The ‘war on terror’ as displacement activity
Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror, Anonymous, Potomac Books, 2005.
Since the publication of the hardback edition of this book in 2004, Anonymous has been revealed to be Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit in the late 1990s. So he has a lot of experience when it comes to terrorism and counterterrorism.
Scheuer is at his most compelling when lamenting the impossibility of exporting and imposing Western democracy and capitalism on those who, for whatever reason, reject such values. The consequence, in his words, is that the Karzai regime in Afghanistan is unsustainable - ‘a self-made illusion on life-support’. He notes the need to understand a problem’s history and context, and complains that ‘the way we see and interpret people and events outside North America is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centredness amounting to what I called “imperial hubris” in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes’ (his previous book).
Scheuer’s overall thesis is fairly straightforward: the West does not face a terrorist problem but rather is confronted by a worldwide Islamic insurgency that requires political will and military means to be resolved. Above all, he says, the West is not hated for what it believes in, but rather for what it does - largely to the Arab world. So despite being a tough-minded Catholic conservative, Scheuer sounds remarkably like a whole spectrum of political opinion, from the radical left through to establishment-minded think-tanks (such as Chatham House in the UK), when he suggests the West has a self-serving interest in oil and should stop interfering in the Middle East.
How could this be? A clue lies in Scheuer’s book itself. You can’t help but notice that throughout the book he actually identifies a different enemy to the Islamist insurgency that he says must be destroyed. From the preface through to the final chapter, Scheuer bemoans the ‘moral cowardice’ of senior leaders, political elites, the media and even generals, as well as some in the intelligence community, who have become ‘risk averse’, ‘hold expertise and experience in low esteem, perhaps even contempt’, and who would rather have a quiet life than confront the pressing difficulties facing American society.
Nor, would it appear, do the problems confronting the US today simply consist of the ‘anti-Western sentiments of Muslims’. Scheuer also has other targets: political correctness, multiculturalism, creeping legalism and a culture of precaution in Washington and beyond. Indeed, his suggestion that, ‘In a society bereft of talented, manly, pious, and dignified leaders, the Mujahideen are both legitimate and romantic heroes’, could be taken as a description of certain Western societies as well as Muslim ones.
The work is littered with a liturgy of Western failings. ‘Style over credibility every time’, he moans, presumably emanating from some of ‘Washington’s desk-bound chest beaters’. By the end, he subscribes to Niall Ferguson’s therapeutically informed description of the US as a ‘colossus with an attention deficiency disorder’.
Some of these criticisms are pointed and well-made, but they surely point to a prior battle to be engaged in - at home - before his preferred option of a military engagement with insurgents abroad? It might also suggest that if so many Muslims hate the West - as he suggests they do - then maybe they got their ideas from far closer to home than most commentators care to imagine.
If Scheuer had spent a bit more time reading Clausewitz rather than Sun Tzu - the preferred strategist of the neo-cons - and the American Civil War generals he liberally cites throughout, he might have got to the bottom of his conundrum. For Clausewitz understood that the ‘friction’ of war necessitates winning a few battles at home prior to going overseas to teach ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a lesson or two.
In February 2003 the US State Department, in its National Strategy for Countering Terrorism, noted the need to engage in a ‘war of ideas’ - although what it meant by this remains unclear. Since then, the ideas element has been rather thin on the ground, beyond the bland attempts to superficially rebrand the US (attempts lambasted by Scheuer). Western leaders are conscious of the dilemma but have continuously skirted the issue when talking of the need to defend what they label as ‘our values’ or ‘our way of life’.
What values and way of life are they referring to? If it is the long list of morally corrupt and culturally degenerate mores and habits Scheuer decries, then that is hardly going to cut it in the eyes of Muslims or anybody else. It is only in contrast to these home-grown failings that bin Laden and Al Qaeda - in what is very much an image war - make themselves look impressive or important, even if they claim a list of other, more substantive, grievances, from US occupation of the Arabian peninsula to Western support for Muslim tyrants.
Scheuer effectively concedes that it is the West’s own decaying system of values and moral confusion that is the real problem when he says that bin Laden and his coreligionists benefit from ‘a shared mechanism for perceiving and reacting to world events’. It is the loss of any broader sense of purpose at home that drives Scheuer to exalt bin Laden when he notes that at least ‘he speaks in specifics and matches words with deeds’.
Scheuer identifies how Muslims ‘appear to genuinely love their God, faith and fellow Muslims in a passionate, intimate way that is foreign to me and, I suspect, to many in America and the West’, and argues that what Western commentators label ‘suicide’ (as in suicide bombings) is actually better understood as the sacrifice of those who still perceive ‘a cause that is greater than themselves’. All of this is a far cry from the culture of leaks and celebration of defeat he bemoans among Westerners in the closing stages of his book - a society where ‘the threat level wanders between “don’t worry” and “prepare to die”’.
The notion that ‘the enemy is at home’ might seem a step too far for some, but as Scheuer himself concludes: ‘The United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.’ So surely he and others would better spend their time coming up with an appropriate response rather than calling for more warfare ‘over there’.
First published by spiked, 9 March 2006