Pollsters Don't Make Good Generals

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What if our leaders are actually following us, instead of the other way around?

What if they are scouring the overnight polls and reinventing themselves to be the kind of leaders we say we want? What if they wage war not because they have found an effective response to terrorism, but because we have told the pollsters we are growing impatient?

According to a New York Times poll, 58 per cent of Americans support going to war "even if it means many thousands of innocent civilians may be killed." Can we really live with that? I'm not talking only about morality but also about strategy: Can we sustain the potential fallout from all this "collateral damage"?

Collateral damage is the jargon used to describe the "unintended" consequences of war, the innocent civilians that die when bombs rain down. But there are many more unintended consequences of war, so many, in fact, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invented a phrase to describe what happens when short-term wartime decisions come back to haunt the people who made them: "blowback."

In the reports that have come out about Osama bin Laden's life, it is clear that he is the product of many such "unintended consequences" of war. If you have the stomach to try to understand his twisted ideology, just follow the "collateral damage."

Bin Laden received his training and taste for war while fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During the Cold War, the U.S. government didn't consider his fanatical religious views antithetical to "civilization" (the current rhetoric). Back then, the CIA considered them valuable weapons in the fight against communism, that other threat to "civilization." Though not directly, CIA funding, training and weapons made its way to the Islamic rebels in Afghanistan. The whole plan had a certain logic to it: What better way to beat back an army of atheists than by quietly nurturing an army that believed itself driven by God's own fury?

Only now it turns out that all that money and encouragement did more than beat the Soviets. It also created a feeling of invincibility among the rebels: If an Islamic jihad had defeated one superpower, why not another? Call this delayed collateral damage from the Cold War.

But this legacy alone didn't create bin Laden - more collateral damage was needed for that. Born in Saudi Arabia and a critic of his country's monarchy, bin Laden's hate was further hardened when the U.S. army turned Saudi Arabia into its base of operations during the Gulf War. The U.S. presence became a symbol of a new imperialism for many Muslims: Here were self-proclaimed freedom fighters making alliances with an authoritarian monarchy, all on sacred Islamic soil. To the U.S. military, these armies of new enemies probably seemed inconsequential at the time, just more unfortunate collateral damage from the Gulf War.

And what has kept bin Laden's fury at a feverish pitch all these years? He claims he is avenging yet more collateral damage: the children killed in Iraq under sanctions, the pharmaceutical factory bombed in Sudan.

Terrorists, though they often adopt the pose, are nobody's saviours, nobody's freedom fighters. They are, however, expert at manipulating real injustice for their ends. If it turns out that bin Laden is responsible for the attacks, we will have to look at him for what he is: a figure of diabolical fanaticism, yes. But he is also the warped and twisted progeny of all of these unintended consequences of wars past and present - a Frankenstein of collateral damage.For terrorists, collateral damage isn't a threat, it is fuel: It creates terrorists, feeds them, and sustains them.

It's something to remember as we rush to leave fresh new trails of collateral damage around the world. In Afghanistan, where an indiscriminate attack would create yet another country filled with desperate people who needed help to overthrow a brutal dictatorship and suffered further misery instead:

  • in Pakistan, where the U.S. presence would be taken by many as an imperial and religious slight, potentially ripping the country apart;
  • in the occupied territories, where until yesterday's ceasefire Israeli forces were seizing the moment to step up attacks they wouldn't have attempted two weeks ago;
  • in our own backyards, where the mood of vengeance, so little informed by fact, is giving licence to rampant racist attacks.

Are we ready for some more collateral damage, or should we first start facing up to the damage already done?

Many of us, myself included, have felt little but rage and sorrow since September 11. But if our leaders are really following us, we have a responsibility to no longer act on emotion alone. If our leaders are following us, we have to lead. We have to lead them away from more collateral damage.

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