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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 10th, 2004


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

by Anonymous

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The best book on al-Qaeda, Through Our Enemies' Eyes, was written before September 11, 2001. Published by a house specializing in military and intelligence titles, it failed to win a review in The New York Times and most other major newspapers and magazines (including this one). Written anonymously by the former head of the CIA unit devoted to assessing and tracking Osama bin Laden (the author remains a high-level counterterrorism officer at the Agency), the book is as penetrating as it is unknown. I learned of it last year, when a friend and former colleague, Bruce Hoffman (a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation, who now writes regularly for this magazine), assured me that it was unmatched. It appears that the anonymous author's new book will gain the attention that eluded his first. It should. Although he's repetitive and often intemperate, Anonymous presents overwhelmingly persuasive evidence to buttress a host of significant and controversial arguments. He demonstrates that by dithering in the period immediately after 9/11, Washington missed its best opportunity to destroy al-Qaeda's leadership and a significant number of its rank and file; that when the Pentagon finally did launch military operations in Afghanistan, those actions were so misconceived, and built on such faulty assumptions, that they failed to kill or capture the vast bulk of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters (Anonymous estimates the number of al-Qaeda -- trained fighters throughout the world to be at least 100, 000); that America's current political and military strategy in Afghanistan has permitted al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup and to wage "an insurgency that gradually will increase in intensity, lethality, and popular support, and ultimately force Washington to massively escalate its military presence or evacuate"; and that the war in Iraq not only distracted the United States from its urgent task in Afghanistan but, even more important, has intensely mobilized anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and has created a new base for al-Qaeda and organizations similar to it. (Anonymous sees the Iraq War as Washington's "gift" to bin Laden, which "will haunt, hurt, and hound Americans for years to come. ")

Although harshly critical of the current Administration, Anonymous offers no succor to Democrats. He characterizes the Clinton Administration's counterterrorism policy as a "sordid blend of moral cowardice and political calculation"; he's scornful of liberal notions that the campaign against al-Qaeda should be pursued as a law-enforcement problem (he argues persuasively that al-Qaeda is a worldwide Islamic insurgency, not simply a terrorist organization, and that America must pursue a "savage" military policy against it); he disdains what he regards as misguided and dangerous efforts to implant American values abroad (such as the Clinton Administration's nebulous policy of "democratic enlargement"); and he favors a less multilateral approach to national-security policy and a far more ruthless use of military power than the Bush Administration embraces. Anonymous is even more provocative in his meticulous, nuanced, and dispassionate analysis of bin Laden's leadership, ideology, and tactics, from which he concludes that the terrorist leader is a "talented and personally courageous Muslim who is blessed with sound strategic and tactical judgment, able lieutenants, a reluctant but indispensable bloody-mindedness, and extraordinary patience," and who has articulated a consistent and compelling case, which resonates throughout the Muslim world, that America is attacking Islam.

But Anonymous will draw the most fire for his cogent arguments -- contrary to both Democratic and Republican leaders who orate that Islamist terrorists hate America because of its freedom and values -- that al-Qaeda and the Islamic world hate this country because of its specific policies and actions, and that bin Laden's war against America (which, Anonymous asserts, has made him the Muslims' most admired figure) isn't an act of rage; rather, it aims to alter those policies. Accordingly, Anonymous advocates a combination of stronger military action against Islamist terrorists and insurgents (although he understands the grievances that fuel al-Qaeda, he's convinced that "we are in a fight to the death" with it) and -- crucially -- "dramatic foreign policy change. " This change would include a strenuous effort to achieve energy self-sufficiency; the adoption of a far more modest global role based on an amoral pursuit of discrete and concrete national interests; and the re-examination of America's backing of Israel (he holds that, contrary to ill-informed assertions, the elimination of Israel has long been a cynosure of bin Laden's rhetoric, ideology, and strategy) and of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. (Here Anonymous is uncharacteristically gingerly and disingenuous: although he calls explicitly only for rethinking that support, in fact the only logical conclusion to be reached from his arguments is that we should end it. ) Anonymous's position that in foreign policy less is more -- that America's security will be enhanced if Washington forsakes its hegemonic ambitions and many of its attendant foreign commitments -- is, I should acknowledge, very similar to arguments I've made in this magazine (see "Why America Thinks It Has to Run the World," June 1996, and "A New Grand Strategy," January 2002) and elsewhere. But whether one agrees with this book or not, Anonymous's unsentimental critique deserves rigorous scrutiny and debate. Those looking for forceful dissent and a genuine alternative to the foreign-policy status quo should eschew the intellectually slippery Noam Chomsky, the sadly muddled Gore Vidal, and (most of all) the partisan hack Michael Moore -- and instead examine the tough-minded neo-isolationism espoused in this book.

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