Although he's best known as a mass murderer, Osama bin Laden's aim was to get the U.S. to bankrupt itself, just as he had the former Soviet Union. And he came pretty close.

Share story

WASHINGTON — Did Osama bin Laden win? No. Did he succeed? Well, America is still standing, and he isn’t. So why did Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert who specializes in al-Qaida, say, “Bin Laden has been enormously successful”? There’s no caliphate. There’s no sweeping sharia law. Didn’t we win this one in a clean knockout?

Apparently not. Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that Americans never bothered to understand, and thus that they never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do — and, more to the point, what he thought he could do — was bankrupt the United States. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before. And while it didn’t quite work out this time, it worked a lot better than most, in this exultant moment, are willing to admit.

Bin Laden’s transition from scion of a wealthy family to terrorist mastermind came in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was trying to conquer Afghanistan. Bin Laden was part of the resistance, one that was successful — not only in repelling the Soviet invasion but also in contributing to the communist superstate’s collapse years later. “We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt,” he later said.

The campaign taught bin Laden a lot. For one thing, superpowers fall because their economies crumble, not because they’re beaten on the battlefield. For another, superpowers are so allergic to losing that they will bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand. This was bin Laden’s plan for the United States, too.

“He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions — and these comparisons have been explicitly economic,” Gartenstein-Ross argued in a Foreign Policy article. “For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahedeen had destroyed Russia economically, al-Qaida was now doing the same to the United States, ‘continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.’ “

For bin Laden, in other words, success was not to be measured in body counts. It was to be measured in deficits, in borrowing costs, in investments that weren’t made in the nation’s continued economic strength. By those measures, bin Laden landed a lot of blows.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates the price tag on the Iraq war alone will surpass $3 trillion. Afghanistan probably amounts to an additional trillion or two. Add the buildup in homeland-security spending since 9/11 and you’re looking at a trillion more. And don’t forget the indirect costs of all this turmoil: The Federal Reserve, worried about a fear-induced recession, slashed interest rates after the attack on the World Trade Center, and kept them low to combat skyrocketing oil prices, a byproduct of the Iraq war. That decade of loose monetary policy may well have contributed to the credit bubble that crashed the economy in 2007 and 2008.

Then there’s the post-9/11 slowdown in the economy, the time wasted in airports, the foregone returns on investments that weren’t made, the rise in oil prices as a result of the Iraq war, the cost of rebuilding Ground Zero, health care for first responders and much, much more.

But it isn’t quite right to say bin Laden cost us all that money. The country decided to spend more than $1 trillion on homeland-security measures to prevent another attack. Iraq was invaded as part of a grand, post-9/11 strategy of Middle Eastern transformation. Hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts and an unfunded prescription-drug benefit in Medicare were passed in the midst of two wars. Now, partially because of these actions, the country is deep in debt. Bin Laden didn’t — couldn’t — bankrupt us. He could only provoke us into bankrupting ourselves. And he came pretty close.

In the end, bin Laden was just another bag of meat and bones, hiding in a walled compound in Pakistan. But he understood the psychology of the superpower well enough to use our capabilities against us. He may not have won, but he did succeed, at least partially.

Still, we can learn from our mistakes. He can’t.