A former CIA analyst is critical of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. But his solution — a re-evaluation of foreign policy and then even bloodier engagement — doesn’t endear him to the left or the right.
Michael Scheuer is the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Potomac Books, 2004). He headed the CIA’s Osama bin Laden task force from 1996 to 1999, and last summer published the book anonymously.
Scheuer argues that Osama bin Laden is not a madman with an apocalyptic vision, but rather a sane and charismatic figure whose anti-American rhetoric appeals to large numbers of Muslims. In contrast to Bush administration pronouncements that America’s enemies despise our way of life, Scheuer says bin Laden has been quite clear that he is opposed to policies of the United States, not its character.
A Republican and self-described moderate isolationist, Scheuer has upset critics on the right and the left. He says the U.S. has no choice but to wage merciless war against its enemies, even as it reconsiders policies that have made it unpopular in the Muslim world.
Did you feel you had to quit the agency after 22 years in order to write and speak freely?
Traditionally the CIA within its ranks has been very open to dissenting views. That changed a bit in the last several years under [former director George] Tenet. Clearly the consensus view within the CIA, for example, was that the war in Iraq was a tremendous mistake. It’s not clear, I think, to very many people in the CIA, whether that message ever got to the president or not.
But I didn’t resign over any kind of disagreement with the agency. I resigned because I had addressed a letter to the two U.S. intelligence committees of the Congress citing a number of personal failures that lead to 9/11, that happened among senior leadership in the intelligence community.
And I never got a response from any committee, or even an acknowledgement that my letter had been received. And it was for that reason I resigned, rather than anything to do with the agency.
The book has sold 150,000 copies and has been excerpted in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Did you ever expect this kind of attention, and what do you hope comes of it?
No, I didn’t expect this kind of reception. Part of it was that the book was misunderstood as an attack on President Bush, and really it’s an indictment of the failure of the senior leadership of the U.S. intelligence community.
What I intend to do now is to speak out for as long as there’s an interest in what I have to say, and continue to try to convince Americans, if you will, that their leaders are being very stingy with the truth.
The truth is that we’re at war with Islamist groups, with Osama bin Laden and his allies, because of our policies in the Middle East. Not because of our democracy or our freedoms, or our adherence to gender equality, or any of those general issues. Surely if bin Laden ran a country it wouldn’t look like ours. But he certainly wouldn’t have the support and the lethal capability that he has if it wasn’t for our policies.
You say the war in Iraq was a gift to bin Laden because it distracts our military and mobilizes Muslims against the United States. Now Iraq has had an election, a new Palestinian government is pushing peace with Israel, Egypt is considering elections for the first time since 1981, and the Syrian-backed Lebanese government resigned after protests. Could American intervention lead to democratic change?
Well, I don’t think we’ve seen any genuine democratic change yet. I certainly hope it will result that way. I hope Egypt becomes democracy and Iraq becomes a democracy, but I seriously doubt in the near term that’s going to happen. Hope is not a very good thing to pin your foreign policy on.
I think in Iraq it’s not surprising that Shias risk their lives to come out and vote themselves into power, after they had been discriminated and tortured by the Sunnis for the last 40 years. Quite simply, the Egyptian system can’t exist with a democratic process. There may be democratic window dressing, but either you have a police state or you don’t have a police state, and I’m not convinced [Hosni] Mubarak is going to surrender that. All of these things, they may be the harbingers of good news, or they may be lip service toward what the United States wants at this moment. I think the jury is out. I hope they’re good news; I don’t think we should plan on it.
You’re not the same flavor of Bush critic as the Democrats. And you’ve really upset many of their allies on the left with your call for “relentless, brutal and yes, blood-soaked offensive military actions” against America’s enemies. What would you say to people who would charge you with just more hubris?
I don’t know why the idea of killing people in a war that was forced on us is any kind of hubris. It seems to be common sense. And I would say certainly many people on the left seem to me to be out of contact with reality. War hasn’t changed in the last 2,000 years. You kill your enemies and get on with it.
And one of the reasons we’re in the fix we’re in is because the Clinton administration in particular was absolutely opposed to taking action against bin Laden when we could have stopped this movement early on.
I am indeed a lifelong Republican. My interest in all of this is not to please the left or please the right, but to find a way to better protect America. And I think we need to combine more aggressive military operations and more aggressive intelligence operations against those parts of Islamic militancy that are irreconcilable. And at the same time, to consider whether our policies, which are motivating our enemy, can be changed in a way that, over time, would lessen the degree of support that’s flowing to people like Osama bin Laden. I don’t think there is a contradiction between the two. I think they have to be part of a full plate of initiatives, which American needs to undertake in order to win this war.
What are some policies you could envision changing that would help the situation?
I don’t think it matters what my views on this are so much. We’ve paid so very little attention to what bin Laden has said over the last 10 years, and he’s identified six policies of the United States that he deems necessary to be changed in order to stop, again, what he deems as an attack on Islam.
And very quickly, they are: unqualified support for Israel; our support for Arab tyrannies, whether they’re in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia; our ability to keep oil prices at a level acceptable to Western consumers; our presence on the Arabian peninsula; American military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Mindanao in the Philippines; our support for governments that are viewed by Muslims as oppressing Muslims, the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Western China, the Indians in Kashmir.
Now, I don’t recommend that we change any of those policies. What I recommend is that we debate those policies and see if they still serve American interests. Most of them have been on autopilot for 30 years. They were formed during the Cold War, an era where American foreign policy was much different than it is today. Where the enemy was much different.
And my whole view on this is that we need to talk about those policies. And if they are indeed still serving American interests they shouldn’t be changed. But then the American people are going to have to realize that we are in for a very long and very bloody war, and the only tools we’re going to be able to use in this war are military and intelligence.
And if people don’t like my prescription for more killing now, they better to get used to more killing later. Because if we leave ourselves with only those two options, it’s going to be a bloody and long-term war.
Why do you think Americans and the current administration are not debating these policy issues?
I think there’s a general reluctance on the part of all Americans, not just bureaucrats or politicians, to think that anything we do in the world is other than benign. And I think it’s very hard for us to imagine that other people hate us for what we do. And that’s true for the government and of the public generally.
The really serious question, I think, is why the American people have not become dissatisfied with the argument that we are being attacked because of our society and our democracy and our liberties, when there’s a great deal of scientific information to show that Muslims by and large admire our society — its basic equity, the ability of parents to educate their children and find employment and feed their children.
At the most basic level, Western Europe and America wouldn’t have the problem it does with immigration if Muslims thought we were a vile society, which would endanger their families and their children. So policy makers seem to be immune to this issue, for reasons that escape me.
And I think until we come to the judgment as a country that our policies are motivating our enemy, we’re not going to be able to realize how dangerous this enemy is, and how widespread the support is for him.
What kind of a U.S. leader would it take to appeal to the American people and start a debate about how we’re perceived abroad, and how that matters in foreign policy?
It would take somebody with a little bit of courage, I think. Because it basically says, we’ve been wrong here for the last 10 or 15 years, or at least wrong in large measure. That you’re losing your sons and daughters in Afghanistan and in Iraq because people hate your policies, not because people hate your primary elections every four years.
I think the American people have a suspicion that there’s something more to it … I’ve done a large number of call-in programs around the country, in major cities, but also from towns in southeast Texas and from Oregon and from eastern Maine.
And the questions are always phrased in a way that people are always looking for an answer that’s more substantive than just “They hate us for what we are.” And I truly think that the American people are much tougher than their leaders, and could accept the fact that maybe we are aggravating the situation through our policies.
What kind of a leader will that take? I don’t see one out there at the moment. Certainly there was no difference between what Mr. Kerry said and what Mr. Bush says on this. I’m not sure if there’s anyone. Mr. McCain speaks the same way, Mrs. Clinton speaks the same way, so I’m really not sure there is a leader out there at this time.
I think it’s going to have to come from the bottom up. And one thing that will drive a re-evaluation of all of the policies bin Laden has criticized is the increasing number of dead Americans who have come home from overseas.
You weren’t working for the CIA back then, but do you think this is just deja vu from the Vietnam era?
In some ways it is. I think the problems we had with General Westmoreland, I gather from what I recall studying in school, his rather too-rosy position on what was occurring on the ground in Vietnam.
I think clearly we’re getting that kind of a rosy picture from some of our leaders at the moment. For the longest time they refused to use the word “insurgency” to describe what’s going on in Iraq. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Is it deja vu? I don’t know. I think it’s going to sound like deja vu to many of the people who lived through the Vietnam era.
But in many ways this is a much more difficult issue. Because what we’re doing is we’re incurring the animosity of 1.3 billion Muslims in many ways — whether or not they have any use at all for Osama bin Laden.
For example, the fact that Americans are being viewed as occupying the three holiest places in Islam — the Arabian peninsula is the first, Iraq is the second, Jerusalem is the third, and much of the Muslim world views us and the Israelis interchangeably — that’s going to offend Muslims of the liberal stripe, the moderate stripe or the conservative stripe, whether or not they like bin Laden.
And so, we’re going to have to get at least conversant with the possibility that our policies are what’s driving our enemy. And unfortunately it’s going to take another massive attack, it appears, by Osama bin Laden in this country, or a great deal more dead American soldiers coming home to be buried.
Is there any indication that Americans have learned any of the lessons you’re putting forward? What does Bush’s election victory mean?
What I’ve been surprised by is that the evangelicals in the administration, President Bush and others have not been able to see their way clear on this issue.
I think if you look at the last election, and if it proves after research is done that the religious right came out and provided the president with a large part of his victory, they came out and voted for President Bush not just because he was a Republican, but because they thought that their God and their religion was under attack by policy. By either current or future policy, whether it had to do with abortion, same-sex marriage or gay rights. Policy was threatening their religion.
It’s not unlike that in the Muslim world. Muslims are seeing themselves and their religion as threatened by U.S. policy. It’s a good analogy. The difference is in North America we go to the voting booth. Traditionally Muslims react to threats against their religion with violence against the perpetrators of that threat.
So I think Americans, with a significant amount of courageous leadership, will see that the problem is much more than just our society.
And in my own kind of non-scientific little sample, I have — as you said, my book has sold a good number of copies, it’s been positively reviewed by a lot of people — but more than that, I have very few people who disagree with me radically when I talk to them on telephone interviews or in person. So I think there is a feeling amongst Americans that there’s more to this problem than they’ve been told.
Why didn’t you come forward before the invasion of Iraq? Are there other officials who are critical but don’t come forward due to fear or any other reason?
I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. I think there is clearly, again with my experience limited to the fight against bin Laden, there was a universal acceptance among the four or five hundred officers who worked that, that the war in Iraq was going to make the war against bin Laden very much more difficult, and in fact undo much of the progress we have had since ’96.
Should I have resigned sooner? That is a question that I can’t answer. I resigned because, again, not of any problem with the agency, but because of the fact that I thought that the 9/11 Commission had failed utterly in terms of finding those responsible for the 9/11 disaster.
Americans have gotten away from resigning over policy differences. Certainly intelligence officers are not supposed to be commenting on policy. When they do resign, it’s very easy for them to be painted as people who had career problems they couldn’t fix, or had an ax to grind against the political party — one or the other political parties. So it’s easy to discredit them.
The thing that surprises me more is that the people who are charged with leading the intelligence organization, none of them resigned. Because they were certainly told by their subordinates and the experts on these issues that Iraq was a disaster waiting to happen.
Yes, I think I probably do deserve criticism for not resigning sooner. I’m not sure that if I had resigned any sooner I would have had any impact, but probably it would have been the more responsible thing to do, to resign at an earlier date.