[This book review was published in the Spring 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 132-138.]

Book Review 


Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq

Michael Scheuer

Free Press, 2008 


            Michael Scheuer’s book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror first appeared four years ago.  We reviewed it extensively in our Winter 2005 issue.  Judging from the lack of discussion of any of its themes in the 2008 presidential election campaign in the United States, the book’s clarion call for Americans’ radical reevaluation of their country’s relation to the world in general and the Muslim world in particular has been studiously ignored. 

            Undaunted, Scheuer, once the head of the “bin Laden Unit” in the Central Intelligence Agency, has produced a second volume restating many of his themes, albeit with rich and updated detail, together with additional insights.  For those who haven’t read them, Imperial Hubris and the more recent Marching Toward Hell will profitably be read together.   

            There is no chance that the issues Scheuer discusses will become outdated, or transcended by developments under the incoming president.  Scheuer sees, and this reviewer agrees, that so long as Americans remain committed (as almost all are in one way or another) to universal, naïve worldwide intervention, including the futile stomping-around in large nests of fire ants, the suction into disaster will continue. 

            We won’t repeat the content of our review of Imperial Hubris or an extensive restatement of its main themes, even though those themes are basically the subject-matter of Marching Toward Hell, but it is essential briefly to recall them:  

            1.  As just indicated, Scheuer sees it as both unwise and exceedingly dangerous for Americans to treat the entire world as an object of their concern.  His thinking has much in common with Patrick Buchanan’s in favoring the pre-1898 American policy of leaving it to the other peoples of the world to resolve their own quarrels and of believing that leading-by-example is far the most efficacious course.  Buchanan and Scheuer both think that the United States took a wrong turn in 1898 (the year of the Spanish-American War), and especially under Woodrow Wilson, in actively seeking to mold the world in America’s image.  (We might well consider that the long struggle against a Communization of the world was different in kind; but that struggle did not, even as it was conducted, completely supplant the impulse toward global meliorism, which always existed as an underlay.)  Readers will recall that the cultural analyst Samuel Huntington has in recent years come to the same conclusion, citing both the danger and presumption of seeking to refashion other cultures.

            2.  As a subset of this broader point, Scheuer sees futility in America’s policy toward the Islamic world.  The mindset of America’s governing elite in both major political parties is so thoroughly Wilsonian that it has completely misunderstood, or even willfully ignored, the grievance that the large majority of Muslims, including the Islamists and such of their leaders as bin Laden, have toward the United States.  It is a profound mistake, Scheuer says, for Americans to think that “the Islamists hate us because of our freedoms and open way of life.”  Rather, although almost all Muslims admire America for its generosity and its “liberty, freedoms and elections,” this admiration in no way keeps them from detesting the United States’ policies, which undeviatingly support Israel and which, Scheuer says, “Muslims perceive as anti-Islamic.”  Scheuer tells of an important distinction that has come to be made among Islamists: bin Laden has been aware that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s denunciation of “American cultural decadence” failed to stir the Muslim masses.  Instead, he perceives that it is American interventionist policies—with their assertion of the “right to impose secular values around the world”—that fire the anger of the Islamic world.  It is with these policies most immediately in mind that Islamists are conducting what bin Laden sees as a “defensive jihad” on behalf of their own right to exist.

            3.  To many, it may seem that the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be known until the American presence is over, but Scheuer harbors no doubt: the United States has lost both wars.  To him, the efforts at nation-building to establish secular governments are futile, since each country is ungovernable on that basis.  Internal power struggles and the clandestine intervention of neighboring countries will make each a continuing cauldron.   He points to a number of specific mistakes made in the conduct of U.S. operations in both countries, but the basic strategic misconception is of overriding importance.

            4.  It isn’t just a naïve drive toward global meliorism and American hegemony that stimulates the policies Muslims despise.   In addition, Scheuer says, Americans have long-since placed themselves in “the addle-brained position of backing both sides in a vicious religious war between Israelis and Arabs.”  He argues that American foreign policy should be dictated by the pursuit of America’s national interests, and that being joined at the hip with Israel is “irrelevant and manifestly counterproductive to the national security interests of the United States.”  He points to a central problem: that a reasoned discussion of America’s support for Israel is made impossible “because critics of the relationship are shouted down as anti-Semites by the bipartisan governing elite and Israel’s U.S.-citizen acolytes and agents.”

            5.  Scheuer has stressed a number of other issues: One is the failure of the United States since the 1973 Arab oil embargo to develop a comprehensive energy policy, a failure that leaves the United States critically dependent on Middle Eastern and other suppliers.  A second is that “border control is perhaps the single most vital element of homeland security,” a point that in the wake of 9/11 should have been immediately obvious but that remains tied up in politics and ethnic ideology, with little light at the end of the tunnel, even so long as seven years later.  Yet another is the continuing failure to secure Russia’s nuclear devices, leaving open the potential that one or more will get into the hands of such an enemy as al-Qaeda.  He discusses, too, the United States’ dangerous vulnerability to Chinese debt leverage.


            This recap by no means exhausts the second book (or the first, for that matter).  Readers will find both books rewarding and provocative on these and a number of other points.  For our review here, we will limit ourselves to a few additional matters that have caught our eye for discussion:

            1.  There continues to be considerable distance between Scheuer and two other commentators who have written from the perspective of their experience in intelligence: George Tenet (the Director of Central Intelligence for a considerable time under both presidents William Clinton and George W. Bush), whose book At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA we reviewed in our Fall 2007 issue; and Richard A. Clarke (among other things, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism under the same two presidents), whose book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror we reviewed in our Fall 2004 issue.  Scheuer is especially critical of their construction, respectively, “of post hoc defenses of Clinton,” who in his opinion shares considerable blame with both Bush presidents for America’s insecurities and policy failures.  And, of course, Scheuer differs from them in his perception of a need for a radical reorientation of America’s world position along the lines mentioned in our recap here.

            2.  Scheuer dissects a concept that lies at the heart of the United States’ commitment to Israel.  He refers to “ahistorical arguments that Israel has ‘the right to exist.’”  To this, he answers that “clearly, no nation has the ‘right’ to exist… Nations exist so long as they can defend themselves, contain internal societal rot at nonfatal levels, maintain economic viability, and do not gratuitously make a constellation of more powerful enemies.  This truism applies equally to all.”  The relevance of this conceptual issue becomes apparent when he observes that “the U.S. governing elite—especially its neoconservative and liberal elements—have compounded the right-to-exist doctrine with a demand that Israel’s enemies accept that right to exist before there can be talks or negotiations.”

            3.  Although he doesn’t spell out specifics, and in fact treats the matter rather passingly, Scheuer brings up a little-remarked-upon point of major importance when he notes that international law is in many ways hopelessly out of date in an age of asymmetrical warfare conducted not by nation-states but by amorphous groups and individuals acting without regard to national borders.  Earlier treaties and conventions, he says, “were designed specifically for a world of nation-states and an environment in which a war for survival is unlikely to occur.”  Under the new conditions, military action will often need to be swift and unconstrained by national borders.  But while such action may be imperative (although far less so for the United States if by some remote chance it were to return to its self-restrained pre-1898 posture), the nations whose sovereignty is so egregiously impinged upon will have every reason to be infuriated (just as the United States would be if its own borders were ignored).  An issue for the future—by no means easily resolved—will be what conventions the peoples of the world can agree upon that address the new realities.  (One of the issues has to do with what is to be done with prisoners taken in asymmetrical warfare when there is no foreseeable end to the hostilities.)  A new consensus is needed, but faces virtually insuperable obstacles in a world that is so divided and in which the United States is now held is such low esteem.

            4.  Scheuer tells us much that is worth knowing about Islam.

            There was an “intensely negative Muslim reaction to the 1990 introduction of U.S.-led military forces into the Arabian Peninsula.”  This sensitivity to any foreign presence there is explained by history.  Muhammad was born and spent his life in Arabia.  Iraq is a close second to Arabia in Muslim eyes, since for five hundred years Iraq (according to Bernard Lewis, whom Scheuer quotes) “was the seat of the caliphate” and “the scene of its major achievements.”  Because all of the Arabian Peninsula is considered sacred, the relocation of American forces to such places as Qatar has not assuaged the anger.

            The Sunni-Shiite split is 1400 years old, and although the two are able to work together on occasion, Scheuer predicts a “violent final reckoning.”  He considers a Sunni-Shia civil war within Iraq a certainty.

            On a longer-term basis, a change is occurring within Islam.  Clerics are losing influence now that something akin to the Protestant Reformation is occurring, “restoring the direct relationship between man and God and [eliminating] the intermediate role” of the clerics.  One prominent commentator predicts that this will lead to a moderating and liberalizing of the Islamic faith.  Scheuer, however, isn’t so sure the effects will be benign, and points to the vicious religious wars that accompanied the Protestant Reformation in Europe.    

            It is incorrect, Scheuer says, to think that Islamists seek “a worldwide Caliphate.”  Instead, “the words of the main Islamist leaders… amount to an argument that you have your civilizations and lands, stay in yours, stay out of ours, and leave us alone.”  With this as its appeal, Islamism, Scheuer reports, is advancing rapidly among the “educated, under-thirty generation” and “in places like Thailand, Bangladesh, Somalia, and the North Caucasus.”  The latter includes such former Soviet republics as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Ingushetia.

            We should perhaps note that this assessment, that Muslims do not have a worldwide mission, is made problematic by the demographic invasion of Europe by Muslims.  Scheuer does see that the demographic swamping portends the demise of Europe as we have known it, especially given the presence within Europe of a “failed governing elite.”  But he is focused on what bin Laden and other Islamist leaders demand, and the aspirations they express do not include world domination.  If Islam becomes predominant in Europe, it will not be because a worldwide Caliphate has been an objective, but because Europe has itself permitted the transformation.  (A dilemma for Europe is that even if its leaders had the will to resist its demise, the long-term decline in the numbers of the native population would seem to create a need for considerable immigration.  Solutions could be found, but probably won’t be, in somehow increasing the native birth rate or in adopting much labor-saving technology.)  

            5.  Our review would be incomplete if we didn’t throw into hotchpot for discussion some points where we think Scheuer’s analysis is either weak or flawed.  

            He several times expresses criticism of the United States’ support for Arab police states, and points out how this support is cause for one of the principal objections bin Laden has to American policy.  There are two problems with his criticism: one is that the current tyrannies might well be replaced by brutal theocracies, even though such a thing is not what bin Laden desires; another is Scheuer’s own inconsistency.  At one point, he says that “Saddam Hussein and Bashir al-Assad [in Syria] were strong, ruthless, and reliable de facto U.S. allies.”  Though despots, he argues that they were a bulwark against the spread of Islamism.  But, of course, American policy can’t have it both ways: it can’t support the tyrannies and side with bin Laden in opposing them at the same time.  Scheuer’s inconsistency on this point is mitigated in concept, though, by his explanation that he does not intend to make “a purist’s argument against any U.S. support at any time for an authoritarian or tyrannical government.”  He simply admonishes that “these kinds of relationships should be kept to the necessary minimum and the ties should be transitory.”

            A justified criticism would be that Scheuer sometimes overstates a case, or fails to make needed qualifications, in a way that can damage the world’s view of the United States.  In several places, he advocates the use of massive and indiscriminate force without regard to collateral damage and the loss of civilian life.  A purpose would be to punish Islamic populations “until they will no longer allow the Islamists to base among them.” 

            He proposes this even though he is aware that the United States has lost its reputation for “evenhandedness and decency” and that Muslims perceive that the United States “assigns a far higher worth to non-Muslim lives than Muslim.”  He does not seem to be aware of the danger of Americans’ coming to be known internationally as “the new Nazis”—a reputation that, if it takes hold, can bedevil the American people for centuries to come.  Nor is he sensitive to the immense value of humanity’s moving, if and when it can (admittedly a rather remote possibility), to a moderation of its warfare, which in the twentieth century rose to horrific proportions. 

            Scheuer is right when he points disapprovingly to the pusillanimous disinclination of American presidents to have gone after al-Qaeda’s training camps and leaders in the strongest possible way, and to such a thing as President Clinton’s decision to strike Saddam’s intelligence headquarters “in the middle of the night so as to limit casualties.”  But disgust over such shows of weakness ought not to lead to the other extreme of unbridled ruthlessness.  Scheuer would make his point a lot better if he combined his endorsement of ruthlessness with a reminder that essentially he wants the United States greatly to limit its war-fighting by staying out of other people’s quarrels.  It seems clear from the entire context of his book that the ruthlessness he favors would come into play only where palpable American national interests are at stake, such as for the country’s survival. If he were to remind the reader of that, his seeming bellicosity would be greatly diminished.

            The same goes for such a statement as “the only country I care about is the United States… Foreign nations are important only insofar as they can benefit America.”  Again, his larger point is that the United States should avoid foreign entanglements and limit its concerns to its own imperatives.  But this is poorly stated when it is put in terms of not caring about others.  Of course, Americans will always care.  Scheuer recognizes this himself when he quotes from John Quincy Adams’ 1821 statement that “she [the United States] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” which nevertheless adds that “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be.”            

            Overstatement leading to misunderstanding, however, touches only a small part of the book.  Scheuer’s discussion is thoughtful and provocative on a great many issues that should be receiving serious attention by the American public and its leaders.  It is likely that much future tragedy lurks in the silence about them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Dwight D. Murphey