If hindsight were 20/20

Only the dead have seen the end of war, Plato wrote.

imperial hubris 88 (photo credit: )
imperial hubris 88
(photo credit: )
Only the dead have seen the end of war, Plato wrote. Anyone watching television news coverage of the global war on terror, with its unrelenting sparring between supposed experts, may be inclined to agree. Few such pundits appear better qualified than Michael Scheuer, the founding head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, whose plans to capture or kill the terrorist leader before 9/11 were never approved by the Agency's leaders or the White House. His book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, which he published anonymously, was already a bestseller by the time Scheuer had resigned in November 2004. Since then, he has appeared regularly on television and editorial pages, and even on the BBC after the bombing in London. In his book, Scheuer criticizes the US government for offering a distorted picture of the causes of Islamist terrorism: “They are attacking America because they believe US foreign policies are a threat to the survival of Islam and Muslims. They are not attacking us because of our freedom, liberties, elections, or because female movie stars go about in public with bare midriffs.” Al-Qaida, he says, uses terrorism as a tool of coercive diplomacy: “We must prepare to fight savagely a patient, well-led, and religiously motivated enemy for as long as we decide to maintain our current foreign policies toward the Muslim world.” Among these policies he includes the basing of Western troops on the Arabian peninsula, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, low energy prices and the repression of Islamists by Russia, China, India and Arab tyrants. “First, Bin Laden thinks we're far weaker and less able to take pain than the Saudi royals and the rest of the dictators. The second thing is that he doesn't think those governments can survive Israel included without the support of the Americans.” However, heading Scheuer's catalogue of al-Qaida's grievances four out of the five times he lists them in Imperial Hubris is Israel, and he shows a strong hostility to the Jewish State and its American supporters. Speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Scheuer described Israel's intelligence community as operating “probably the most successful covert action program in the history of man to control the important political debate in a country of 270 million people,” by lobbying Congress and using the Holocaust Museum in Washington to manipulate Americans' emotions. Responding to criticism, he says, “Calling people anti-Semitic is just a way to denigrate and shut-up speakers who raise topics the slingers of that epithet do not want to debate.” Imperial Hubris shows numerous instances of inconsistency between his judgments of Israel and his portrait of the Islamic world. He writes of Israel as “theocracy in all but name,” while only neutrally stating that Islam is integral to political life for Muslims. THE SOURCES for his book are made up of a peculiar mix of the statements of the Islamist supporters of al-Qaida, criticism by Western leftists of the war on terror, and those conservative thinkers such as Samuel Huntington who see a monolithic “Islam” engaging in a clash of civilizations. This appears as a severe oversimplification of reality when societies in Islam's heartlands such as Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia or Iraq have comprehensively rejected the fundamentalist blueprints and the terrorist violence of al-Qaida and its local allies, as other commentators such as Gilles Kepel or Olivier Roy point out. In a telling example of a selective use of sources, Scheuer takes from a book by The New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a description of pupils of Israeli state religious schools being taught that Jordan, Sinai and other areas rightfully belonging to Israel. The rest of the paragraph in Hedges's book describes incitement to hatred and violence against both Israel and Christians in schools in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Scheuer omits this, as well as any other discussion of Arab responsibility for perpetuating conflict. Scheuer charges that the Bush administration has been overly concerned with the opinions of foreigners (a complaint seldom heard) and has therefore shied away from the necessary, “relentless, brutal, and, yes, blood-soaked offensive military actions until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us,” accompanied by a “Sherman-like razing of infrastructure.” Indeed, he criticizes America for not killing many tens of thousands more of Saddam Hussein's largely unresisting conscripts. Nevertheless, while claiming, “I am a firm supporter of Israel's right to do anything and everything it believes is necessary to defend its territory and people,” Scheuer shows an abhorrence for the much milder Israeli responses to terrorism, labelling the killing of an al-Qaida leader in Lebanon as “apparent murder” or referring to “targeted murders in Palestine.” Unlike other authors such as Richard Clarke, counterterrorism adviser to Clinton and Bush, or Robert Baer, the CIA case officer who spied on the bombers and kidnappers targeting Americans in Lebanon, Scheuer spent all of his career based at headquarters. As an analyst without foreign language skills, he seems to have had minimal personal engagement through interrogating terrorists or recruiting them as agents, or in general on the ground in the Islamic world. Furthermore, in the new afterword to the paperback edition of Imperial Hubris, he admits to having been targeted for dismissal within just a year of first being appointed to the bin Laden unit, before he was eventually removed in 1999 and left without a meaningful role until his resignation. This somewhat limited experience as well as his superiors' lack of confidence in him might indicate that his credentials for analyzing al-Qaida may be weaker than they are often presented.