Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book Review: Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq
Michael Scheuer
Free Press, 364pp

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer’s first two books, Through our Enemies’ Eyes and Imperial Hubris, provided timely and necessary correctives to Western governments’ contention that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Islamists in general had declared and were waging war against the West because of some fundamental hatred for the democracy, rights, mores, consumerism and social habits that it epitomizes. Rather than a madman, Scheuer rightfully portrayed bin Laden as an adept student of Islam and a not unreasonable voice for the millions of Muslims who have clearly defined political grievances against the US for its encroachment in the Arabian Peninsula, unqualified support for Israel, tolerance of authoritarian regimes (Russia, China) that repress Muslim minorities, open support for and arming of police states (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Uzbekistan) that can only be characterized as an affront to Islam, and now the open-ended occupation of two Muslim countries.

Based on his experience as an intelligence officer and as the head of the unit in charge of hunting bin Laden, Scheuer’s main argument that the US and the West would be locked in a war without end unless they changed the policies that were generating so much anger in the Muslim world — policies that, as he argued, bin Laden has clearly decried in his declarations of war against the US — had much traction, so much so that it was imperative that I quote him in Smokescreen, my upcoming book on the subject and Canada’s disastrous participation in the US-led “war” on terrorism.

Sadly, aside from reiterating those very helpful points, Scheuer’s latest book, Marching Toward Hell offers little else, aside from a contradiction in strategy that can only be described as apocalyptic. Building his argument toward a prescription for success, Scheuer savages every US president (except Ronald Regan), non-governmental organizations, Amnesty International, leftists, peace activists, "antinationalists," neoconservatives, academics, Europe, expatriates and the Clinton and Bush administrations, and bemoans the lack of courage that, in his view, is necessary to win the war militarily, through means that would put to shame the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the carpet bombing of Vietnam. Through vengeance disguised as Machiavellian wisdom, Scheuer writes that only the muscular, no-holes-barred use of military force that punishes both non-uniformed terrorists, their supporters and those who tolerate their presence in their midst (that is, civilian populations) — the incineration of Kabul and Kandahar soon after Sept. 11, 2001, for example — would bring back global awe of the US’ power to deter its enemies, the kind of deterrence that existed at the height of the Cold War, which Scheuer seems to miss dearly.

The contradiction in Scheuer’s argument could not be starker: While, at one level, he correctly and wisely identifies the 30-year-old grievances that gave rise to the jihad against the US, and furthermore argues for a change of course in such areas as support for Israel and Saudi Arabia and over-dependence on oil, he then mortally undercuts his argument by saying that overwhelming force — using an arsenal that includes landmines, depleted uranium ammunition and total disregard for collateral damage — should be used to exterminate the enemy. Given that he has named the political grievances in all of his three books, it defies the imagination that he would then propose military action on such a scale as would not only fail to address those grievances but surely fuel even greater hatred for US policies and potentially spark a cycle of violence from which no one could possibly benefit. If the US' problem in the Islamic world can be fixed by correcting its policies — which Scheuer points out on numerous occasions — why the use of overwhelming force? For some quaint reason, Scheuer fails to understand that the two are not subsets of the same strategy.

To his credit, Scheuer gets many things right that even other intelligence officers fail to grasp, including the West’s self-defeating policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, or the fact that Iran should be left alone and that the invasion of Iraq was not only a fiasco but prevented efforts in Afghanistan, where he rightly sees defeat, both on military terms and in the “hearts and minds” campaign, on the horizon, if not already upon us. On those points and in his assessment of the nature of the al-Qaeda threat, Scheuer offers quality advice that one wishes our leaders would follow. But unfortunately, his anger, thirst for vengeance and ostensible need to demonstrate his support for the military and intelligence officers is such that it overwhelms the reader and, as David Rieff wrote in his review in the New York Times, makes it difficult for the reader to take him seriously, just as it is difficult to take seriously another proponent of overwhelming force, Ralph Peters, for whom Mr. Scheuer seems to have boundless admiration.

When he sticks to assessing the nature of the threat, Scheuer has few equals and remains a helpful guide. But the strategic prescriptions he provides in his latest book will — and wisely should — be ignored.

1 comment:

Robert said...

If there is anyone who has profoundly affected my view of the war on terror, it is Mr. Scheuer. As you note, he displays a consummate understanding of the situation.

However, even from his first books, he was hard to take seriously when it came to his antidotes for an ill-executed war. In this case, Scheuer's bloodlust is certainly not new. There's a quote from Imperial Hubris that has always stuck with me. It's from the last Chapter, entitled "The Way Ahead: A Few Suggestions for Debate" under the heading "Get Used to and Good at Killing" (p. 241 in my copy):

"To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden. Progress will be measured by the pace of killing, and, yes, by body counts. Not the fatuous body counts of Vietnam, but precise counts that will run extremely large numbers. The piles of dead will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms."

In another place, if I recall correctly, he says we either have to fight as described above or completely withdraw from the region. I read this while studying philosophy in Paris, so I had been reading a lot of Leo Strauss. I remember asking myself if the two choices Scheuer gave were an indirect way of saying that we have no choice but to leave. Now, though, it seems that he really believes that this is the best way forward, which is surprising for someone who knows so much about the situation.