Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Imperial Hubris

I finally finished reading Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror. A bit of background: the book was originally published anonymously because Scheuer was a veteran of the CIA and that was the condition demanded by his employer. Scheuer left the CIA not long after the book came out. Although he says it was voluntary, i've seen claims on the Internet ranging from a) his departure was CIA grandstanding intended to draw attention to agency concerns over lack of funding and influence to b) he was incompetent and needed to be purged along with all of the other chaff that Porter Goss so wisely swept away. I'm taking the content of the book and Scheuer's claims at face value, meaning that i think the facts could certainly be interpreted differently but i believe the sources from which the author draws (which are supposedly all publicly available) are factual and not hoaxes, speculation, or flights of fancy.

The book repeats several themes throughout the book. The first is that our government has failed to understand that Al Qaeda is not a terrorist organization, but rather a global insurgency. The distinction, the author claims, is that we treat terrorist organizations with a law enforcement approach, using the special forces and intelligence agencies to go after the perceived terrorist leaders, while we should instead treat the enemy as a well-trained military force that needs to be confronted with forces sufficient to overwhelm and decimate it. Scheuer cites evidence showing that the so-called terrorist training camps that we've all heard about did in fact provide more general military training with the intention of developing a conventional military force.

A second point that Scheuer repeatedly emphasizes is that bin Laden is not a murderous thug using radical Islam to justify his attempts to destroy Western culture. Rather he argues that bin Laden and Al Qaeda oppose specific US policies toward the Muslim world and not Western freedoms and individuality per se. The Islamists oppose US support for Israel, the US presence in Islamic countries, and US support of oppressive regimes in the middle east (e.g., Saudi Arabia). These policies, Scheuer argues, have enabled bin Laden to frame his actions in terms of a defensive jihad, and idea that has legitimacy in Islamic teachings and growing support in the Islamic world.

Scheuer's assessment of bin Laden is probably the most unsettling part of the book, and also probably the reason why it has not been given the attention that i would have expected. Scheuer casts bin Laden as not only a pious Muslim and a highly capable leader, but also as a classic Islamic hero who is admired even by those who disagree with his actions. At one point in the book he refers to bin Laden as a "great man", though he takes care to note that he means this in the sense of a person who has changed history. However, he also says that "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe that bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim who is blessed with sound strategic and tactical judgement..., a reluctant but indispensable bloody-mindedness, and extraordinary patience". Given that Susan Sontag was excoriated for suggesting that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards, i'm surprised that Scheuer hasn't been dragged through the Fox News muck for such an assertion.

Scheuer opposes the war in Iraq, though it would be a stretch to say that this is an anti-war book. His opposition to the Iraq war is based in part on the concern that it's costing us people and resources, but more so on the idea that it's bolstering the claims of bin Laden and other Islamists that the US is systematically pursuing policies to destroy Islamic cultures (he calls the war a "Christmas gift" for bin Laden). Although those sound like the same arguments used by anti-war liberals, Scheuer is no pacifist. He rails against the Bush administration more for not prosecuting the war in Afghanistan quickly enough; for waiting to establish some sort of global alliance rather than going into Afghanistan immediately after September 11 when there was still an opportunity to do some damage to bin Laden's forces. (He spends large sections of the book on the failure of our government to understand the realities of fighting a war in Afghanistan and to learn from the experiences of the Soviet Union and others). But Scheuer concedes that we probably will not change our policies toward the Islamic world, and so he contends that our remaining option is to fight the war more aggressively and to accept that we must kill many people, lose many soldiers, and spend many years and much treasure in the attempt (he especially likes drawing parallels to the US Civil War). He also states that we must temporarily set aside concerns about the environment so that we can reduce our dependence on middle-eastern oil, which is to say that he thinks we should extract oil from ANWR and develop nuclear energy.

One of the scarier and more controversial claims in the book is that bin Laden has sought and received sanction from Islamic scholars to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States as part of his defensive jihad (i will resist the temptation to point out the irony of Al Qaeda attempting to use WMD as a preemptive strike in a defensive conflict. Or maybe i won't). The book claims that bin Laden needed "Islamic grounding" for the idea of using WMD against the US, and he found it in a treatise written by a Saudi cleric named Shaykh Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd. Basically, this document posits the notion that Western cultures could be held responsible for the deaths of millions of Muslims, and so the use of WMD against the US would be justified by principles in the Koran. I found one internet pundit who derides this claim-- stating that it's absurd to think that bin Laden could be given "permission" to use WMD against the US-- though i think he misses the point.

My favorite section of the book deals with the idea of the US attempting to transplant democracy into occupied countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which Scheuer regards as tremendously misguided. I've heard arguments against the notion before, but they've tended to be either patronizing assertions that the countries in question lack the necessary cultural maturity, or "Prime Directive"-style arguments that insist that we should leave other countries alone to develop in their own time. Scheuer's argument is an extension of these ideas but is more sophisticated and persuasive. Roughly he argues that the democracy-in-a-box advocates ignore the long and bloody history that lead to the democracy in the US. Our democracy, he contends, doesn't just go back to the US Civil War or the American Revolution; but to conflicts that unfolded centuries before in the countries of our ancestors, to the influences that set the stage for philosophical arguments in favor of individual liberty and self-government that eventually manifested themselves in the actions of our country's founders. I prefer this argument because it doesn't assume that democracy is a predestined conclusion, an instinctive human desire, or even the highest form of social organization. It explains why countries in Eastern Europe were able and willing to move toward democratic structures, while other areas of the world with radically different cultural histories are resistant to it.

The book contrasts starkly with what we see, hear, and read on a daily basis in the various media. I regard this to be valuable, others will no doubt view it as evidence that Scheuer lacks objectivity or has simply failed to make his point. If you watch C-SPAN or CNN or Fox, if you read the newspaper or political blogs, if you listen to conservative radio or NPR you will come away with the idea that we've succeeded in Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda and bin Laden are extreme fringe elements within Islam bent on destroying our way of life, and that our goals in Iraq will be achieved if we can simply make it to democratic elections. According to Scheuer we have failed miserably in Afghanistan, allowing Al Qaeda and the Taleban to escape essentially unscathed and able to reestablish authority in the country as soon as we remove our forces. He says that despite the successes we've had against the Al Qaeda leadership, that it's actually a flourishing organization that we've helped to flourish by virtue of the policies we continue to pursue in the Islamic world. Democracy will not survive in these places he says, unless we are committed to an essentially permanent and expanding occupation of the countries, which places in question whether it's democracy at all.

There's much in this book that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like the idea that to win the war against the insurgency we must essentially kill enough of the enemy to remove their capacity or will to fight; though i have no argument against it other than Scheuer's own: change our policies in the Middle East so that the conflict has no basis. I don't know how we could meaningfully change the US stance toward Israel as Scheuer suggests, since the Al Qaeda position is that it must be destroyed. I don't agree with Scheuer that we must stop being so squeamish about losing US soldiers because they are, as he says, professional soldiers who know the consequences of their profession of choice. I don't agree that we need to exhibit more "manliness" in our execution of war.

On balance though i find myself persuaded by many of Scheuer's arguments. Probably my favorite quote that the author uses in the book is this gem from John Adams:
America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her own example. She well knows that by once enlisting under banners other than her own, were they even banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.
This neatly sums up why i personally oppose our actions in the Middle East. More evidence that the founding fathers were simply smarter than we.

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