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Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror
Brassey’s, $27.50 (cloth)
The 9/11 Commission Report
W.W. Norton, $19.95 (cloth)
In post-9/11 America a politician seeking applause need only call terrorists “murderers,” “barbarians,” and “cowards” and vow that terrorism will never succeed. But if by “succeed” one means have a dramatic effect on the way people live, terrorism has in fact done remarkably well.
In New York City, where I live, signs of Osama bin Laden’s success are ubiquitous. This August, police armed with automatic weapons were on patrol after an Orange Alert warned of another al Qaeda attack. And when the Republicans descended on New York for their convention, the city filled with helicopters, surveillance blimps, subway police patrols, roadblocks, and swarms of cops clad in shorts racing around on bicycles.
If you tally up the bill bin Laden has levied on the United States in unprecedented levels of security at bridges, ports, airline terminals, border crossings, skyscrapers, chemical factories, and nuclear-power plants, the total runs into the tens of billions of dollars per year since 2001. The 9/11 Commission notes that between 2001 and 2004 “total federal spending on defense (including expenditures on both Iraq and Afghanistan), homeland security, and international affairs rose more than 50 percent, from $354 billion to about $547 billion” and that “the United States has not experienced such a rapid surge in national security spending since the Korean War.”
But the effects go well beyond spending. People are now noticeably uneasy about air travel, which has become more arduous because of heightened security and the long lines that accompany it. And the architecture of government itself has changed—absent 9/11, there would be no Department of Homeland Security, no Patriot Act, no Northern Command, and no plans to appoint a new intelligence czar. Bin Laden hoped to bring fear and financial strain to the United States. He has brought us a very large measure of both.
Less momentously, bin Laden has made “Anonymous,” the CIA employee who wrote Imperial Hubris, a best-selling author. Coincidentally, the appearance of the book was followed by an intelligence failure of sorts: no sooner did the book hit the stores than the author’s cover was blown. Writing in the July 2 Boston Phoenix, Jason Vest identified the author as Michael Scheuer, a veteran CIA analyst specializing in radical Islam in Afghanistan and the Arab world and, from 1996 to 1999, the leader of the agency’s bin Laden task force.
Judging from his book, Scheuer is angry, having watched the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations fail to comprehend the consequences of the growing hatred of the United States in the Muslim world. From the first page Scheuer makes it clear that he believes that the massacre of some 3,000 Americans on September 11 was a failure of political leadership, not intelligence:
U.S. intelligence officers—often at the risk of their lives—had spent most of a decade gathering and analyzing the intelligence that, had it been used fully and honestly, would have allowed all U.S. leaders and, indeed, all Americans to know what sort of storm was approaching. Those officers knew a runaway train was coming at the United States, documented that fact, and then watched helplessly—or were banished for speaking out—as their senior leaders delayed action, downplayed intelligence, ignored repeated warnings, and generally behaved as what they so manifestly are, America’s greatest generation—of moral cowards.
• • •
But the great strength of Imperial Hubris lies less in its white-hot anger than in Scheuer’s assessment of the real problem facing the United States. (Although the subtitle of his book refers to “the West” he is in fact almost exclusively concerned with the United States.) His persuasive analysis of the problem, along with his somewhat more questionable remedies, can be briefly stated as follows:
1. In al Qaeda the United States faces “a worldwide Islamic insurgency,” not a band of criminals and terrorists.
2. Bin Laden’s indictment of the United States is not about who we are and how we live, but about what we do. More specifically, he accuses the United States of making war against Islam in its uncritical support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the lavish flow of American economic and military aid to Israel; efforts to prop up corrupt and pliant regimes in the Muslim world; the emplacement of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam; the double standard of ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons while condemning efforts by Muslim states to acquire such armaments; complicity in, or failure to condemn, the oppression of Muslims in the West Bank, Gaza, Chechnya, and Kashmir; the support for self-determination for East Timorese and the former Soviet republics, but not for Palestinians, Kashmiri Muslims, or Chechens.
3. Bin Laden is not an aberration in Islam: his message resonates among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, a very significant proportion of whom have come to hate the United States and lionize bin Laden since 9/11. The invasion of Iraq has increased Muslims’ anger and given bin Laden a windfall in new supporters and resources. Policies of “regime change” and grandiose visions of exporting American-style democracy to the Middle East only aggravate this hatred.
4. Public-relations efforts directed at the Islamic world—cultural exchanges, professions of respect for Islam—will not help so long as policies that alienate Muslims continue.
5. Al Qaeda’s specific grievances and goals attract broad, sustainable support among Muslims and explain why even $100 million in American reward money has failed to entice a confidant to betray bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, his chief lieutenant.
6. Muslim veterans of wars in Algeria, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, trained in a variety of skills (both military and non-military), offer a steady stream of manpower for al Qaeda.
7. To defeat al Qaeda, the United States must abandon its law-enforcement approach—gathering evidence and using it to apprehend and prosecute the movement’s operatives—and shift to an all-out war of Shermanesque brutality (Scheuer is enamored of Civil War history and uses it to stress how uncompromising war is and how ruthless a successful campaign against Al Qaeda must be). Americans should have no illusions: in such a war many of our soldiers will die, and victory will be long in coming.
8. The war that brought down the Taliban was not such a ruthless campaign. It was launched October 7, 2001, after three weeks of delay. In the interim, many Taliban and al Qaeda fighters fled to Pakistan. The war was also waged on the cheap by relying primarily on Northern Alliance ground forces and American air power to minimize American casualties.
9. Al Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan thanks to the less-than-all-out war in Afghanistan. Moreover, during the subsequent American-led battles against al Qaeda at Tora Bora (December 2001) and Shahi Kowt (March 2002), thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters slipped across the border into Pakistan, where they found shelter and support.
10. The current American-backed government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan is doomed. Most Pushtuns, Afghanistan’s largest and most politically powerful ethnic group, see it as an organ of the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, who dominated the Northern Alliance; that Karzai is himself a Pushtun makes little difference. Key radical Islamist Pushtun leaders (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abd al-Rasul Sayyaf, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Younes Khalis) have now aligned with the Taliban. Scheuer predicts, “Karzai’s defeat may not come tomorrow, the day after, or even next year . . . but come it will, and the Prophet’s banner will again be unfurled over Kabul.”
Scheuer is convinced that worse is yet to come because al Qaeda has doggedly sought nuclear weapons and has succeeded in getting sympathetic Islamic theologians to legitimize their use against civilians in a campaign that is being defined as nothing less than a defense of Islam. Scheuer’s book is, in short, filled with alarming predictions and scathing criticisms of American leadership.
• • •
Unlike Imperial Hubris, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report—an election-year document assembled by an august body of equal numbers Democrats and Republicans—is pedestrian, platitudinous, and designed not to offend. To be sure, it presents a stunningly thorough and revealing history of how the 9/11 attack was conceived, planned, funded, and executed; the documentation is impeccable, and the footnotes alone are a treasure trove of information. Although it does note lapses by various bureaucracies, as well as ineffectual intelligence and security, no individuals or organizations are held responsible for failing to prevent 9/11, or even for specific failures to improve preparedness despite previous attacks on American embassies (in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998), warships (the ramming of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000), and buildings (the car bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993). Moreover, and in stark contrast with Scheuer, the report also steers clear of the controversial discussion of how American policies in the Muslim—and in particular the Arab—world may have contributed to al Qaeda’s rise and appeal.
Yet while the commission’s lawyerly presentation of the background of 9/11 does not indict the Bush administration, it hardly paints it in a flattering light. The report substantiates Richard Clarke’s charge that the administration failed to take the al Qaeda threat seriously and makes clear that this inattentiveness was not due to a lack of intelligence. While there were no warnings that a particular kind of attack would happen at a particular time against a particular target, there were plenty of FBI and CIA reports that bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States. A “Presidential Daily Brief” submitted in August 2001 said so in its very title: “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” Intelligence reports also warned specifically of airplane hijackings. And after arresting Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001, the FBI informed the CIA director George Tenet that the radical Islamist had been taking flying lessons. The title of Chapter 8, taken from a comment by Tenet, underscores the presence of warning signs: “‘The System Was Blinking Red.’”
In the end, the commission has neither harmed the Bush administration in this election year nor even embarrassed it, perhaps because its evasion of issues of responsibility has focused attention instead on intelligence reform and concomitant organizational changes. This bureaucratic focus is unfortunate. It unwittingly reinforces the comforting, but misplaced, proclivity to see the attacks of 9/11 as products of the irrational rage of madmen. Without suggesting that 9/11 was somehow justified or provoked by the United States, the commissioners, individuals of stature, could have spurred an honest examination of American foreign policies. The difficult question—as Scheuer notes—is whether terrorism will force us to rethink our foreign-policy choices. But addressing this deeply practical question would have required the commission to jettison its lofty, bipartisan approach.
Regardless of their differences, the 9/11 report and Imperial Hubris both remind us that the end of the Cold War rendered our entire conception of national security obsolete; we remain unprepared to understand, let alone confront, new dangers. But neither offers particularly compelling recommendations about what we should do.
Scheuer deserves credit for telling Americans that they are ignorant about why the United States is reviled by so many Arabs and Muslims and the degree to which that sentiment is not a response to who we are, but what we do. While it is true that we have a woefully inadequate supply of specialists in the languages, history, and culture of the Islamic world to draw upon for government service, the problem goes much deeper. Our educational system does a miserable job of giving ordinary Americans even a superficial knowledge of the outside world in general and the Islamic world in particular. Knowledge of those who hate you will not prevent their hatred, but it will help you understand it and respond to it in a more nuanced manner. Americans who know more about the world beyond may not be immune from demagoguery and manipulation by their leaders, but they may be better able to spot such influences. It is worth asking why so many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was allied with al Qaeda and involved in 9/11 and whether they would have supported the invasion of Iraq had they been able to evaluate the Bush administration’s charges more critically.
• • •
While Imperial Hubris succeeds as a critique, it fails badly as a cure. Scheuer’s recommendations for American policy are disappointing and evasive. If near-unconditional support of Israel turns Arabs against us, what is to be done? Should Israel be abandoned? Should it be forced to accept a Palestinian state? And what of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, states whose longstanding support by the United States accounts, in Scheuer’s mind, for the depth of anti-American feeling among Arabs? Should the United States distance itself from such regimes? Can and should Washington force them to become democratic? And what if elections bring millenarian Islamists to power?
Scheuer’s answers are, in the main, poorly thought out, contradictory, and even dangerous. To begin with, it is hard to reconcile Scheuer’s depiction of the political conditions that nourish al Qaeda with his military strategy for defeating it. He argues that al Qaeda is not an antediluvian, nihilistic group but an insurgency that is drawing thousands of Muslims as fighters and thousands more (or so one infers from his language) in sympathy. Perhaps so, but Scheuer elides the important distinction between the sympathizers and those willing to fight and die in its ranks. Nor does he support his claim about bin Laden’s popularity among Muslims, whom he tends to present as an undifferentiated mass. The Muslim ummah (transnational community of believers) from the Maghreb to Malacca is marked by ethnic, economic, doctrinal, cultural, and political differences. Even Islamic political ideologies come in many forms. Bin Laden may present his movement as a war to defend Islam, but it is as much a war to define Islam against competing interpretations.
The largest problem is sheer consistency. If the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as Scheuer says, have only raised bin Laden’s stock among Muslims, why wouldn’t the Shermanesque march that Scheuer advocates have the same effect? Moreover, if al Qaeda is a global, dispersed insurgency that operates in over 80 countries, what precisely does Scheuer have in mind? Should the United States extend the Bush doctrine of preemptive war across the Muslim world and threaten to invade any country that either actively allows al Qaeda to operate or is unable to expel it? If so, how will unsparing military attacks on numerous Muslim states increase good will toward the United States among 1.3 billion Muslims?
It is unlikely that many states in the Middle East and Europe would support such a war, yet any serious strategy directed against al Qaeda will require a network of cooperative states providing bases, logistical support, and over-flight rights, as well as the close cooperation in intelligence-sharing on al Qaeda’s recruitment, financial flows, and personnel. Scheuer seemsoblivious to his own warnings against “imperial hubris.”
Nor is it evident that Scheuer’s Shermanesque war would have worked even in the limited case of Afghanistan. While he chastises Bush for not going to war immediately and for relying on the Northern Alliance’s ground forces instead of launching a massive American offensive, Scheuer knows well what happened to the Soviet army when it sent more than 100,000 ground troops into Afghanistan expecting easy victory. Scheuer notes the strength of Afghans’ commitment to Islam and the tenacity of Pushtun nationalism, but nowhere does he stop to ponder the obvious: why wouldn’t these qualities have combined to produce massive resistance to a full-blown American invasion? Scheuer writes that the United States should have applied its military power unsparingly while also co-opting Pushtun Islamists like Hekmatyar instead of alienating Afghanistan’s majority nationality by working with the Northern Alliance. But Hekmatyar’s ruthless, unsavory reputation even among fellow Pushtuns would hardly have helped him to rally them, particularly behind an invading American army. Indeed, it was the chaos created by Hekmatyar and other warlords that led many weary Pushtuns to greet the Taliban initially as saviors. Using the Northern Alliance (and CIA agents and Special Forces) on the ground and supplementing it with American missile and air strikes destroyed the Taliban regime; a full-blown invasion of Afghanistan would, taking past as precedent, have enabled the Taliban to mobilize a jihad.
• • •
The 9/11 Commission Report falls equally short on remedies. The commission most often discusses al Qaeda’s challenge in the context of structural flaws in intelligence and homeland security, and offers a dubious strategy to cultivate good will in the Islamic world. It skirts the issue of whether American foreign policy unwittingly contributes to the appeal of militant Islamist movements, and thus limits the force of its own case for public diplomacy to counter anti-American animus in the Muslim world.
The commission calls for cultural and academic exchange programs to expose young Muslims to the United States and increased economic aid to Muslim states so young unemployed men (who constitute a significant part of the population and seem particularly susceptible to Bin Laden’s ideas) can have a better future.
But problems with cultural diplomacy as an anti-terrorist strategy go deeper than clumsy efforts at instruction like the by now infamous video of happy Arab-Americans enjoying their integration into American life. It is widely believed that increased cultural exposure promotes greater harmony and understanding among people. But is it true? Consider, for example, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist whose ideas influenced numerous figures, including bin Laden. It was while studying in the United States that Qutb, in reaction to what he saw as the moral rot of Western life, came to reject Western secular models in favor of one based on a pristine Islam. Or consider Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian who piloted one of the planes hijacked on 9/11, who became fluent in German while living in Hamburg and gravitated to radical Islamist ideas while attending mosques and living in the Muslim diaspora. The West can elicit affection and admiration, but it can also breed revulsion and alienation. And in a post-9/11 atmosphere, young Muslim men may find rejection and suspicion in the West more abundant than acceptance and trust.
The commission’s proposals for a major and sustained infusion of American economic aid into the Muslim world are also problematic. Muslim countries where radical Islam holds sway tend to be ruled by authoritarian systems that have failed to promote sustained economic growth. There is no reason to expect that foreign aid channeled through them will realize the commission’s admirable goals. Nor is there any reason to believe that these supremely statist regimes would allow assistance to flow directly to the people.
Then there is the question of how we would fund this ambitious plan. Most of the U.S. government’s foreign economic assistance goes to a handful of states; Israel and Egypt together have typically received about a third of the total in each of the past 20 years—until Fiscal Year 2003, when Iraq became the top recipient. The United States could reduce aid substantially to existing recipients, divert funds from existing domestic programs, or raise taxes significantly. But each path is politically perilous.
Moreover, the commonly held belief that terrorism issues from poverty—one implicitly shared by the commission—is plausible but misplaced. Historically, the ranks of terrorists have been filled by the intelligentsia and the professional classes, and a survey of the background of the 9/11 hijackers confirms this. Nor is it obvious that economic aid is an antidote to terrorism. Egypt, for example (as the journalist Peter Bergen has suggested to me), has received billions of dollars in American economic aid since 1979 (following its peace treaty with Israel), but in 1981, militant Islamists killed President Anwar Sadat, and the country’s terrorist cells have shown an extraordinary resiliency. Nor has economic assistance won many friends for the United States in Egypt: less than 20 percent of Egyptians polled in 2004 displayed a favorable attitude toward the United States.
The failure to grapple with these difficulties makes the commission’s laudable vision for combating the economic and social sources of violence laughable.
• • •
The part of the report that has dominated the debate is the recommendation to appoint a national intelligence director (NID) with cabinet rank and the power to hire, fire, and control the budgets of the labyrinthine American intelligence system. This system consists of 15 separate agencies, with some 80 percent of the total budget controlled by the Pentagon, not the CIA. The commission has campaigned relentlessly for this change, which has the powerful imprimatur of the 9/11 families and the unqualified support of John Kerry. After initial hesitation followed by the announcement that he would implement the commission’s plan for centralization in part, George Bush has also come around to embracing it in its entirety.
But as critics have pointed out, an NID may further politicize intelligence (the NID proposed by the commission will be located in the White House), add another leaden layer of bureaucracy, and nourish the pathologies peculiar to hyper-centralized organizations. Moreover, the idea is founded on the dubious assumption that 9/11 was above all a colossal intelligence failure. Nothing in the report itself (or, for that matter, in Scheuer’s book) leads us to this conclusion.
The stark reality is that the American polity and economy condemn us to manage terrorism, which will never lack for opportunities. With the number of people legally crossing American borders (last year it exceeded the national population) and the volume of cargo entering the United States (eight million shipping containers alone), any comprehensive system of security would surely be unaffordable and inefficient. No doubt steps can be taken, but determined attackers have many opportunities and need to succeed only once. The intelligence gathering needed to foil them must be perfect—always. The asymmetry is staggering. The commission notes only in passing, and without real explanation, that airtight security against terrorism is impossible.
• • •
Should we, then, sit on our hands and wait for another 9/11? On the contrary, much can be done to reduce the dangers: we can improve airline security, modernize identity documents by encoding biometric information, and require uniform and stringent protections for installations that are likely targets. The intelligence agencies are woefully short of people fluent in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu, and this is remediable. Likewise, the FBI’s scandalously antiquated and poorly networked computer systems can be replaced. And continuing efforts to improve our intelligence and our cooperation with other countries—not to mention fostering smooth communication among our own compartmentalized intelligence services—will help us track more effectively the movements of terrorists and their resources. But these steps will not suffice in isolation, without policy adjustments in other areas, particularly when actions that manifestly increase the threat of terrorism continue out of inertia or self-righteousness. In short, we need a serious national debate about the fundamentals of our foreign policy.
Energy. We need a comprehensive and ambitious energy policy that reduces our consumption of gasoline by instituting more-exacting fuel-efficiency standards; we must offer compelling incentives that steer consumers toward energy conservation; we must develop alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles through a partnership between government and industry; and we must build affordable and efficient mass-transportation networks that reduce Americans’ dependency on cars. (For one proposal along these lines, see www.apolloalliance.org.) While 9/11 has prompted much talk about patriotism and self-sacrifice, these qualities have largely been required of soldiers, police, and firefighters. Our political leadership has demanded little from the public at large; a good place to start would be to introduce changes in lifestyle and public policy aimed at reducing the consumption of oil and developing alternative sources of energy.
Military presence. Diminishing the strategic significance of the Middle East by lessening American dependence on Middle Eastern oil should also enable a substantial reduction both in our military presence there and in arms sales to oil-rich states. The fall of the Shah of Iran and the threat now posed by al Qaeda to the Saudi regime should warn us that arming governments with all manner of modern weapons provides them no security from revolution within. An American-supplied arsenal merely legitimizes the charges made by revolutionaries that a regime is the puppet of the United States and increases the chance of our weaponry ending up in the hands of a hostile successor state. Here again, sacrifices are needed: abandoning arms sales means giving up the profits and jobs that come with them.
American-Israeli relations. Al Qaeda’s etiology and appeal cannot, as is sometimes argued, be reduced to American support for Israel. It is fantasy to think that a break with Israel would end anti-Americanism in the Middle East. But it is also a denial of reality to assume that virtually unconditional support for Israeli policies does not breed animosity toward the United States in the Muslim—and in particular the Arab—world. And the 9/11 commission, which has little to say about our policies toward Israel, comes close to engaging in such denial. It is unwise to identify our national interests with current Israeli policy so closely that we either defend or criticize in the mildest terms just about everything Israel does in the West Bank and Gaza. There is a flat contradiction between earning good will among Muslims—an effort the commission endorses—and reflexive U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its open-ended building of settlements there; its policies of collective punishment; and its use, in densely populated areas, following terrorist attacks against Israelis, of heavy weapons that inevitably kill Palestinian civilians. Terrorism against Israel, rejections of its right to exist, and actions intended to destroy it can—and in my view must—be opposed robustly without blessing Israeli policies that serve only to earn enemies for the United States.
Nuclear non-proliferation. We must revamp our non-proliferation policies. The spread of WMDs is dangerous, and the United States should work strenuously with other states and with international organizations to curb proliferation. But our current policy is contradictory and discriminatory. Despite the substantial cuts made in our nuclear arsenal since the early 1990s (beginning with the INF Treaty and START I), we retain several thousand nuclear weapons. To what end? Deeper cuts toward a minimum deterrent have not been considered by any administration. If anything, the Bush administration’s national security strategy elevates the importance of nuclear weapons. Moreover, its advocacy of regime change and preventive war could well lead more states to seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a preemptive American attack.
When it comes to other states, circumstances have shaped our position. It’s fine for Russia, China, France, and Britain to have nuclear weapons, but not India and Pakistan—until we needed their cooperation after 9/11 and lifted the sanctions we applied when they became nuclear powers in 1998. We turn a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear weapons but condemn weapons programs in Iran and North Korea. This selective policy, which amounts to saying that states can have nuclear weapons if and when we approve, will only breed cynicism about the earnestness of our commitment to non-proliferation, drive more states to build nuclear weapons (or other WMDs), and increase the probability that a terrorist group will eventually acquire them.
Revolutionary projects. We should divest ourselves of the intermittent zeal to reconfigure the ways people live—or are forced to live—and what they believe. This chiliastic bent drives neoconservatives, as well as Wilsonian liberals and Leninists, despite their mutual loathing. There is much good that American economic assistance and emergency aid can do for the world’s poor and that an American voice of steadfastness and conviction can do in condemning human-rights abuses and supporting liberty. These are worthy elements of foreign policy but also modest ones compared to regime change, nation-building, and other grandiosity. But except under extraordinary circumstances, we had best focus on creating stability by calibrating the balance of power among states rather than revamping the balance of forces within them. We have neither the wisdom nor the wherewithal for revolutionary projects aimed at transforming entire societies, and experience has shown that such undertakings end badly, for us and others.
Embracing a more limited agenda means accepting that our world will remain imperfect. This does not mean passivity in the face of injustice, poverty, and tyranny; there is much that the United States can do, independently and in cooperation with others, to alleviate such ills. But it does mean resisting the impulse to remake entire societies, particularly through military might. This unheroic credo of humility, restraint, and prudence unites John Quincy Adams, Edmund Burke, Johann Gottfried Herder, Hans Morgenthau, and Isaiah Berlin—disparate, yet admirable, wellsprings of wisdom in times of terror.
Rajan Menon is the director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, Spitzer Professor Emeritus at the Powell School of City College of New York, and a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies. He is the author (with Eugene Rumer) of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (MIT Press, 2015).
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