The Wrong War
MARCHING TOWARD HELL
America and Islam After Iraq.
By Michael Scheuer.
364 pp. Free Press. $27.
Despite his many lapses and limitations — above all, his tendency to see any other viewpoint as a product of cowardice, stupidity, venality or insufficient loyalty to the United States — Michael Scheuer made significant contributions to the post-9/11 debate with his first two books. In “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror,” which he wrote anonymously while still serving as a C.I.A. officer, Scheuer anatomized Al Qaeda and the threat it posed. His earlier book, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America,” was more of a harangue. Nonetheless, it offered insights into bin Laden’s motivations as well as the context of the Islamic world in which he operated.
Above all, Scheuer argued — incontrovertibly though by no means as originally as he claimed — that successive American administrations had gravely underestimated the jihadist threat. Scheuer spoke with authority, having begun his career with the C.I.A.’s covert operation to arm the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation; he ended it as the head of the agency’s unit charged with pursuing and eliminating Osama bin Laden. While his books are not by themselves sufficient to understand bin Laden — Scheuer has neither the evocative skills of Peter Bergen and Lawrence Wright, nor their calm ability to contextualize a narrative — they contributed greatly to that understanding.
Unfortunately, Scheuer’s new book, “Marching Toward Hell,” grandiloquently and somewhat misleadingly subtitled “America and Islam After Iraq,” has all the weaknesses of his earlier works with almost none of their strengths. Scheuer appears to be frustrated by the fact that his analysis was not adopted by the Bush administration. Instead of thinking that this was due to honest disagreements or to legitimate policy constraints, Scheuer believes that darker forces are at play — stupidity at best, but possibly even treason, a charge Scheuer stops just short of making against the neoconservatives on a number of occasions.
“I argued in both books,” he writes, “that there was no inherent reason why U.S. presidents and others in the American governing elite could honestly misunderstand the motivations of our Islamist enemies and the centrality of U.S. foreign policy to that motivation and to mobilizing support for the Islamists in the modern world.”
From that entirely defensible contention Scheuer makes the astonishing leap to the view that America was betrayed by virtually the entire American policy elite — from the neoconservatives (who, he believes, are more loyal to Israel than to the United States) to George Soros, from the Bush administration and Senator John McCain to the 9/11 Commission, not to mention the Rev. Franklin Graham and Hillary Clinton. And yet that is Scheuer’s claim — one he fails to back up, let alone demonstrate conclusively. At times, he seems apprehensive about the effect his jeremiad may have on his readers. “I am the first to admit,” he concedes, “that this book is eclectic, impressionistic and at times idiosyncratic.”
If only that were its only problems. But in his anger and scorn, Scheuer takes his readers on a breathless ride across what for him is an apocalyptic landscape peopled by venal bureaucrats, craven politicians (Bill Clinton the one-world pseudo-European; George W. Bush the inept conventional thinker), closet Zionists and liberal internationalists (Clinton again, but also Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations). Only the courageous if routinely traduced men and women of the intelligence services and the military, and a few courageous, lonely voices like himself, are still carrying on the good fight. These frontline warriors may have scored tactical victories, but for Scheuer the result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a continuing strategic disaster.
The reason that America is losing and losing badly, Scheuer insists, is the internationalism, Wilsonianism, one-worldism — Scheuer uses all these terms as epithets — that have infected the policy elite. For him, the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were inspired by the missionary urge to undertake democracy-building, not the cold pursuit of American interests, which pursuit Scheuer, seemingly deaf to its historical echoes, calls in one of his concluding chapters “America First.”
This does not mean that Scheuer is for America standing down from the war against the jihadists. To the contrary, he believes that the United States must stop supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia but at the same time fight a far more savage war against bin Laden and his ilk. Here Scheuer really does surrender any claim to being taken seriously.
For his prescriptions are the stuff of fulminant talk radio. He would deploy the American military along the Mexican border and, failing that, encourage governors to deploy the National Guard. Meanwhile, the war against the jihadists must be ratcheted up. “The force we will have to employ,” Scheuer writes, “will be far in excess of anything most Americans have seen in their lifetimes, as will be the resulting casualties and physical damage.” Since many living Americans saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the saturation bombing of North Vietnamese cities, in their lifetimes, one shudders to imagine what Scheuer may have in mind when he uses the words “far in excess.”
Of course, he never says exactly what he has in mind, but what can something far in excess of nuclear weapons, large-scale bombing and the dropping of toxic chemical defoliants consist of? And while Scheuer fancies his ruthlessness to be Machiavellian realism, his arguments — innocent as they are of any economic considerations other than America’s dependence on fossil fuels — are pure militarist utopianism. It is as if Scheuer could wish away the fact that the United States exists in a global economic system from which, for all the protectionist hysteria, the country remains a net beneficiary and that would be destroyed by the war he seems so fervently to desire.
Presumably, Scheuer would argue that in calling for the United States to jettison its commitments to Israel and to repressive Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia while pursuing a savage war against Al Qaeda, he has shown that he understands war is a continuation of politics by other means. But in fact, he has missed the point of Clausewitz’s famous dictum, which, in the context of the struggle against the jihadists, is that a war that destroys the world economy is not a war worth fighting. Perhaps if Scheuer had studied the cold war a little more carefully — rather than formulaically praising Ronald Reagan and denouncing all his successors for their complacency and lack of vision — he would have understood that often the best way to use the military is not to employ maximum force, and that to understand this is neither cowardice nor venality nor lack of imagination, but realism.
“Marching Toward Hell” is an enormously crude, reductionist account of the challenges posed by the jihadists, and as such, difficult to take seriously. Scheuer knows a great deal about Osama bin Laden, a fair bit about jihadism, something about Islam. But his view is extraordinarily narrow. Doubtless this was no impediment when he was running the bin Laden unit at the C.I.A., but it makes his large geostrategic assertions (let alone his bluff, complexity-free assertions about American history and the essential nature of the Republic) largely worthless. He flatters himself that he is a modern-day Patrick Henry. He’s mistaken.