The first time I saw the title of Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris at my local bookstore many years ago I assumed it was merely another liberal tirade about the Iraq war and how terrorists are victims, not criminals. But that’s not quite right. Scheuer served in the CIA for over 20 years, headed the Bin Laden Unit, studied every public statement issued by Bin Laden, considers himself a student of history, particularly the history and art of warfare, and is a hard-core conservative who calls Ronald Reagan a “great and good man.” Equally important, Bin Laden himself has said to Americans that “if you would like to get to know some of the reasons for your losing of your war against us, then read the book of Michael Scheuer in this regard.” Though the book was written in 2004, it remains as important as ever because it shatters many myths peddled by Western propaganda, explains what Bin Laden is really up to, and exposes the folly of the Afghanistan occupation.
Scheuer is most emphatic in discussing what Bin Laden’s war is not about. This is not an attack on freedom or our way of life; nor is it a symptom of sexual frustration as some have bizarrely argued (let’s bear in mind that Bin Laden has four wives), and it is certainly not an attack on democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely because of their democratic rights that Bin Laden considers American citizens guilty. Scheuer quotes him saying,
By electing these leaders, the American people have given their consent to the incarceration of the Palestinian people, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the slaughter of the children of Iraq. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government, yet time and again, polls show the American people support the policies of their elected government… This is why the American people are not innocent. The American people are active members in all these crimes (157)
Although Bin Laden does rant about the ills of capitalism, he and al Qaeda by and large do not “hate us for what we are, not what we do,” as our elites love to say (although the Saudi regime from which we buy oil does take that approach and supports organizations which act on such a sentiment). The author explains that, “few joined a jihad and gave their lives to stop Americans from brewing Budweiser, making X-rated movies, and buying Salman Rushdie books” (211).
Nor is Al Qaeda’s war an attempt to conquer America and impose Shariah law. Scheuer points out, “The Islamic insurgencies al Qaeda supports are fighting—without exception—to reacquire land once ruled by Muslims and so fit the definition of a defensive Jihad… Al Qaeda supports no Islamic insurgency that seeks to conquer new lands” (141). True, Bin Laden has called on Americans to convert to Islam, but that is not why he is waging war.
So what’s he really up to? It is security, rather than disdain for freedom. To quote Bin Laden: “I say to you [the American people] that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him [Bush] explain to us why we don’t strike for example Sweden” (267). Scheuer identifies Bin Laden’s six clearly stated goals:
First, the end of all U.S. aid to Israel, the elimination of the Jewish state, and, in its stead, the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state. Second, the withdrawal of all U.S. and Western military forces from the Arabian Peninsula… and all Muslim territory. Third, the end of all of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fourth, the end of U.S. support for, and acquiescence in, the oppression of Muslims by the Chinese, Russian, Indian and other governments. Fifth, restoration of full Muslim control over the Islamic world’s energy resources and a return to market prices, ending the impoverishment of Muslims caused by oil prices set by Arab regimes to placate the West. Sixth, the replacement of U.S. protected Muslim regimes that do not govern according to Islam by regimes that do. For Bin Laden, only Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan [when the Taliban nearly consolidated control and ended a civil war prior to 9/11] met these criteria; other Muslim regimes are candidates for annihilation (210)
Though it’s heretical to point this out in the West, these demands are entirely legitimate, albeit unrealistic (though I reject the idea that Israel must be eliminated). The first thing to be said is that, as Scheuer asserts, contrary to what many claim, Bin Laden always has considered Israel/Palestine a top priority; he did not opportunistically seize upon the issue for recruitment purposes during the second Intifada. And anyone who questions this should buy a copy of Messages to the World, the Statements of Osama Bin Laden, edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence (many of his diatribes are also not merely anti-Zionist, but blatantly anti-Semitic).
The critical theme here is “defensive jihad,” which is distinct from “offensive or expansionist jihad.” The latter is “meant to conquer new lands for Islam and convert new peoples to the faith. Such a jihad is the collective—not the individual—responsibility of Muslims, and must be called by a Caliph, the recognized leader of the Islamic community […] There has not been such an individual since the British destroyed the Ottoman Caliphate’s rusticating remains in 1924” (7). This is not what we’re up against. The defensive jihad we face is “an Islamic military reaction triggered by an attack by non-Muslims on the Islamic faith, on Muslims, on Muslim territory, or on all three. In this scenario, it is doctrinally incumbent on each Muslim—as an unavoidable personal responsibility—to contribute to the fight […] In such a jihad there is no Koranic requirement for a central Muslim leader or leadership to authorize warlike actions” (7).
This approach is much more amenable to massive recruitment campaigns than mere hatred for American culture. Ayatollah Khomeini tried the latter tactic, with very limited success. Scheuer says that “Khomeini’s rhetoric about the threat posed to Islam by evil, degenerate, and irreligious Americans fueled some sporadic acts of anti-U.S. violence but never stimulated anything resembling a jihad. Indeed, the most destructive anti-U.S. act of the Khomeini era—the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983—was conducted by Hizbollah using Khomeini’s rhetoric to cover its simple goal of preventing the U.S. military from establishing a long-term presence in Lebanon” (112). Scheuer adds that “Hizbollah attacked because of what the U.S. did—intervened in Lebanon—not because of what it is or thought” (113).
And we see the same thing happening in Afghanistan. Scheuer writes, and I reiterate that Imperial Hubris was published in 2004, that the occupation is “a classic lose-lose situation” because “if America leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda—with Pakistan’s support—will resume control of much of the country, thereby restarting the civil war suspended in October 2001against the Massoud-less but still Iran-, India-, and Russia-backed Northern Alliance,” slaughtering Afghans who helped the Americans; “if America stays, the Islamist insurgency will intensify, cost America more and more, and ultimately triumph whether or not the United States massively increases its occupying force and takes the war to the enemy as did the Russians.” Finally, “America’s staying-on also all but ensures the unraveling of Pakistan and perhaps a civil war there” (176).
All this is obvious to anyone who knows the slightest bit about the history of Afghanistan. The Karzai government we installed is an “already-dead government of hated minorities,” (51) as Scheuer writes, and even if the U.S. military slaughters thousands of insurgents they will only create more enemies through collateral damage and their very presence. It’s no coincidence that perpetrators of the recent failed terrorist attacks, such as the Times Square bombing and the plot against the Riverdale Jewish Center, cited the wars in the Middle East as their prime motives.
Interestingly, Scheuer devotes only a few pages to the Iraq war. This is because, as he puts it, “only the village idiot or a neoconservative could fail to see that we abjectly failed to estimate the impact on the Muslim world of a U.S. occupation of Iraq. America is defeated in Iraq and now must find the most face-saving—and therefore likely the bloodiest—way out.” As for creating a Western-style democracy, “there is no chance,” according to Scheuer, “as long as there is no separation between Church and State in Islam, and as long as Washington protects its regional police-state allies, which Muslims oppose because they want freedom not because they hate it” (272).
So why have so many straightforward facts been obscured by the west? Our elites, in government and intellectual circles, have self-interested motives to delude themselves and the rest of us. Self-reflection is not easy. We’d rather blame others for our problems. It is therefore more convenient to dismiss Bin Laden as an Armageddon-minded maniac, a nut motivated by religious nihilism rather than real grievances about the plight of his people. It’s far more difficult to admit that America’s history in the Middle East has caused widespread suffering and anger. Our leaders do not want to acknowledge that many Muslims, many of whom abhor violence, perceive Bin Laden as a Robin Hood, as Scheuer puts it, because he left a life of wealth and comfort to pursue religious duty and fight an oppressive system. Ironically, his Jew-baiting and religious fantasies notwithstanding, we can learn a lot more about the world from Bin Laden than from our leaders.
The continued denial among Western elites is extremely dangerous, Scheuer argues, because it blinds us from the reality that we are at war, and in order to defeat the enemy we must understand the enemy. Unfortunately, judging by their actions rather than rhetoric, it appears our leaders do not consider global jihad a top priority. According to Scheuer they obviously think other nation states are more threatening than al Qaeda, which offers insight into why they initially chose to conduct a half-assed bombing campaign in Afghanistan, and then to occupy Iraq, a gift beyond Bin Laden’s wildest dreams, even though Saddam and Bin Laden despised each other. Noam Chomsky further develops this idea in Hegemony or Survival, which describes how American planners are more concerned with global supremacy and securing markets for corporations than rational policy, which is why they almost certainly will never do what is necessary to win the “war on terror.”
So how can we counter global jihad (at least in theory)? Scheuer stresses that we must begin to view al Qaeda as insurgents, not terrorists. Terrorism conjures images of the Joker in The Dark Knight, a force of motiveless malignance. If we perceive them as insurgents, however, we can more easily confront the reality that they have real grievances. If we eliminate their complaints by leaving the Middle East and attaining energy independence (which we must do for many other reasons) we can mitigate the hatred and decrease recruitment capabilities. And we should pursue al Qaeda operatives, who are war criminals, not merely terrorists, with the full might of America’s military.
Chris Hedges, who spent many years in the Middle East, expands on this idea in his When Atheism Becomes Religion (although he prefers leaving the hunt for al Qaeda to intelligence units): “the only effective way to fight terrorism is to isolate terrorists within their own societies.” He adds that research shows, “almost every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent—carried out attacks to drive out an occupying power […] the large number of Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers appears to support this finding” (136-7) because they consider the presence of large American military bases in their country an occupation.
“Terrorists support acts of indiscriminate violence,” Hedges writes, “not because of direct, personal affronts to their dignity, but more often for lofty, abstract ideas of national, ethnic or religious pride, with the goal of a utopian, harmonious world purged of evil” (138). This dangerous phenomenon explains why “the driving force behind terror is not poverty—although this is often a great spur to suicidal rage—but rather the collective sense of national and religious humiliation.” And “that sense is most painful to affluent members of a society. They are freed from the struggle for daily subsistence and can devote energy to avenging real and perceived injustices” (137).
Bin Laden’s trajectory supports this notion. Furthermore, a study of “the five most spectacular anti-Western terrorist attacks” found that “of the 75 terrorists involved… 53 percent had attended or graduated from college. Only nine had gone to madrassas.” Hedges writes: “The longer the United States occupies Afghanistan and Iraq, the more these feelings of collective humiliation are aggravated, the greater the number of jihadists willing to attack American targets” (138).
Of course there are no total, simple solutions. But these would obviously be huge steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, as Scheuer argues, America’s leaders refuse to face this reality. Their hubris renders them unwilling to accept the notion that a bunch of bearded men living in caves can damage the greatest empire in human history and leads them to dismiss 9/11 as an aberration to be exploited for power through fear but not to be met with a serious, coherent counter-strategy.
But Bin Laden has proven that he is a man of his word. And he has promised to strike again on American soil, in ways more spectacular than before, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction. And let us not succumb to the intellectually lazy fantasy that it won’t happen again because almost a decade has elapsed since the last attack. The first strike on the World Trade Center occurred in 1993, and if successful it would have killed tens of thousands. Just as it was foolish of our government to dismiss the problem because many years elapsed until 9/11 it is equally negligent this time around, especially now that America’s policies have exacerbated the crisis.
—Read Marc Adler at thebloodcrossroads.com