[This review was published in the Winter 2005 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 517-524.]


Book Review 


Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror

Michael Scheuer

Potomac Books, Inc., 2004 (new epilogue, 2005) 


            Imperial Hubris considers a predicament that the author sees has been brought about for the United States by the great sea-change in American outlook and policy that occurred in 1898.  That was the year the U.S. went from (1) being a good world citizen but one that minded its own business, intervening very little in the affairs of other nations, to (2) carrying a Wilsonian torch that would make the United States the policeman and social worker to the world.   Michael Scheuer sees that in a world full of untold complexities, animosities and dangers, a policy of minding everyone’s business will predictably lead to embroilments, some of which, like “tar babies” that have been struck, simply won’t let go.

            One of those areas of complexity and danger is the Islamic world, which consists of 1.3 billion people.  Scheuer doesn’t much consider the demographic threat that mass Islamic immigration poses to Europe—and thus he is far from taking a full view of the Islamic challenge to the West.  What he does focus on is, however, important enough in itself: the threat that comes from the worldwide Islamist insurgency, led most especially by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  A point he emphasizes is that the threat to the United States from this insurgency is generated primarily as a response to American policies that are perceived by the Islamic world as threatening and that span several decades. (It is well to notice that this point about the reaction to American policies would not apply nearly as much to the demographic, cultural challenge from Islamic immigration.)  These policies, in turn, have only partly been called into existence by the imperatives of American national interest.  Mostly, he says, they have resulted from Americans’ post-1898 and especially post-1989 mindset, which is messianic, interventionist, and mixed with a profound naivete, cultural ignorance, and presumption.

            Who is Michael Scheuer and with what authority does he speak? The holder of two masters degrees and a doctorate in history, he was a career officer in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1982 until his resignation in 2004.  Most to the point, his last major assignment in the CIA was as head of its “Bin Laden Unit.”  He was demoted from this in 1999, he says, “after I documented numerous fixable problems in the intelligence community.”  Imperial Hubris and his prior book Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (both published under the pseudonym “Anonymous,” as required by the CIA, with the publication of Imperial Hubris having been delayed by the CIA until after the 9/11 attacks) demonstrate that he is a powerful independent thinker, and in no sense a bureaucratic time-server.  The power of his convictions and independence of his thought would, of course, have made him an eventual “outsider” in any organization.  Nevertheless, the CIA consented to the publication of each of his books, which is surprising.  He speculates about the reasons, but says he was never told why.

            Scheuer is outspoken, thoughtful, and radical in the sense that he is willing to probe far below superficialities. Imperial Hubris is full of factual information, and at the conceptual level never hesitates to analyze prevailing shibboleths.   It is a book of major importance that will provoke thought even for those who for one reason or another disagree fundamentally with him.   No review can cover all its points.  Those who are especially interested in the intelligence community per se will, of course, want to study it.  We will bypass that here, however, so that we can consider some of his other areas of emphasis:

            1.  Scheuer sees bin Laden and Al Qaeda as a leading part of a worldwide Islamic insurgency.  “Much of Islam is fighting us, and more is leaning that way.”  No one nation has stood as the Muslim world center since in 1924 the British “completed destruction of the Ottoman Caliphate.”  Now, there is a broad awakening throughout the Islamic swath, brought about in part by the “enormous symbolic and emotive power in the Islamic world” of the victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  The “militant Islamists” who make up the insurgency come from both the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.  This awakening sees the existing Muslim rulers in most Islamic countries as unrepresentative, corrupt oligarchs.  Accordingly, there are Islamist insurgencies in several countries, including southern Thailand, Bangladesh, northern Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, and the Philippines. 

            Much of the Islamic world, Scheuer says, shares bin Laden’s perception that several decades of American policy have been profoundly anti-Islamic.  The result is a broad consensus among Islamic leaders in support of what they see as a “defensive jihad.” Bin Laden gave voice to its essentially defensive nature when he declared that “if [the Muslims] don’t have security, the Americans will not have it… This is the formula to live and let live.”  As someone fully conversant with bin Laden’s pronouncements over a several-year period, Scheuer says that “the goal is to deter us from attacking the things they love.”  Consistently with its defensive nature, Al Qaeda is not, Scheuer concludes, seeking to conquer new lands.   (We have already noted that this doesn’t take into account the on-going demographic invasion of Europe.  However, this “invasion” is of a peculiar sort, being something that is occurring only by virtue of Europe’s own erstwhile encouragement of it.)  Because the insurgency is united in perceiving American policies as the primary threat to Islam, Scheuer says “the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”

            2.  Bin Laden, Scheuer tells us, has not adopted the wholesale condemnation of the West that we have seen in the Ayatollah Khomeini and in so many leading Islamist spokesmen.  Instead, he has shrewdly “focused on six specific, bread-and-butter issues on which there is widespread agreement among Muslims.”  Scheuer favors a two-pronged American response that will simultaneously pursue vigorous military action of a punitive rather than nation-building nature to go after the insurgents and, at the same time, adjust American policies toward the Islamic world by adopting a non-interventionism that will mute the hatred and cause the Muslims themselves no longer to feel threatened.  The alternatives to this, he says, are either to go on losing in a catastrophic prolonged conflict against an inchoate enemy that uses asymmetrical warfare or to go all-out militarily as the United States did against Germany and Japan in World War II, being willing to kill millions, including civilians, if need be. 

            This, we know, frames quite a predicament for the United States: the American people are highly unlikely to condone what would be history’s bloodiest military campaign (and we might well question whether such a thing would be “successful,” whatever that would mean under those circumstances).  It is an understatement, too, to say that it is highly unlikely that the United States will fundamentally reorient its policies, readopting the pre-1898 “city on the hill” concept of non-intervention.  Nor is it likely, speaking more specifically, that the United States will repudiate in any major way the interventions that have so long infuriated the Islamic world.  If these alternatives are essentially impossible, this leaves the third alternative, which is to be bled white.  (There are, of course, ways this three-pronged dilemma might be escaped.  In the September 26, 2005 issue of The American Conservative, James Kurth has speculated about the possibility that the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq may engage in civil war and that this may divide Islam between gigantic warring Sunni and Shi’a factions, who may then “consider their greatest enemy to be not the United States, but each other.”  Moreover, it is perhaps well to keep in mind that it is often a mistake to do a straight-line extrapolation from existing social forces.  Ebb and flow, violent energy followed by fatigue, and mutations of ideologies, coalitions and attitudes—all of these, and more, often make things that seem clearly predictable far less so.)  

            What are the American policies to which so many Muslims object, and that have become the focus of bin Laden’s appeal?  Scheuer tells us that bin Laden has six foreign policy goals based on these objections: “First, the end of all U.S. aid to Israel, the elimination of the Jewish state, and, in its stead, the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state.  Second, the withdrawal of all U.S. and Western military forces from the Arabian peninsula… and all Muslim territory.  Third, the end of all U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Fourth, the end of U.S. support for… the oppression of Muslims by the Chinese, Russian, Indian, and other governments.  Fifth, restoration of full Muslim control over the Islamic world’s energy resources… Sixth, the replacement of U.S.-protected Muslim regimes that do not govern according to Islam….”  

            3.  Because Scheuer calls for a profound change in American interventionism  toward a renewal of the United States’ traditional non-interventionist philosophy, Imperial Hubris should provoke, especially within an American society that prides itself on being “the world’s greatest democracy,” an equally profound debate.  Certainly Scheuer has thrown down the gauntlet, expressing ideas that, if discussed seriously, will shake “political correctness” to its very foundations.  Nowhere do we see this more starkly than in his discussion of America’s decades-long protection of Israel.  Consider this: “Like America or any state, Israel has a right to exist if it can defend itself or live peacefully with its neighbors… The question is whether U.S. interests require Americans to be Israel’s protectors and endure the endless blood-and-treasure costs of that role.  Status quo U.S. policy toward Israel will result in unending war with Islam.”  With this, he has framed an issue that Americans might have done well to debate honestly and vigorously at any time during the past sixty years.  But in his “new epilogue” that concludes the 2005 edition of Imperial Hubris, Scheuer says plaintively that “to date, I have not generated any notable debate on the U.S. policies that benefit bin Laden.”  Those who are familiar with the dynamics of the American public’s complacency (on a great many things) cannot be surprised by the lassitude that has met his efforts.  Even if the debate were to take place, we can well understand the enormity of the redirection that would have to occur through it.  A reader might do well to reread the paragraph that precedes this one, and ask himself how many of bin Laden’s objections to American policy are ever likely to be acceptable to the American people.

            Scheuer’s challenge proceeds in other ways, too, that will shock the sensibilities of many Americans today, as we see when we read the implications of his rejection of the Wilsonian project.  Notice particularly the final sentence in his quote from Ralph Peters’s book Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?, a book that Scheuer says “still stuns, haunts, and encourages me”: “We Americans [Peters writes] must avoid fantastic schemes to rescue those for whom we bear no responsibility… In dealing with nationalism and fundamentalism we must be willing to let the flames burn themselves out whenever we are not in danger of catching fire ourselves.  If we want to avoid the needless, thankless deaths of our own countrymen, we must learn to watch others die with equanimity” [this reviewer’s italics].  This says very starkly what is involved in staying out of other people’s conflicts.  Do Americans have the stomach for it?  And what will bring them even to think about it?

            Other cornerstones of today’s ideological edifice that come under attack in Imperial Hubris are the twin notions that Western values are universally applicable and that Western-style “democracy” can be established everywhere.  So far as the universality of American values in particular is concerned, he points out that “most of the world outside North America is not, does not want to be, and probably will never be just like us.”  He quotes historian Joshua Mitchell as observing that even such a value as individual liberty “is not a universal aspiration.  Other goods captivate the minds of other people from other lands, order, honor, and tribal loyalties being the most obvious.  And … these other goods orient these people no less powerfully than freedom orients us….”  Scheuer adds that “many of the things most regard as welcome evidence of modernity… are offensive to those who deeply hold the Islamic faith.”

            The idea that the United States can export democracy to peoples who do not want it and are in many ways not fitted to it seems ludicrous and dangerous to Scheuer.  Again, he cites Ralph Peters, who has written that “our insistence on instant democracy in shattered states… is our greatest contribution to global instability.”  Scheuer writes that “our elites are so full of themselves, they… believe an American empire in the twenty-first century not only is our destiny, but our duty to mankind, especially to the unwashed, unlettered, undemocratic, unwhite, unshaved, and antifeminist Muslim masses.”

            4.  He challenges yet another shibboleth when he points out that “since 1945, America has come to view domestic and foreign affairs through a severely legalistic lens.”  This has led to a “law-enforcement mentality that infects U.S. conduct in the war on terror.”  “Arrest and conviction,” he says, is a “superb tactical tool,” but is “not a war winner.”  Fundamentally, he argues, today’s conflict must be seen as a military, not a criminal, matter.  (This is not to say that he believes a purely military solution is feasible.  More than anything, he supports a let-alone policy that would remove most of the reasons for Muslims to feel threatened by the United States.)

            5.  Scheuer predicts the United States will inevitably lose in both Afghanistan and Iraq, although a semblance of democracy may stay as a prop as long as American forces remain.  “I fear,” he says, “al Qaeda sees the world clearer than we.  ‘We thank God for appeasing us with the dilemma in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ Ayman al-Zawahiri said in late 2003.  ‘The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries.  If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death.’”

            Scheuer believes the war in Afghanistan was necessary in the wake of 9/11, but is highly critical of the one-month delay that occurred while the United States solicited allies, since that delay allowed al Qaeda time to disperse and thus avoid the destruction that an instant and massive punitive strike might have inflicted.  Since the United States had “no savage, preplanned response,” it lost the opportunity to “decapitate” al Qaeda and the Taleban.  Instead of a punitive counterstrike, American forces and its surrogates took over the country, with the task of nation-building afterwards.  The result was a government that amounts to the rule of the Tajiks and Uzbeks over the majority Pashtuns.  “The thing that… American experts knew best… was that there was no possibility of installing a broad-based, Western-style, democratic, power-sharing central government in Kabul.  They knew that any attempt to do so would inevitably fail….”  The government favorable to the United States headed by Hamid Karzai is isolated in the capital: “Karzai is not much more than Kabul’s mayor, is unable to travel in the city or around the country without the shield of foreign troops.”  Scheuer predicts that the diverse elements in Afghanistan will eventually coalesce into “a slowly accelerating shift that will end in Afghans of all ethnic groups fighting to evict U.S.-led forces.”  The result, “at some point,” will be “the restoration of a Pashtun-dominated Islamist government that would mirror the Taleban in all but name.”  Colonel David H. Hackworth has said “Afghanistan is our tar baby, and we are stuck fast.”  A study of “Brit/Soviet/Afghan history” would have shown the folly of assuming responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

            The same tar-baby dilemma faces the United States in Iraq, according to Scheuer. As the United States leads the Iraqis through a series of nation-building steps, it faces the ultimate reality that Iraq is “apparently ungovernable” (in the absence of a despotic power holding its antagonistic elements together).  Indeed, the United States has created a magnet that draws in the worldwide Islamic insurgency, energizing it and providing it a real-life training ground.  Since “Iraq is the second holiest land in Islam,” both Iran and Saudi Arabia will be motivated eventually to “intervene, at least clandestinely, to stop the creation of, respectively, a Sunni or Shia successor state.”  “There is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The U.S. invasion of Iraq is Osama bin Laden’s gift from America….”   


            Scheuer pretty well sums up Imperial Hubris when, near its end, he says “we are, overall, in a hell of a fix.”  Each aspect of the predicament is fashioned out of the consequences flowing from one or another set of ideas and enthusiasms held either by the policy-forming elite or by the American people in general.       We know that similar fixations have led to other equally-threatening predicaments: in economics, with the deindustrialization of the United States and the sale, through the decades-long series of trade deficits, of many billions of dollars of its income-producing assets to others; and in demographics, with the rapid change in population that is predicted to make Americans of European origin a minority by the middle of this century. 

            Americans pride themselves as “pragmatic” and “non-ideological,” at the same time they are among the most ideologically-determined peoples in the world.  “Ideology,” in the sense of a systematic mediation of reality, is intrinsic in people’s attempt to understand complex events and is even essential as a social cement.   But an ideology, if inadequate or misdirected, can also trap its holders in a destructive mental world.  Ideologies of this latter kind, unperceived as such, are America’s Achilles’ heel.

                                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey