Magazine On-line [spring 2013]
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CNN analyst upbeat about diminishing terrorist threat, Middle East

Since the 9/11 attacks, Americans have been 17 times more likely to drown in their own bathtub than to be killed by an al-Qaeda inspired radical.

“If we’re not terrorized by terrorists, then we’re winning,” said journalist and bestselling author Peter Bergen. He gave a fairly optimistic Kenan Lecture on February 20 about not only the diminishing terrorist threat to the United States but also progress in the Middle East.

During the talk, “The Awakening: How Revolutionaries, Barack Obama, and Ordinary Muslims Are Remaking the Middle East,”Bergen described his 1997 interview with the al-Qaeda founder. “Meeting (Osama) bin Laden was quite a performance,” Bergen told the Haggin Auditorium audience. Bergen was blindfolded and driven deep into the backcountry of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to a mud hut where, surrounded by heavily armed men, he met the lanky, low-key man who spoke almost in a whisper.

“He was delivering a message full of hatred against the United States,” said Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation. “The message was, essentially: I’m declaring war against the United States, and here are the reasons why.” It was a foreign policy, as opposed to a social critique of the West.

When bin Laden attacked the United States, he underestimated our strength and resolve, Bergen said.

Since then, al-Qaeda has become less relevant. This was evident in the Arab Spring uprisings, which largely ignored the late terrorist leader, calling into question his assertions that change in the Middle East only can come about through violence or fighting the United States. “So bin Laden’s two big ideas basically were completely undercut by the actual events of the Arab Spring,” Bergen said.

The terrorist organization damaged its reputation in other ways, such as killing Muslim civilians, having no idea how to arrange an economy, failing to engage in elections, and lacking political ideas that make sense. “Very few people in the Middle East are demanding a Taliban-style theocracy,” which al-Qaeda supports, Bergen said.

Plus, the toppled authoritarian regimes—which were more pro-American than their populations—had been incubators for hatching radicals.

Bergen also sounded somewhat upbeat about prospects in Afghanistan, where life expectancy has increased and civilians there are less likely to be killed in war than an American would be by a murderer in New Orleans.

As for Pakistan, while four military coups have destabilized the country in the past, Bergen said the likelihood of another one is small. Additionally, Pakistan will have its first civilian government since 1947 complete a term, its press is freer, and trade with India has improved.

Another positive development is that civilian deaths by drone strikes have been reduced in the region.Nevertheless, President Obama has used drones more than George W. Bush. Some people who voted for him in 2008 are disappointed with his use of violence in foreign policy. “This is a president who is very comfortable with the use of American hard power,” Bergen said.

Military action took out bin Laden and helped cripple al-Qaeda. This and other reasons—better communication between government agencies, public awareness, and creation of the Department of Homeland Security—have made the country a harder target for terrorists.

“We are quite safe, compared to what we were on 9/11,” Bergen said. “They are not able to conduct large-scale operations or anything close in the United States, and they aren’t likely to in the future.”

After the talk, Bergen signed copies of his book, Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for bin Laden, From 9/11 to Abbottabad.

The lecture was part of a series funded by a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

Peter Bergen

CNN analyst Peter Bergen signs copies of his bestselling book, Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for bin Laden, From 9/11 to Abbottabad, after giving a Kenan Lecture on February 20 in Haggin Auditorium.

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