The lesson that bin Laden learned from Reagan

There is a particular narrative about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War that has always struck me as compelling. I bought the argument at the time and I think I still do, to some extent, even though I’m hardly a Reagan fan.

The story goes like this: Reagan was able to finally win the Cold War and drive a stake through the heart of the Evil Empire because he realized that the Soviet economy was already badly overextended trying to prop up the war machine. All he had to do was accelerate the arms race, dramatically increasing military spending (while also amping up the sabre-rattling rhetoric) and that would force the Russkis to bankrupt themselves trying to compete.

To be sure, this is a simplified version of what happened and it omits lots and lots of important detail that we’d do well to recall as we’re writing our histories, but underneath it all is a basic lesson: wars cost money. And since no nation has an infinite supply of cash, this means we have to think about opportunity costs and competing priorities, because every ruble you spend on tanks is a ruble you can’t spend on education, health care, food, the infrastructure, etc.

Fast-forward to today, as Americans are breaking out the flags for the ten-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (while whistling through the graveyard about rumors that terrorists are plotting some memorial activities of their own). As Otherwise suggested in his piece yesterday, it isn’t at all clear that we have learned much, despite all the talk about what we have learned. On the contrary – it might be easier to argue that we haven’t learned a damned thing. Still, it’s clear that others around the world learn from us, and I find myself wondering this afternoon if 9/11 happened, in large part, because Osama bin Laden learned something important from Ronald Reagan.

In his recent 9/11 reflection, Noam Chomsky writes this:

“[bin Laden] repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them,” Eric Margolis writes. “‘Bleeding the U.S.,’ in his words.” The United States, first under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, rushed right into bin Laden’s trap… Grotesquely overblown military outlays and debt addiction… may be the most pernicious legacy of the man who thought he could defeat the United States” — particularly when the debt is being cynically exploited by the far right, with the collusion of the Democrat establishment, to undermine what remains of social programs, public education, unions, and, in general, remaining barriers to corporate tyranny.

Interesting. As of this moment, US spending on the Iraq war (remember, by the way, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11) is rapidly approaching $795 billion. The tab in Afghanistan is approaching $453 billion. Meanwhile, here at home, subtle meme-engineering and a series of clever manufactroversies in places like Wisconsin have people who ought to know better parroting the talking points of the hyper-wealthy, asking how we’re going to address the deficit without pausing to reflect on exactly how “addressing the deficit” became so damned essential. The truth is that this rhetoric, this ideology, is a complete fabrication on the part of people who never said a word about deficits or the need for belt-tightening during the Bush years. Deep Throat said “follow the money.” So when we examine who stands to gain what if we hack away at Social Security, Medicare and other programs designed for the benefit of the American people, when we examine who profits when we further decrease taxes on our wealthiest 1%, where does the trail lead us?

I don’t really know if bin Laden studied Reagan and the Cold War. I don’t know if his theory about breaking the US by suckering us into pouring all our cash into the desert on the other side of the world owes directly or indirectly to an analysis of the policies of The Great Communicator. But we do know that the Soviets had to choose, eventually, between arms and dinner.

How much worse is it going to have to get here before we reach the same conclusion? And if we failed to learn from the failures of the Soviets, if we fail to learn from our mistakes of the past decade, rest assured that somebody, somewhere is watching us closely and taking notes that will be used against us down the road…


  • I don’t think it has anything to do with Reagan. Bin Laden learned the lesson from Afghanistan, but remember that his nation was – at the peak – putting $500M (inflation adjusted) into the Soviet War … and that’s just the official contribution. It doesn’t count all the “charity” donations that funded Pakistani madrassas and the like.

    If Bin Laden learned the lesson from a white person, it was Brzezinski. It was the old Pole that got the ball rolling during the Carter administration and he was pretty open about trying to draw the Soviets into an unwinnable guerrilla war. That’s different that Reagan’s plan to force the USSR into an arms race it couldn’t afford, simply because the US couldn’t/can’t really afford it either and funding an insurgency is an asymmetric proposition.

    There’s no doubt that Reagan latched onto the mujaheddin with gusto, because it worked so well within his cowboy/freedom fighter dream world. It also worked very well within the US program to support violent Islamists as a tool against the USSR that stretched all the way back to Operation Paperclip, and was in fact simply a continuation of the German program of the same design. That’s why you see the concerted action with the Saudis at that time and the way the majority of the funds were funneled to men who are mostly considered terrorists now, rather than the Northern Alliance (which was never a basket of puppies, but never held the same degree of religious radicalization as guys like Hekyamater).

    Still, there’s no doubt that OBL played his hand very well, but it didn’t hurt that there was an administration itching for a fight it felt it could win by not dealing with any form of reality. It’s also the reason why Mullah Omar was putting OBL under house arrest and confiscating his sat phone. Like Carter, Brezezinski and Reagan, OBL used the Afghans as pawns in a larger power game. Omar knew that attacks on the US would bring the US war machine to Afghanistan, and that it was a fight he didn’t need.

    A very interesting question is what would the US -Afghan war look like if there was a national leader out there like Reagan who was only too happy to covertly fund, and heavily, the Afghan insurgency? We’re losing badly as it is. Imagine if someone was pouring $1B/year into Afghanistan against us.

  • jack andersen

    Let us look at the concrete result. Bin Laden was never a free man. Even when he was alive, he lived in fear of being turned in by his closest men. In the end, it was someone who was close to him who betrayed him which led to his finality.

    So what did Bin Laden learn? All of his plans were failure.

  • Let us not forget every policy decision has a checklist of pluses and minuses. Certainly some pluses go to the top of the page as most important. Along with the above theory about the USA suffering fiscal calamity is the usual Middle East suspect: oil and the need to assure its free flow to support the industrial engines of the West (and now the East as well).. But, so is the periodic need for contemporary military training, updating of armament, a new corps of present-day war-tested officers, etc. Iraq and Afghanistan provided that top-priority context and setting in spades.

  • learned it from joel chandler, maybe.

  • and so think, what would You have done, after 911? had You been president and saw the trade Center smolding and brothers jumping off to escape the Fire..?

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