An Egyptian fugitive who spends his days and nights dodging U.S. surveillance drones in the desolate wilds of Western Pakistan makes a web video branding President-elect Barack Obama a "house negro." His message is rebroadcast on TV newscasts and splashed on newspaper front pages across America. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have got to be cackling to themselves over just how easy it is to remain the preeminent bogeymen of the U.S. national conversation. But ask yourself this: If either man had made such a statement and the U.S. media weren't there to turn it into a news event, would it have any relevance at all?
The spin on the story by many of the news organizations that covered Zawahiri's fulmination is that Obama's election has so challenged the demonization of the U.S. propagated by al-Qaeda that bin Laden's movement needed to do something to revive its anti-American message. In reality, however, the al-Qaeda's message has long been marginalized in the Arab and Muslim world even among many who are actively engaged in fierce battles against U.S. allies.
Seven years ago, bin Laden and Zawahiri led a tiny band of jihadist conspirators who got spectacularly lucky with a terror attack on U.S. soil, and in the intervening years, they managed to inflict handful of smaller outrages in Madrid, London, Bali, Casablanca and one or two other cities. More sustained was their campaign of high-profile savagery against crowds of mostly Shi'ite civilians in Iraq. But the political strategy behind those terror strikes was a miserable failure: Not only did they fail to ignite any kind of wider popular uprising against the U.S. and its allies in the Muslim world; they failed even to elevate al-Qaeda into the role of a global command center among existing Islamist movements ready to challenge the U.S. and its allies. Follow Zawahiri's manic output of communiques these days, and you'll see that he spends a good part of his "air time" attacking Iran, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas Islamist entities that actually represent a significant political presence on the ground, and that have studiously kept their distance from al-Qaeda, dismissing Zawahiri's rants as the fulminations of an irrelevant crank. Al-Qaeda's attempt to take control of Iraq's Sunni insurgency proved to be particularly disastrous, prompting most of the rank-and-file insurgents to eventually make common cause with the U.S. occupier in order to rid themselves of the extremist jihadis.
John Kerry may have lost the 2004 presidential election, but he was dead right about al-Qaeda, and how the U.S. should deal with it: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," he told the New York Times, emphasizing that terrorism was a problem that would have to be fought and managed, but that it didn't threaten the fabric of American life. Al-Qaeda is a particularly nasty nuisance, but it is no strategic threat to the United States. It controls no territory nor is it capable of significantly disrupting the defenses of any U.S. allies abroad, much less threatening the American way of life. And that reality would not change even if al-Qaeda managed to pull off another spectacular terror strike in a U.S. city key American allies such as Britain and France suffered decades of ongoing terror attacks in their capitals from Irish and Algerian militants, without their national interests being seriously threatened. And while U.S. allies have struggled to hold the line against the likes of Hamas and Hizballah and a host of Iran-backed parties in Iraq, al-Qaeda has been little more than an agitated spectator in those conflicts.
From the very first high-profile cruise missile strikes ordered by President Clinton in response to the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 to the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda's best weapon has always been the response it has managed to provoke from the United States. U.S. actions in response to al-Qaeda, particularly the Bush Administration's "Global War on Terror," have been far more effective than any of bin Laden's own actions or propaganda in turning much of the world's Muslim population against the U.S.
Four years ago, Kerry was attacked by the Bush Administration for "failing to understand the threat against our country" when he sought to put the Qaeda threat into perspective. During a desperate final trawl for votes in Florida just before the election, Senator John McCain seemed to dismiss the perilous downturn of the U.S. economy as but a temporary blip, urging voters instead to focus on what he considered to be the key question of the election: "Is [Barack Obama] a man who has what it takes to defend America from Osama bin Laden?" To imply that bin Laden represents a greater threat to American well-being than a looming economic catastrophe borders on hysteria. Plainly, the voters didn't buy it. And that in itself should be a signal to those making up the front pages and TV news headlines that Ayman al-Zawahiri trash-talking Barack Obama ought to be a footnote, not a major story.