The Long View: Imperial Hubris

Imperial President

Imperial President

My favorite paragraph from this review:

The Bush Administration has rejected withdrawal. It has also declined the option of butcher-and-bolt. Anonymous says we will rue these decisions, and maybe he is right. Be that as it may, the policy the U.S. has actually adopted is sometimes called “draining the swamp,” meaning that the United States does not seek to destroy the Muslim world, or to ignore it, but to transform it. This is really just a concrete application of the Clinton Administration's doctrine called “Democratic Enlargement.” Under whatever name, what we are dealing with here is Wilsonianism; it is difficult to imagine any successor to the Bush Administration that would really reject it.

John correctly foresaw that the successor to George W. Bush would be incapable of really doing anything different regarding foreign policy in the Middle East and Islamist terror. This is because to do so would require rejecting the bi-partisan consensus in the American ruling class about how things are done.

Now that we have the successor to the successor, I haven't got any clue what he might do. The Trump administration very much rejects the conventional wisdom here, but that is a pure negation. I haven't tried to discern what they might try to do.

Hopefully, they won't listen to Michael F. Scheuer, who gives me a really odd impression. After reading this review, I looked his Wikipedia article, and then his website, Scheuer strikes me as a nut. In 2004, I could see making the argument that allowing Islamists to take power in the Middle East might be better than the dictators we had been supporting.

We tried that, albeit in a way that attempted to make the Middle East more democratic, and we got chaos and war. And Lo, in 2017 Scheuer is still making the same arguments he made in 2004 without reference to intervening events. No thanks.

Imperial Hubris

Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror
By Anonymous (Michael F. Scheuer)
Brassey's, Inc., 2004
307 Pages, $27.50
ISBN 1-57488-849-8

A Review
John J. Reilly

What do we mean by hubris?

In this book, and apparently also in the author's previous one, “Through Our Enemies' Eyes” (2001), we are told that it means the tendency of U.S. intelligence agencies to “Americanize the data,” so that anything alien about alien societies is disregarded, combined with the assumption that the U.S. is so powerful that it must also be invulnerable. The anonymous author is Michael F. Scheuer, a CIA analyst specializing in South Asia and Afghanistan. (I should mention that he made his identity public in a letter to the 911 Commission.) If he says this is how American intelligence works, there is little in its history to contradict him. Having read Anonymous's latest delightful rant, however, I cannot shake the conviction that what he really means by “hubris” is that the American government dared to reject his advice:

“And the thing that these American experts on Afghanistan knew best and above all others was that there was no possibility of installing a broad-based, Western-style, democratic, power-sharing central government in Kabul.”

Nothing, in this world or the next, is more certain to Anonymous than that the ministers of the American-backed government must someday choose between escape by helicopter or impalement on meat hooks in the streets of Kabul. In the author's estimation, this is very bad news, because it is hard to exaggerate the importance of Afghanistan to the worldwide Muslim insurgency that has arisen against the West. We are told that Osama bin Laden regards Afghanistan as the only true Muslim state, and the model for a revitalized Islamic civilization. He will not rest until that country is once again secure under Mullah Omar, though of course that is only a part of the larger program that bin Laden has been pursuing since at least the early 1990s.

And what exactly does Osama bin Laden want? Anonymous tells us more than once:

“These attacks [of 911] are meant to advance bin Laden's clear, focused, limited, and widely popular foreign policy goals: the end of U.S. aide to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state; the removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian Peninsula; the removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands; the end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India; the end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera, and the conservation of the Muslim world's energy resources and their sale at higher prices.”

“Clear, focused, limited”? Those are not the first adjectives that even analysts who generally agree with Anonymous might have chosen to describe the Islamist agenda, but he uses these terms to combat two alleged misapprehensions that are common at both the popular and the policymaking levels.

The first is that al Qaeda represents the mere impulsive backlash of a failed civilization. He is willing to concede the thesis, propounded by such stout fellows as Bernard Lewis, that, in some sense, Islamic civilization has failed. He insists correctly, however, that this in no way implies anything irrational about bin Laden or his goals.

The second misapprehension is more debatable, which is that al Qaeda's aims are “apocalyptic.” Anonymous says they aren't, and if by that he means that the Islamists are not seeking indiscriminate destruction, he has a point. On the other hand, as he also notes, al Qaeda does not expect to be able to defeat the West itself, but rather to spark a pan-Islamic revival under Allah's guidance. Historical goals of that scale are eschatological, in the sense of relating to the structure and goal of history. That would be true even in an ideological context that attempted to be rigorously secular. Islamism, of course, is self-consciously anti-secular. It seems likely to me, at least, that the Islamist agenda is informed by Islamic eschatology, orthodox and otherwise.

Readers will note that the list of al Qaeda's grievances seems a bit self-generating. The U.S. is in Afghanistan, for instance, because of the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. (That's also true of Iraq: irrespective of the Baathist regime's role in 911, there was no way a comprehensive response could have been made without resolving the Iraq question, though Anonymous will have none of this line of argument.) We find the same damned-if-you do, damned-if-you don't quality in Anonymous's extended list of things that the U.S. does to annoy Muslims. For instance, we are told:

“America has declared that waging jihad against Islam's attackers is a criminal act and seized and incarcerated—often without trial—hundreds of suspected mujaheddin around the world. For a Muslim to refrain from joining a defensive jihad to protect Islam means disobeying God's law and earning damnation.”

This is a head-scratcher. Apparently, arresting an aspirant martyr as he tries to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border is not just a disappointment, but a grievance. In fact, it's a legitimate grievance, since Anonymous accepts the characterization of al Qaeda's project as a “defensive jihad.” When Osama bin Laden says that Muslim lands are under assault all over the world at the behest of the U.S., he is describing reality. That is why the United States was struck on 911.

Other observers may find bin Laden's list of “attacks” against Islam to be, at best, unevenly persuasive. It includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic on which differences of opinion sometimes occur, but at least Anonymous is clear that no solution that includes the existence of Israel would be acceptable to al Qaeda or other Islamist groups. It includes the independence of East Timor, which I had thought of as a Catholic country that Islamic Indonesia had tried and failed to assimilate, but I can see how other people might think differently. As far as I am concerned, however, there is only one sane opinion about this complaint from bin Laden:

“What documents incriminated the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina and warranted the Western Crusaders, with the United States at their head, to unleash the Serb ally to annihilate and displace the Muslim people of the region under U.N. cover?”

Perhaps an isolated villager in the Hindu Kush could be forgiven for believing that the United States tried to use Serbia to de-Islamize all or part of the Balkans. However, as Anonymous never ceases to remind us, Osama bin Laden is a well-informed man, with a sophisticated understanding of the world. In the case of this grievance, at least, we are not dealing with a culturally different perception. We are dealing with what Joseph Goebbels used to call “The Big Lie.”

Does that mean that bin Laden has no gravamen against the U.S.? By no means: until the recent Iraq War, American policy the since end of the Second World War has been to preserve the regimes of the Middle East. This was done chiefly with an eye to maintaining the oil supply, and the effect was indeed to prop up regimes that were, in varying degrees, corrupt and tyrannical, though whether any of them was ever entirely apostate is a matter of opinion. What the Islamists want the U.S. to do is stop propping up those regimes. Then, the Islamists can establish regimes more to their liking. In due course, they will re-establish the caliphate.

There is a term for this sort of project. It is not “jihad”; it is “civil war.” Moved by some mixture of piety and adventure, Osama bin Laden is trying to overthrow the government of his homeland and those of the neighboring states. Anonymous recognizes that the attack on the United States was only incidental to this endeavor. Indeed, he praises bin Laden for the strategic brilliance of this strategy. Feeble though they are, the states of the Middle East are still too substantial for groups like al Qaeda to conquer, at least as long as those states are supported by the West. By making the United States the unique enemy, al Qaeda accomplishes two things. First, it gains credit in Muslim countries for defending Islam, while avoiding the opprobrium that might result from waging jihad locally. Second, by signaling to Europe that its quarrel is only with the United States, it makes it more likely that the U.S. will receive no substantial assistance in waging an increasingly burdensome string of small wars. Eventually, when the U.S. goes away, the region will fall into the lap of bin Laden or his successors.

Anonymous is correct that this strategy is not irrational, but that does not mean it will or could work. Al Qaeda's “policies” confuse overturning the existing state of things with achieving power. Where Islamism flourishes, it turns civilization to rubble. Still, even if the enterprise of the caliphate is doomed to miscarry, that does not mean that the United States will not be subject to devastating attacks meant to drive the West out of the Middle East. How, then, goes the war to date, and what strategy should the U.S. follow?

Regarding the war so far, Anonymous says that the American position is steadily deteriorating, outside of a corridor that runs from Amman to Islamabad. Indeed, in the author's estimation, pretty much anything that the United States does in response to the jihad counts as a loss: “Steps we take to protect ourselves and save the lives of others—immigration and precision bombing—are seen by our Muslim foes as evidence of racism, hypocrisy, and a lack of courage to save U.S. lives. The measures we take in self-defense or to protect others unfailingly empower our Muslim enemies to hate us all the more, and to attack us with greater impunity.”

This assessment is of a piece with his relentlessly positive account of the prowess of Islamist organizations and personalities. He compares al Qaeda to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia: high praise from a history-minded American. He finds in both the same qualities of determination, resilience, and ingenuity. Indeed, not only does he see the spirit of the Old Cause among the Islamists; he even catches a glimpse of Robert E. Lee: “Viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-Cold War peace.” Bin Laden is compared to an “Errol Flynn” character, or to Robin Hood, because of the way that bin Laden's persona fits the Arab archetype of the pious bandit.

How did Anonymous formulate these conclusions? In large part by reading what Islamic groups have to say about themselves on the Internet, notably in such cyber journals as Al Ansar. It is, of course, valuable to know what one's opponents say about themselves, and even to know what they want you to think about them. Nonetheless, this material is presented in this book in a way that often does not distinguish Anonymous's sober assessment of the Islamist threat from the Islamists' own spin-doctoring, wishful thinking, and general mendacity.

As for what the U.S. can do, there are just two options. First, we can elect to pursue the war in the way we have begun, without changing our attitude toward the Muslim world. In that case: “A policy of status quo, in essence, leaves America no choice but a war of annihilation.” The other option, which Anonymous endorses, is that we give al Qaeda what it wants. Maybe that is why these books were written on Anonymous's own time, since there is a statutory prohibition (Title 50 United States Code Section 407) against spending federal money to figure out how the United States could surrender.

Let us first take a look at how to conduct what the Germans call a Vernichtungskrieg.

Anonymous seems to have no patience at all with “the revolution in military affairs,” or at least with the tactics that have developed to take advantage of the new technology: “[W]hat has the U.S. military produced since 1990? Victories that are asserted, subjective, arguable, and unrecognized by the enemy—none of which had even a second-rate military—as anything more than the loss of one round in a multi-round war.” Oddly for a man who cites Clausewitz, Anonymous seems to think that the only real war is a “pure war,” one that aims solely at destroying the enemy, without regard to political considerations, or even to one's own casualties.

Given the state of things on September 11, 2001, there was no choice but for the United States to strike at al Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan. In fact, Anonymous insists that the only measure that might have mitigated the disaster of the attacks was a same-day decapitation strike, aimed at everyone and everything in Afghanistan that even might have been connected to al Qaeda. If I understand him correctly, massive numbers of U.S. troops should have been introduced immediately. Rather than try to work with local allies, the U.S. should have sealed the borders and hunted down the enemy leadership. Then the U.S. should have left, leaving behind admonitory piles of corpses.

The British had a name for this strategy: “butcher and bolt.” Anonymous, predictably, is an admirer of Kipling, so I wonder that he does not use the term.

Even worse than America's social-worker military leadership, we are told, is the international community. Among the bad habits America will have to break is the impulse to immediately seek partners and coalitions whenever anything goes wrong. After 911, that meant delay in proceeding against Afghanistan, which he believes lost the United States its only chance to win the war. He dismisses the idea of “sharing the burden” with the U.N. or N.A.T.O.: “The lesson is not only that others will not do our dirty work, but that others will stop us from doing our dirty work as completely as possible.”

In some ways, the most interesting part of the book is the author's critique of “the intelligence community.” This is particularly so now, when a proposal to consolidate all the intelligence services under a Grand Spook is all the rage in Washington. Anonymous says that “intelligence community cooperation” is an ideology; like any other form of political correctness, it gums up the works when put into operation. The FBI is particularly clueless at handling national-security information, and its expansion overseas is a waste of money. More generally, he can barely maintain his composure about the disregard by the intelligence chiefs for any information that is not secret. The sort of information that warned against 911 was in the public domain, or in the academy. An intelligent newspaper-reader would have been better informed about the Islamist threat than someone who depended on the high-level intelligence assessments.

As for “counterterrorism,” Anonymous says that it was invented in the mid-1970s precisely to avoid the necessity of attacking terrorist states: “As practiced by the U.S., counterterrorism is appeasement.” He finds the whole “counterterrorism community” to be “bloated, risk-averse, and lawyer-palsied.” It would be better to scrap the whole thing.

And speaking of appeasement, we come to the surrender option.

There is no way to end the jihad immediately. Perhaps, after the next massive attack on the homeland, we can get started on the butcher-and-bolt raids. However, if we do not want to continue that strategy for the foreseeable future, Anonymous advises, we can make some long-term policy changes.

The simplest is the abandonment of Israel. One may quarrel with how much more favor that would curry for the U.S. in Muslim lands, or even whether Osama bin Laden himself really cares much about it, but it's on every Islamist's wish list.

Then there is the achievement of oil independence from the Arabian Peninsula, and a complete Western withdrawal from the area. Regarding oil independence, that sounds like an obvious good, but the matter is more problematical. The fact is that the world has a petroleum economy, not because of American machinations, but because petroleum was an economically optimum fuel source, at least until recently. Also, no matter what the posters to Al Ansar may say, it just isn't true that petroleum suppliers are being undercompensated: you can ask the Russians. As for the successor states after an American withdrawal from the Middle East, Anonymous is almost surely wrong to claim that an al-Qaeda regime in Saudi Arabia, or even a new caliphate, would be no more hostile to the United States than the current governments are. Again, as I have remarked, a caliphate is not likely to materialize. Still, even the bare possibility is not something any sane Western government would encourage; neither is the regional chaos that is far more probable.

The Bush Administration has rejected withdrawal. It has also declined the option of butcher-and-bolt. Anonymous says we will rue these decisions, and maybe he is right. Be that as it may, the policy the U.S. has actually adopted is sometimes called “draining the swamp,” meaning that the United States does not seek to destroy the Muslim world, or to ignore it, but to transform it. This is really just a concrete application of the Clinton Administration's doctrine called “Democratic Enlargement.” Under whatever name, what we are dealing with here is Wilsonianism; it is difficult to imagine any successor to the Bush Administration that would really reject it.

Anonymous likes this not at all. He quotes Patrick J. Buchanan about the cause of 911: “They are over here because we are over there.” Anonymous quotes John Quincy Adams's famous statement in 1821, when he was Secretary of State: “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.” As with Washington's Farewell Address (which seems to be Patrick Buchanan's favorite thing ever said by an American president who was not actually Ronald Reagan), this was sound advice when it was given. The U.S. could have done little in the second decade of the 19th century to aid the cause of democracy in the world. Even today, the United States would not be justified in pursuing democratic regime change abroad, even in hostile countries, simply because Americans believe that liberal democracy is the best form of government.

The fact is, though, that the Bush Administration's policy of transforming the Middle East is not based on mere friskiness. Kant was onto something: liberal republics really are much less likely to threaten each other than are other sorts of regimes. To this, of course, one could argue that democracy is a rare, fragile flower. Anonymous repeats the familiar argument that democracy is not transferable, because it was created by a peculiar history. That's true, but it's true of a lot of other things that turned out to be universally exportable, from mechanical engineering to double-entry bookkeeping. For that matter, electoral democracy was in fact successfully exported to India and much of East Asia, regions whose hierarchical civilizations might be thought less amenable to it than is Islam, with its traditions of egalitarianism and consensus. The United States is, I think, obligated to attempt democratization first, before we start talking about surrender or Annihilation War.

And finally, there is this: John Quincy Adams could be sanguine about the monsters abroad, because none ranged globally, and there were many regional champions around the world to handle the local ones. Neither is true today. The dragons can fly around the world in a day for the cost of a passenger fare, and all the local champions retired during the 20th century. It is not hubris to recognize that the United States is uniquely vulnerable because it is uniquely responsible.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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  Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror By Michael Scheuer