitler whose career still lies before him, unlike bin Laden, whose glory days are all but done?
Did bin Laden ever imagine that when the Twin Towers went down that their collapse would begin a historical process that would end by making Iraq virtually a Shi'ite state? No -- no more than we did when we removed the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein in the genuine hope that out of the rubble would emerge a modern secular state.
The Bush administration, rightly fearful of an Iraqi drift toward Iran, is currently trying to bring the Sunni Arabs of Iraq back into the government from which we ousted them. Bin Laden, if the tape is authentic, is strangely reaching out to call for a truce, if not a partnership, with the nation that his organization brutally and wantonly attacked over four years ago. Is he acting by the maxim, The enemy of my enemy is my friend? And if so, how should we respond to him, in a world that may soon to be menaced by an enemy, Iran, whose power to do us ill may far transcend whatever resources are still left to Osama bin Laden? And an enemy whose friends, ominously enough, are Russia and China?
Of course, we can no more cut a deal with al-Qaeda to fight with us against militant Shi'a than the Allies in World War Two could cut a deal with Hitler to fight against the Soviets. But whose fault is that? Osama bin Laden set off a chain reaction of events that have led to the destruction of his dream. If he is now in a bunker of delusion, it was his own actions that have put him there.