Book Review by Todd Oppenheimer /SF Chronicle – 2008-02-18 22:20:45
Marching Toward Hell:
America and Islam After Iraq
By Michael Scheuer (Free Press; 364 pages; $27)
Review by Todd Oppenheimer /SF Chronicle
(February 17, 2008) — At this point in President Bush’s “war of terror” (as Borat, uh, mistakenly put it), plenty of writers and political analysts have described this campaign’s historic miscalculations. Few have done so more lethally than Michael Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA who held the unique distinction of directing the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit, until he took early retirement in 2004. Scheuer’s latest book, “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq,” his third in a kind of anti-neoconservative trilogy, is no exception. Born out of frustration with six years of grievous American mistakes, it is the angriest of the three.
As befits someone of his background, Scheuer’s arguments are hyper-practical, almost coldblooded. To foster what he calls a new America First policy, he believes the United States should stop intervening in trouble spots around the world – even if this means watching hordes of innocents being slaughtered, women’s rights being trampled and Middle Eastern oil going to other countries.
This has led many experts to call Scheuer (now famous as the anonymous author of the 2004 book “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror”) an irresponsible isolationist. Scheuer doesn’t care. Those experts – journalists, academics, civil servants, military officers, pundits, preachers, philanthropists and politicians from both parties – are what Scheuer calls “the governing elite.” Their collective blindness, timidity and, in some cases, their duplicity are the central targets of “Marching Toward Hell.”
To make his case against foreign entanglements, Scheuer quotes America’s Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution and the man he considers our greatest president, George Washington: “[A] passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils,” Washington once wrote. It creates “the illusion of an imaginary common interest […] and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and Wars of the latter.”
To Bush administration leaders, our successful involvement in the 20th century’s two world wars discredits such isolationism. Scheuer, like many administration critics, considers the comparison false. If we had responded to 9/11 the way we did to Pearl Harbor – with “a thorough, north-to-south military flaying of our Islamist enemies in Afghanistan,” as Scheuer puts it – and had stopped there, the analogy, at least to World War II, might hold. The problem, and Scheuer’s chief complaint, is that Bush didn’t complete that mission, and instead diluted and bastardized it into a campaign to create the Middle East of his fantasies.
Scheuer derives his view through a painstaking historical account drawn from hundreds of sources, including numerous al Qaeda statements and actions – a record so public that Scheuer can’t forgive political leaders for not reaching the same conclusions.
First, he argues, American actions in the Middle East – by all three recent presidents – have sent Muslims an unintended but consistent message: The United States does not understand the shifting dynamics of modern warfare, and is unsuited to win its battles. His examples begin with Vietnam and continue with the former Bush administration’s failure to “destroy Saddam’s state when they had the chance,” President Clinton’s failure to act on repeated CIA warnings about terrorists and their plans, and the current President Bush’s half-fought wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Furthermore, bin Laden’s record from 1993 forward suggests, as Scheuer has long argued, that President Bush completely misunderstands al Qaeda’s aims. The group is not fighting America’s democratic values, or even our pop culture exports. It is fighting America’s policies throughout the Middle East. “The Islamists’ indictment sheet against the U.S.,” Scheuer writes, “has been precise, limited, and consistent for more than a decade.”
One of those indictments concerns our protective approach to Israel, a policy that has only recently come under harsh scrutiny, such as in John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s book, “The Israel Lobby.” In both “Marching Toward Hell” and “Imperial Hubris,” Scheuer argues that Israel enjoys a level of American financial and diplomatic support far beyond its strategic value to the United States and far beyond what we extend to Arab countries.
That imbalance, Scheuer writes, has long energized al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts. So have the presence of U.S. troops on holy Muslim soil (not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Saudi Arabia); U.S. support for countries that, he writes, oppress Muslims (especially China, India and Russia); “U.S. exploitation of Muslim oil and suppression of its price”; and “U.S. support, protection, and funding of Arab police states.”
Unfortunately, Scheuer doesn’t fully grapple with the implications of some of these arguments. If Islamists object, for instance, to our support of Israel, would they be happy if the United States dropped that support and its support of the Arab “police states,” too? Can we then stay out of the implosion this might cause, given that Israel is the region’s military heavyweight, with its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction? To Scheuer, as long as the United States is not threatened, other nations’ wars are their own responsibility; all we should do is help the survivors get back on their feet.
There is a logic to Scheuer’s worldview, beyond American self-interest. It’s similar to the approach taken in Iraq (of all places) by the highly respected Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis. After the 2003 invasion, Mattis, according to Thomas Ricks in his book, “Fiasco,” visited Iraqi leaders in every area where he had troops. “I come in peace,” Mattis told them. “I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f- with me, I’ll kill you all.” This is tough love, international style.
Even if America’s Middle East policies were to change, aiming for some mutually respectful boundaries, Scheuer believes that two other measures should take precedence. The first is hard-nosed U.S. border security – namely, fences, trenches, watch towers, armed soldiers, even minefields. Politically awkward? Too expensive? Scheuer counters that “the billions of dollars Washington has spent to install electronic- and bio-detection gear at official border crossings, ports and airports is of use only if the Islamists are stupid enough to walk through an official entry point […] carrying explosives [and] al Qaeda identification cards.”
Second, Scheuer argues, the United States must concentrate, full bore, on finding alternatives to foreign oil, ideally through a government-sponsored research and development campaign reminiscent of the Manhattan Project (the national race, in the 1940s, for the first nuclear weapon). Until the United States is completely energy independent, Scheuer points out, the slightest trouble in the Middle East requires American interference, if only to maintain our economic stability. Because of that dependent relationship, he writes, “it is foreigners who will decide when the United States goes to war, and to add insult to injury, today’s political environment tends to label Americans who object to this reality as less than loyal.”
As should be apparent by now, the fact that CIA professionals’ analyses have been either twisted or unheeded for many years now does not sit well with Scheuer. The result, for a reader, is two-sided – one bad, one good. The negative side is that, in the course of three books, Scheuer sometimes gets stuck repeating his old arguments and old news. And, occasionally, his fervor leads him to editorialize in ways that overstate or oversimplify his case. Unfortunately, the editorializing afflicts this new book far more than “Imperial Hubris,” which was an almost uniformly solid body blow to America’s habit of pursuing unrealistic foreign policies. Still, most of Scheuer’s insights would help correct this syndrome and thus bear some repeating.
The pure positive in Scheuer’s work is that his frustrations, leavened by his decades of experience and razor-sharp intelligence, yield some unusually clever pages in “Marching Toward Hell” where he frames the terrorism challenge in entirely new ways. One example is a 19-page section, written as a memo from al Qaeda’s intelligence chief in Washington (“and we can be sure there is one”) to al Qaeda headquarters, composed in CIA style.
The memo is simultaneously humorous and believable, embarrassing and galling. “In this country, thanks to God, criticism of Israel is not allowed,” the hypothetical operative writes. When it does occur, “men are called anti-Semitic and their careers are ruined.” (This is no joke. Witness the near blacklisting of Mearsheimer and Walt.) At another point, the operative says the Americans’ “will is cracking, Brother, and even President Bush’s father’s friends – the Iraq Study Group – told him that the mujahedin are beating America. … Bush has rejected the group’s conclusions. … He has now sent five more brigades to Iraq. Fifty brigades would have been a problem for the mujahedin, but five will make no difference.” In Scheuer’s view, al Qaeda almost pities our constant flow of mistakes. Paramount among those is the way U.S. leaders continue to follow al Qaeda’s playbook, the central (non-satirical) principles of which are: “Bleed America to bankruptcy” and “Spread out American forces.”
Another clever Scheuer foil is a running scorecard, which describes and tallies al Qaeda’s successful actions against the West since 1996, and the West’s successes against al Qaeda. The score, as of 2005: the West, 77; al Qaeda, 130. (Scheuer’s most updated list is not in this new book, but in the paperback version of his first, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes.”)
Scheuer is not optimistic about the future. He believes Islamist victory will occur first in Europe, largely because of its precipitously low rate of native population growth – 1.4 live births per woman, which is a third below what’s needed for population replacement. By contrast, the birth rate in surrounding Muslim countries is a bustling 3.7.
For this reason, and some others, Scheuer sees immigrant Muslims as increasingly ascendent across that continent. For our own continent, Scheuer’s predictions aren’t much better.
“This war has the potential to last beyond our children’s lifetimes,” he wrote in “Imperial Hubris,” “and to be fought mostly on U.S. soil.” This warning, written nearly four years ago, has mostly been ignored. No wonder Scheuer wanted to update the indications of our oblivious march toward hell.
Todd Oppenheimer is a winner of the National Magazine Award and author of “The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology.” (www.flickeringmind.net)
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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