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Mark Danner, speaking from the reality-based community:

Now, here’s an astonishing fact: Fewer than half a dozen years into this “uni-polar moment,” the greatest military power in the history of the world stands on the brink of defeat in Iraq. Its vastly expensive and all-powerful military has been humbled by a congeries of secret organizations fighting mainly by means of suicide vests, car bombs and improvised explosive devices—all of them cheap, simple, and effective, indeed so effective that these techniques now comprise a kind of ready-made insurgency kit freely available on the Internet and spreading in popularity around the world, most obviously to Afghanistan, that land of few targets.

As I stand here, one of our two major political parties advocates the withdrawal—gradual, or otherwise—of American combat forces from Iraq and many in the other party are feeling the increasing urge to go along. As for the Bush administration’s broader War on Terror, as the State Department detailed recently in its annual report on the subject, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has never been higher, nor more effective. True, al-Qaeda has not attacked again within the United States. They do not need to. They are alive and flourishing. Indeed, it might even be said that they are winning. For their goal, despite the rhetoric of the Bush administration, was not simply to kill Americans but, by challenging the United States in this spectacular fashion, to recruit great numbers to their cause and to move their insurgency into the heart of the Middle East. And all these things they have done.

How could such a thing have happened? In their choice of enemy, one might say that the terrorists of al-Qaeda had a great deal of dumb luck, for they attacked a country run by an administration that had a radical conception of the potency of power. At the heart of the principle of asymmetric warfare—al-Qaeda’s kind of warfare—is the notion of using your opponents’ power against him. How does a small group of insurgents without an army, or even heavy weapons, defeat the greatest conventional military force the world has ever known? How do you defeat such an army if you don’t have an army? Well, you borrow your enemy’s. And this is precisely what al-Qaeda did. Using the classic strategy of provocation, the group tried to tempt the superpower into its adopted homeland. The original strategy behind the 9/11 attacks—apart from humbling the superpower and creating the greatest recruiting poster the world had ever seen—was to lure the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, where the one remaining superpower (like the Soviet Union before it) was to be trapped, stranded, and destroyed. It was to prepare for this war that Osama bin Laden arranged for the assassination, two days before 9/11—via bombs secreted in the video cameras of two terrorists posing as reporters—of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, who would have been the United States’ most powerful ally.

Well aware of the Soviets’ Afghanistan debacle—after all, the U.S. had supplied most of the weapons that defeated the Soviets there—the Bush administration tried to avoid a quagmire by sending plenty of air support, lots of cash, and, most important, very few troops, relying instead on its Afghan allies. But if bin Laden was disappointed in this, he would soon have a far more valuable gift: the invasion of Iraq, a country that, unlike Afghanistan, was at the heart of the Middle East and central to Arab concerns, and, what’s more, a nation that sat squarely on the critical Sunni-Shia divide, a potential ignition switch for al-Qaeda’s great dream of a regional civil war. It is on that precipice that we find ourselves teetering today.

Asymmetric warfare works against imperial power because it exists in the symbolic register of social justice: resistance against those who would demand rule is a noble cause. Power thus works by its own laws. That is, a benevolent hegemon cannot declare himself benevolent. He must be named so by those to whom he gives. Thus it’s a feature of justice, not a bug, that fanatics and revolutionaries alike take refuge in it; it functions as a means of ensuring the powerful remain humble. Danner later names irony as significant to the narrative of the past few years, particularly in relation to the weapons of mass destruction lie/truth. The biggest irony, however, will ever be historical: the United States, in Vietnam and now Iraq, perfectly misunderstands the type of warfare it discovered and perfected in its founding.

(via Scott Horton, who quotes the most important paragraph)