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What Went Wrong?

Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq

By Michael Scheuer
Free Press, 2008

 

There is, ironically in the face of insipid national debate, no shortage of good books about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, among them Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda and Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. There’s also no shortage of crackpot garbage. After all, Norman Podhoretz is still alive, and has blessed us with World War IV, though something tells me the world won’t be adopting his taxonomy. Michael Scheuer has already given us two worthy, if uneven accounts of the subject in Through Our Enemies Eyes and Imperial Hubris. But in his latest, Marching Toward Hell, he takes his old work as a foundation but says almost nothing new of value. Redundancy alone would be an offense, but this time he spices the brew with a kind of violent, schizophrenic mania that will leave the reader’s jaw agape.

Michael Scheuer first made waves as the anonymous author of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, a book he wrote while still head of the CIA unit tasked with eliminating Osama bin Laden. There he gave a comprehensive account of al-Qaeda’s rise to the forefront of Islamic militancy. More importantly, he argued that instead of attacking the US for its freedom (as George W. Bush phrased it after September 11), al-Qaeda and vast swaths of the Muslim world hate it for specific policies such as support for Israel and aid to repressive dictatorships. “In this case,” he writes, “perception is everything and then some, and the strengthening Muslim perception that Washington is prosecuting a systematic and brutal anti-Islamic policy has stacked the deck in al Qaeda’s favor.” That it was a controversial thesis didn’t stop it from being true, and he argued that in order to win the so-called “War on Terror,” the United States had to understand its enemy and change its policy accordingly. Aside from winning the acclaim of experts on terrorism, his work endeared him to America’s left, who’ve long been critical of their country’s cold-blooded pragmatism in the Middle East. But there was a slight incongruity in the left’s praise, because in addition to arguing for a change in American policy toward the Muslim world, he also briefly stated that when force was used, its application should be brutal and decisive.

Scheuer’s second book, written just before his identity was made public, was Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. Here he focused in detail on the Bush Administration’s response to Islamic militancy, and he reiterated that Muslim extremists hate us for what we do, and not who we are. But by this time, his tone had changed. As well as adding a shriller cadence to his arguments, he sledgehammered home his views on the use of military force. While anyone would agree that American soldiers should have taken the lead in the assault on bin Laden’s holdout in Tora Bora, his prescriptions in a section of the book titled “Get Used to and Good at Killing” are strategically and morally questionable, to put it mildly. “Killing in large numbers,” he says,

is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants and crops in the field…Land mines, moreover will be massively reintroduced to seal borders and mountain passes…such actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.

To know that this is strategic folly, you need only turn to the rest of Scheuer’s book, which makes it clear that killing large numbers of innocent people on purpose would be akin to injecting steroids into Muslim antipathy. And perhaps those on the left, who cheered his criticism of American policy in the Middle East, thought that his caveat at the end of that paragraph made it more palatable. Maybe he doesn’t really advocate barbarous violence, but sees it as the logical extension of a failed policy. An “if you’re going to do it, do it right” sort of thing.

  Then again, maybe not. “Bloody-mindedness” is an accurate description of his latest effort, so extreme that the title, Marching Toward Hell, seems like an understatement. The tightly focused and sharply reasoned arguments of Scheuer’s previous work are gone. Instead we have tangential rants (some thankfully confined to footnotes, no doubt at the behest of his editors), hyperbole, and name-calling. Worse than that are his incredibly broad and simultaneously thoughtless policy prescriptions. He comes across like a wild-eyed ideologue frothing at the mouth.

The gist of his old arguments is still here—that redundancy mentioned above—but to his original breakthroughs he adds nothing. His recap, in the introduction:

My argument, simply stated, was and is that Islamist militants are attacking America because of what it does in the Islamic world and not because of the way America’s people think, vote, behave, and believe or not believe in God. I readily acknowledge that many of the Islamists confronting us detest our society and lifestyle and would never duplicate them…But granting that reality, I argued that it was a profound and unnecessary mistake…to believe that the Islamist militants’ animosities for the accoutrements of our society were the main motivating and unifying factors behind their hatred and willingness to wage war.

Fine so far. But then he gives us something like Scheuer’s Unified Theory of National Malaise. His target list is expansive: a governing elite stuck in a coalition-loving Cold War mentality; anti-American multinational organizations; neoconservatives; the traitorous pro-Israel lobby; the shadowy Saudi lobby; weak-kneed multiculturalists; and the willfully-incompetent FBI. Osama bin Laden is in there somewhere too.

The centerpiece of his argument, when it doesn’t veer wildly out of control, is that the “bipartisan governing elite” (defined, by the way, as “the inbred set of individuals who have influenced, contributed ideas to, drafted and conducted U.S. foreign policy for the past thirty-five years”) is stuck in a Cold War mentality, a condition which evinces multiple symptoms. For one, our leaders are still, even after 9/11, too focused on nation states. Here one is hard-pressed to disagree. Michael Scheuer, however, really disagrees.

It’s not just nation-building he despises, but coalition-building, alliances and the entire international framework constructed after World War II, and this leads him into fringe territory. In the case of the Afghan War, Scheuer derides the month the Bush administration took to form an international coalition not just because it allowed al-Qaeda time to prepare, but also because the window for “savagery” was shut now that the lily-livered Europeans were onboard. But, in light of his own advice, what possible motivation would the Afghan people have to resist the Taliban if America was purposely bombing them to pieces? He even claims that President Bush and his counselors were, in the case of Iraq, “obsessed” with coalition building. So strange then that every account of the buildup to the war demonstrates that it was Great Britain, Colin Powell, and a few others who pushed a reluctant President into going to the UN.

Worse still is Scheuer’s contention that America’s system of long-term alliances should be abandoned in favor of short-term marriages of convenience. For him, our current age of relative cooperation, consensus, and international law is a relic of the Cold War; a time when the nature of our enemy dictated the necessity of unifying much of the world against it. Scheuer believes the baby must be heaved out with the bathwater. In terms of the Muslim world, he thinks the United States should eliminate our military presence in the Middle East and end aid to every government there, including Israel. But he doesn’t stop there, at the immediate area of concern (and the limit of his expertise). The problem with this sort of extreme isolationism is that it has appeal only in the abstract, and then only to a narrow-minded chauvinist. So let’s try an experiment. Let’s imagine, because Scheuer doesn’t, what would actually happen if we did what Scheuer urges.

The United States withdraws from the “great game” of international chess (as Zbigniew Brzezinski called it), but that doesn’t mean that others will stop playing. Generally, the absence of American influence in strategically important parts of the world will invite the presence of others, notably Russia, India, and China, countries whose interests don’t always coincide with ours. Their pursuit of those interests will inevitably run at cross purposes to our own, and then the United States will be either drawn back in again, or will watch from the sidelines. In latter case, the United States would linger in the distance while the world was shaped by great powers who have even fewer compunctions about using proxies and propping up dictatorships (I’m not simply referring to Russia and China either; France has troops all over Africa). And it would have precious little ability to do anything about it. Since America doesn’t offer long-term commitments anymore, anxious nations looking for aid and a guarantor will have gone elsewhere, and the alliances the US does have won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on. Furthermore, America will no longer be a member of the United Nations, NATO, SEATO, or anything else. The system of alliances with Europe and others gone, there won’t be anyone to help should it become involved in a confrontation with a country like Russia or China. America’s withdrawal from the international sphere will also precipitate some soul searching on the part of everyone else: the rest of the world will either abandon the relatively stable international framework built up in the last sixty years, or they’ll go on by themselves, staring back at a jittery America huddled alone in a corner. Advocating a 180 degree turnaround in foreign policy is a daunting task, and if you’re going to do it you need to put your thinking cap on. Isolationists tend not to do that. Scheuer certainly hasn’t.

The author also shows his ignorance in his case for withdrawing from the Middle East. He says we should first eliminate our dependence on foreign oil as a prerequisite for ending the American military presence there (and here’s where that violent logic of his comes in again: while we’re still dependent, our author sees it as perfectly normal and necessary to kill and to die for low fuel prices). It is not, however, simply access to oil that our government has always desired, but influence over that oil so it can be used as leverage against other countries. If we were energy independent tomorrow, that strategic incentive would still be there, and so would American troops. To truly change the dynamics of the situation, the United States would have to put all of its power behind a shift in the “great game” of power politics between nations, and this would mean more international presence than our author could stomach.

Inconsistency and sheer nonsense litter the rest of the book. For instance, Scheuer tells us he “turned first” to Bernard Lewis (author of Islam: What Went Wrong?) when he wanted to learn about Islam, but never tells us where he turned afterwards. Later on he says that our leaders should have ignored the advice of politically motivated experts who wanted to invade Iraq. The first one he lists is Bernard Lewis. Scheuer defends Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby, from “U.S. citizens acting as Israel’s thought police.” Among those he mentions is Christopher Hitchens, who, despite whatever viewpoints he holds today, has been an advocate for the Palestinians and a critic of Israel for decades. This sort of inconsistency is worrisome for a reader who is only asking, humbly, for some edification.

Turning from inconsistency to nonsense, our circumspect teacher lambastes international organizations (like human rights, disarmament and environmentalist groups) for their “anti-Americanism.” He claims that they are not motivated by “ethical or moral considerations” because that sort of morality (or morality in general) must “require a religious grounding.” Some of the founding fathers he quotes endlessly throughout the book might disagree. Scheuer also wants state governors, in a heroic attempt to seal off our country from terrorists, to mine the borders and refuse the orders of the President, of any President, to deploy the National Guard anywhere but those Canadian and Mexican borders. We’re also informed that “most lethal attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies have been on U.S. interests, not those of our allies.” Perhaps our author was asleep when London and Madrid were bombed. And neither is cruelty beneath Michael Scheuer. In his zeal to characterize the FBI as an drag on America’s ability to fight terrorists, he says this in note 23 on page 279: “On the basis of my own dealings, and those of my colleagues, with Mr. [John] O’Neill and all senior FBI officers, I am forced to say that, in my opinion, they did more to ensure that 9/11 occurred than almost any other individuals in the U.S. government.” At the bottom of the paragraph, Scheuer, apparently no longer “forced” by evidence to come with regret to any damning conclusions says that “Mr. O’Neill’s death on 9/11 was a rare instance of almost biblical justice.”

All of this is supported by a dark view of humanity, an apparently sinful species that requires religion to moderate its evils. Expounding on his view of the world, he tells us that “Clearly, no nation has the ‘right’ to exist; Darwinian logic applies to nation-states as well as to the other components of the animal kingdom.” What then, are we to make of Scheuer’s own country, its struggle to live up to the words of its founding, to its Bill of Rights? It seems that for Scheuer, those are just words, and what matters is a country’s ability to “defend themselves, contain internal societal rot at nonfatal levels, maintain economic viability, and do not gratuitously make a constellation of more powerful enemies.” One supposes that everything else is just gravy. Instead of ensuring “unalienable rights” like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we have a government whose real job is to “contain societal rot.” It’s a bleak view of mankind, and one whose suppositions are not germane to the peaceful management of events.

Maybe it’s that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on for so long, and the lack of introspection on the part of our leadership has worn on him. Michael Scheuer’s first book was a landmark, not only for its analysis of America in the eyes of its enemy, but also because it came from such an authoritative source: the head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer’s follow up was a slight misfire, but the reader could separate his ideas on the brutal application of power from the criticism of America’s response to Islamic militancy. But now he’s either worn down by the course of events, or he’s simply flying his true colors, and all of his credibility is gone. In the introduction, he thanks the editors for working with him to “tame a good deal of vituperative prose that otherwise might well have prevented the arguments of an already very much nonmainstream analysis from getting a decent hearing. I offer my sincere thanks to each of them.” Well I don’t. Scheuer does the “preventing” himself, but just what exactly did those editors cut out?

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Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.