Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
(Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011) 279 pp.

Reviewed by George L. Simpson, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of History, High Point University

With the death of Osama Bin Laden, not a few self-styled international security experts have stepped forward to declare America’s victory in what used to be called the “War on Terrorism.” More recently, David Ignatius, the well-known opinion writer for the Washington Post, gained special access from top officials in the Obama Administration to some of the records captured in the raid that liquidated the al-Qaeda leader. Responding to what he read, Ignatius published an article entitled, “A Lion in Winter,” which gained widespread notoriety. While his piece by no means claimed that al-Qaeda had been defeated, it did present a portrait of a much-beleaguered Bin Laden in his final days. Ignatius compared the notorious terrorist to a weary boxer late in a fight who desperately clung to the hope of throwing a knockout punch. What is striking about Ignatius’s boxing analogy is that it is similar to the one Daveed Gartenstein-Ross uses in his monograph, yet to a much different conclusion.

In this noteworthy book, the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) recalls the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” when Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman using what became famous as the “rope-a-dope” tactic. Instead of fighting the undefeated and powerful champion in the center of the ring as expected, Ali improvised and assumed a defense posture by lying against the ropes. There, he let Foreman punch himself out while the ropes absorbed most the impact of whatever blows the aggressive, but unwise, champion managed to land. Late in the match, a confident Ali suddenly turned on the offensive and, after delivering a flurry of punches, knocked out his exhausted opponent to regain the world title. To Gartenstein-Ross, Ali’s tactics are those of al-Qaeda, and the United States is doing much as Foreman did when he lost that match. The sooner we recognize the failure of our present counter-terrorist policies, the sooner we can get on to winning a war we are now losing.

Gartenstein-Ross not only advances several lines of reasoning to demonstrate his thesis, but also suggests remedies to turn the tide of battle. This is refreshing since he is not merely a critic, but a counter-terrorism expert with concrete policy proposals to get the United States back on the right track when dealing with its mortal enemies. The author’s emphasis on the usually neglected economic aspects to Bin Laden’s plan to bring down a muscle-bound America is arguably the most significant contribution to the debate on post-9/11, US strategy. Here one is reminded of Frederick the Great’s famous aphorism that, “to defend everything is to defend nothing.” Thus, a United States that fought simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while sinking incredible sums of money into domestic counter-terrorism has found itself in danger of overreach. Moreover, with the protracted recession that has followed the collapse of the housing bubble, the author rightly emphasizes that Washington officials need to apply some kind of restraints to spending on defense and homeland security. Gartenstein-Ross’s call to depoliticize the fight against terrorism is equally valid. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how this can be realized in today’s polarized political climate short of in the aftermath of another catastrophe like the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the final analysis, what most commends this well-researched work is the author’s provocative, but non-partisan approach to the complex issues he addresses. As an FDD fellow, some may be quick to dismiss Gartenstein-Ross by his association with the so-called “neoconservative” think tank. (By way of personal disclosure, this author should note that he did an academic fellowship with the organization in 2005.) Yet, as is true with other fellows at FDD-Reuel Marc Gerecht and his willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood as the Arab Spring becomes summer comes immediately to mind-Gartenstein Ross’s analysis is not affected by ideological blinders but by a rigorous, empirically based logic. The former, university debater does not tolerate sloppy thinking, and his incisive logic delivers his own knockout blows to a host of pundits across the political spectrum. Whether one ultimately agrees with the author about how the United States is faring in its battle with al-Qaeda or with every argument he advances, the reader will clearly benefit and gain many insights from reading this engaging book.