A book published by my former employer, Brassey’s, Inc., is already causing some waves even though it doesn’t hit the streets for a few weeks:
A senior US intelligence official is about to publish a bitter condemnation of America’s counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an “avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked” war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden’s hands.
Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, due out next month, dismisses two of the most frequent boasts of the Bush administration: that Bin Laden and al-Qaida are “on the run” and that the Iraq invasion has made America safer.
In an interview with the Guardian the official, who writes as “Anonymous”, described al-Qaida as a much more proficient and focused organisation than it was in 2001, and predicted that it would “inevitably” acquire weapons of mass destruction and try to use them.
Imperial Hubris is the latest in a relentless stream of books attacking the administration in election year. Most of the earlier ones, however, were written by embittered former officials. This one is unprecedented in being the work of a serving official with nearly 20 years experience in counter-terrorism who is still part of the intelligence establishment.
The fact that he has been allowed to publish, albeit anonymously and without naming which agency he works for, may reflect the increasing frustration of senior intelligence officials at the course the administration has taken.
Peter Bergen, the author of two books on Bin Laden and al-Qaida, said: “His views represent an amped-up version of what is emerging as a consensus among intelligence counter-terrorist professionals.”
Even though I worked at Brassey’s, I never met “Anonymous” and haven’t read Imperial Hubris and have no real inside knowledge other than which agency he works for. I have, however, read Through Our Enemies’ Eyes–in which the phrase “imperial hubris” was used–and had major misgivings about it.
First, however, I want to rebut a bit of nonsense in the Guardian account: “The fact that he has been allowed to publish, albeit anonymously and without naming which agency he works for, may reflect the increasing frustration of senior intelligence officials at the course the administration has taken.” No. All that his being allowed to publish the book means is that it has been vetted to ensure that he has revealed no classified information or trade secrets. It is not an endorsement by the agency. That said, it would not surprise me if there is widespread dislike for Bush Administration policy in the ranks of CIA analysts.* Unlike operations officers, who tend to share the worldviews of military officers, analysts are essentially academics, mostly with PhDs in social science disciplines, who work in what amounts to a think tank. The international relations scholarly community, with its very traditional Realist orientation, was overwhelmingly against the Iraq War. There’s no reason to expect that CIA analysts are any different. Indeed, Anonymous is “trained as a professional historian specializing in the diplomatic history of the British Empire (277).” His first book has 262 pages of text and 122 pages of glossary, notes and bibliography! (This isn’t a criticism of analysts, just a refutation of the idea that it would be somehow remarkable for them to be less than enamored of the Bush foreign policy.)
While I haven’t read Imperial Hubris, I got the impression from catalog copy that was circulating and discussion with the book’s editor that it was very much a follow-on to Through Our Enemies’ Eyes (hereafter, TOEE). The initial manuscript of TOEE was written before the 9/11 attacks and hastily revised afterwards. Anonymous does an excellent job of explaining Osama bin Laden’s mindset, but too often lapses into bizarre moral equivalence arguments (although explicitly saying that he isn’t in the Preface) and strange historical analogies.
One of Anonymous’ major themes is that Osama and al Qaeda are not mere terrorists; they are fighting a war. This is absolutely correct and a point that most–myself included–missed before 9/11. He goes further, however, and argues that, therefore, they aren’t terrorists at all but freedom fighters whose needs must be understood. He approvingly cites Robert Fisk (never a good sign) in the Introduction, “‘Terrorist’ is a word that avoids all meaning (xvi).”
Anonymous only occasionally remembers to say that, of course, we must fight Osama. Most of the book, though, practically gushes with praise for him. “The strength of his personality and message is likely to lead to an enduring legacy that will long survice his own departure from the scene (xvii).” He continually draws parallels between al Qaeda and our own War for Independence and struggle to end slavery.
[B]in Laden’s philosophy and action have embodied many of the same sentiments that permeate the underpinnings of concepts on which the United States itself is established.
Osama bin Laden appears to be a geniunely pious Muslim; a devoted family man; a talented, focused, and patient insurgent commander; a frank and eloquent speaker; a successful businessman; and an individual of conviction, intellectual honestly, compassion, humility, and physical bravery (3).
Remember, this was a manuscript written after several large-scale attacks on innocents and thoroughly revised after the 9/11 attacks. Saying that OBL has some nice traits is rather like looking back at Hitler and saying, Yes, but he was a fine painter and was kind to animals. We’ll return to the accordance of OBL’s jihad with American principles later.
[B]in Laden’s character, religious certainty, moral absolutism, military ferocity, integrity, and all-or-nothing goals are not much different from those of individuals whom we in the United States have long identified and honored as religious, political, or military heroes, men such as John Brown, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine (5).
It was frankly all I could do to not throw the book away at that point. Anonymous does, however, allow in the next sentence that “I do not argue that these are exact analogies but only that they are analogies that seemed pertinent as I researched bin Laden.” I was skeptical but pressed on.
The next section examines several of these analogies, starting with the question, raised “decades ago” by the author’s son, “Was John Brown a bad man, Dad?” Rather than a simple, Yes, we get three pages of hemming and hawwing. The answer is that “[S]ome of Brown’s actions were bad–fraud, murder, and treason for starters–but that there have been few causes in American history as vital as the abolition of slavery (6).” So, terrorism is bad but the ends justify the means. Great. Even better:
Although the similarities betwen Brown and bin Laden as individuals are greater than their similarities–the latter is, by far, the better man–the two men share a passionate, uncompromising devotion to ridding their nations . . . of what they perceived to be a dominating evil (6-7). [emphasis added]
So, a man who personally ordered the murders of thousands of innocent civilians is actually a decent man because he is motivated by a sincere belief.
It gets better. The next section compares OBL to Jefferson, Henry, and Paine. He quotes John Esposito as noting that these “heroes of the American Revolution were rebels and terrorists for the British Crown (9).” Anonymous sees some interesting parallels:
[OBL] published a declaration of his own, which, like Jefferson’s, displayed a deeply conservative and religious mind. Bin Laden’s “Declaration of Jihad against the United States” . . . details, as did Jefferson’s declaration, the “patient sufferance” of Saudi Muslims. . . and their duty to act against a government that is not ruling in accord with the rules and rights with which Muslims “were endowed by their creator.”
Let’s review OBL’s declaration, shall we? While it’s true that it lists a set of grievances in some detail, as does its American “predecessor,” the two are rather strikingly different otherwise. Most obviously, the American version was not a declaration of war but of independence. The colonists wanted self-government, not change in England or elsewhere. By contrast, the war aims of OBL are somewhat more far-reaching.
They are not spelled out in any coherent way in the 1996 Declaration but they are crystal clear in the February 1998 Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best proof of this is the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless.
Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million… despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation.
So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors.
Third, if the Americans’ aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.
So, OBL hates us for being in Saudi Arabia?under U.N. auspices and invitation by the Saudi government; for enforcing U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein persuant to his failure to live up to the terms of the peace treaty that was forced upon him after his forcible expulsion from a Muslim country he?d invaded; and for being allied with Israel.
On that basis, and in compliance with Allah’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.”
This is in addition to the words of Almighty Allah: “And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? — women and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord, rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will help!'”
We — with Allah’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.
Does that remind you of the Declaration of Independence?!
Let’s return to Imperial Hubris. Kevin Drum seconds this quote from the Guardian piece:
Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies’ Eyes [Actually, the hardcover came out in 2002. – JJ ], thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.
“I’m very sure they can’t have a better administration for them than the one they have now,” he said.
As to Anonymous’ assertion that bin Laden would love to see Bush re-elected, that may well be the case–but not because he thinks Bush is inept. Anonymous believes, correctly in my view, that a military attack on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere–while necessary–was exactly what Osama wanted. Bin Laden wants war with the US and Bush has shown his willingness to fight it.
The “imperial hubris” theme is sounded throughout TOEE. It is the title of the closing section of Chapter 2, “Obstacles to Understanding Bin Laden.” Imperial hubris is the sin described by Carly Simon in her song “You’re So Vain:” thinking the song is about you.
. . . Americans, and especially politicians, opinion leaders, academics, the “experts,” and most of the media, seem afflicted by a severe case of imperial hubris, an attitude that attributes the emergence of bin Laden to one or another U.S. action (24).
Here, Anonymous and I are in strong agreement. He effectively rebuts the notion that US support for the mujahadeen’s efforts to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan was the casual factor in the formation of al Qaeda. He notes that it’s rather insulting to think that the Muslims would have done nothing about being invaded by interlopers who, according to Walter Vollman, committed deeds that were
unspeakable. They raped women in the name of emancipating them. In defense of national security, they machine-gunned illiterate peasants who couldn’t have found Moscow on a map. They burned people alive and drowned them in excrement. They razed villages, slaughtered livestock, and destroyed harvests. They even scattered mines disguised as toys to lure people to their maming. (Quoted p. 25)
Anonymous notes that, while most Western academics ridiculed Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, most Eastern scholars agree with its basic tenets. Further,
Until Americans begin to see that some of their values and goals are neither accepted nor acceptable to al races, nations, and creeds, they will not begin to understand the appeal of a person like bin Laden or be able to defend their interests against him (27-28).
Again, I haven’t read Imperial Hubris and can only base my assessment of Anonymous’ arguments on TOEE. The main problem I have with his analysis, though, is that while it’s quite useful in helping us understand bin Laden’s motivations and why he’s so attractive to so many in the Islamic world, it has no real value the cause of self-defense. The goals of the jihadist movement and of the United States are mutually exclusive–we can either live in a world ruled by something like the Taliban or we can live according to the expressed wills of people in nation states, but not both. Understanding why the other side hates us isn’t particularly valuable given that.
UPDATE: I’ve gone back and revisited the remainder of TOEE–the part which details the historical evolution of bin Ladin and his network–and would commend that portion to you. It’s easily the best one-volume treatment that I’ve seen on that account and does a superb job of crystalizing the nature of the threat we face, in a way that is still not grasped by most analysts even two years later. While Anonymous’ cutesy historical analogies and word games early in the book are annoying, he gets the threat analysis right.
I would also qualify the last sentence of my original post in that light as well. Anonymous’ goal is to convey the message that we’re not up against mere terrorists such as Hezbollah but rather against a global insurgency. He leaves unsaid in this volume how to defeat bin Laden, other than to basically say that we can’t do it within the constraints of political correctness and our desire to fight a war with minimal casualties–on either side. He makes allusions to Sherman’s “hard hand of war” approach, says that we’ve got to do what it takes. What this means, however, is left unsaid. Perhaps Imperial Hubris expands on this theme.
UPDATE 2: Despite the tone of the early chapters of the book and of the excerpts highlighted in the Guardian piece, Anonymous is equally bitter about the Clinton team’s handling of al Qaeda. His main theme is that THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. Nothing I know about Kerry’s foreign policy indicates that Anonymous will be any happier with his handling of the war than Bush’s.
UPDATE 3: The book apparently ships in August. The Brassey’s promotional copy includes the table of contents. The new book builds very much on themes from TOEE, although it appears that there are several prescriptive chapters.
*UPDATE 4: A minor correction (about the publishing schedule) was made to the above post. More significantly, based on correspondence with the book’s editor at Brassey’s, I find that I’ve mischaracterized Anonymous’ background. The author bio on TOEE was incredibly vague–not unreasonable given that he wishes to remain anonymous–but the author, despite his academic credentials and extensive footnotes, is not an analyst. I presume that means he is/was with the Directorate of Operations in some capacity.
For more on the book, see this post.
Other OTB posts relating to Anonymous and his books: