Imperial Hubris

In his scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s policies in the "war on terrorism," Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry twice made a telling point during the debate on national security matters, one that drove home the Bushies’ incompetence with deadly accuracy. In detailing how many former military figures have endorsed his bid to become commander-in-chief, Kerry averred that "they know I would not take my eye off of the goal: Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately," he continued,

"He escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn’t use American forces, the best trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That’s wrong."

Kerry made the same point a few minutes later, elaborating on it to lethal effect:

"Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn’t use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world’s number one criminal and terrorist.

"They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.

"That’s the enemy that attacked us. That’s the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That’s the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits."

When I heard this, my ears pricked up: Kerry was taking a page from Michael Scheuer‘s recently published book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism, which lamented the lost opportunity afforded us in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to deliver a smashing blow to al-Qaeda:

"While the 11 September attack was a human-economic calamity, Washington’s failure to have its military ready for a crippling next-day attack on al-Qaeda turned it into catastrophe. It cost America its best – perhaps only – chance to deliver what is called a ‘decapitation’ operation, one with a chance to kill at a stroke many al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders."

The author of Imperial Hubris bitterly and repeatedly drives this point home, throughout his wide-ranging and brilliant book: a book that, I would argue, is the single most important and perceptive volume on the subject of the "war on terrorism" yet published. In 263 pages of text, Scheuer, a currently serving CIA analyst writing as "Anonymous," takes apart the shibboleths promulgated by this administration as it fights a war in which the enemy is misperceived, underestimated, and – ultimately – enhanced by our actions.

The startling thesis of this book is stated in the first paragraph of the Introduction:

"As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each – a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally."

Scheuer’s theme is that we have consistently underestimated and misidentified our enemy, the forces of radical Islamism represented by the figure of bin Laden, and are therefore dooming ourselves to defeat. We have portrayed OBL as a demented nihilist whose religious convictions are a cruel distortion of Islam held only by a lunatic fringe in the Muslim world. Scheuer shows that the exact opposite is the case. Far from being the Mad Terrorist that war propagandists and politically-motivated ideologues depict, the threat posed by OBL "lies in the coherence and consistency of his ideas, their precise articulation, and the acts of war he takes to implement them." Far from being the apocalyptic fanatic conjured in the Western imagination, OBL is a practical warrior, engaged in what he – and much of the Muslim world – sees as a defensive jihad, or holy war, against the incursions of the West and its Zionist ally. He, and they, don’t hate us for our freedoms, or because we guarantee women the "right" to an abortion, or because Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was such a big hit, but because of our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, which they see as a war aimed at the eradication of Islam. In this context, as Scheuer puts it:

"The military actions of al-Qaeda and its allies are acts of war, not terrorism; they are part of a defensive jihad sanctioned by the revealed word of God, as contained in the Koran, and the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, the Sunnah. These attacks are meant to advance bin Laden’s clear, focused, limited, and widely popular foreign policy goals."

Scheuer goes on to list instances in which American foreign policy has resulted in oppression, economic exploitation, and mass death for millions of Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia:

  • U.S. support for Israel that keeps Palestinians in the Israelis’ thrall

  • U.S and other Western troops on the Arabian peninsula

  • U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan

  • U.S. support for Russia, India, and China against their Muslim militants

  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low

  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and often tyrannical Muslim governments

Scheuer speaks in his own distinctive voice, perhaps exemplified by his chapter titles: the chapter entitled "An Unprepared and Ignorant Lunge to Defeat – the United States in Afghanistan" appears to have been of special interest to candidate Kerry, as it focuses on the complete disaster that our Afghan campaign represents, even as it is being touted by this administration as a great "victory."

We were not only unprepared to respond when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, but, when we did react, we did it half-heartedly, "out-sourcing" the task to local Afghan tribes, who gladly took our money and then looked the other way as OBL and the combined forces of al-Qaeda and the Taleban escaped.

The U.S. thought that money would be enough to buy them the head of bin Laden and other HVT’s (High Value Targets), but, in universalizing their own mercenary mentality, the strategic geniuses in the Pentagon were sorely mistaken. Scheuer’s description of the Afghans as "stubbornly contrary" is shot through with implicit admiration for their unwillingness to turn over any HVT’s for the $100 million reward, "despite living in the planet’s poorest state."

One big value in this book is its frequent referencing to al-Qaeda’s internet postings, including the writings of OBL and his top theoreticians and strategists. For example, Scheuer cites a top aide to bin Laden, Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi, who wrote after the climactic battle of Shahi Kowt:

"Anyone who follows the news from Afghanistan will see how the different factions are playing with the Americans in order to prolong the flow of dollars as much as possible, and are trying to strengthen their own interests without participating seriously in the American crusade."

If only our own Office of Management and Budget were as ruthless in their appraisal of this larcenous scheme! The Afghans took our money, and then did precisely what they intended to do all along. They took our aid and weapons in the battle against the Russians, who pursued the very same strategy we are employing – installing a "secular" regime with ideological pretensions of being "democratic," aided by a small, Westernized, secular elite and an uneasy coalition of racial-religious minority groups. The result in our own case is doomed to be identical to that which befell the Russians and their Afghan sock puppets: utter defeat.

Once al-Qaeda’s leading cadre were allowed to escape, they were carried on the wind like dandelion seeds, dispersed throughout Afghanistan, and then into Pakistan, Central Asia, and beyond, implanting themselves far and wide. The seeds of a worldwide insurgency – nurtured by the arrogance and hubris of American foreign policy – have sprung up in Iraq – a "gift" to al-Qaeda, as Scheuer puts it – in Bosnia, in Spain, in Africa, and throughout the Middle East and the Caucasus. Al-Qaeda, far from being down and almost out, as the Bush administration would like us to believe, is "Not Down, Not Out" as Scheuer puts it in one of his chapter titles. This is due, he says, to "Al Qaeda’s Resiliency, Expansion, and Momentum" – in short, we are dealing with a formidable enemy, which is widely misunderstood and willfully so, by all too many in the West.

The belief that al-Qaeda is fighting a defensive war against a Western incursion is at the core of bin Laden’s widespread support throughout the Muslim world, and this is underscored by Scheuer, who points out that the insurgencies OBL and his cohorts support are, without exception, fighting to regain Muslim territory, not conquer new lands. OBL and his followers aren’t nihilists attacking "civilization itself," as the more self-righteous commentators habitually put it: in Muslim eyes, they are a simply acting in self-defense.

Imperial Hubris is studded with analytical gems, phrased in colorful prose: it sparkles with wit, as well as wisdom, but all in the service of a serious and even solemn task: to provide a radical corrective to the hypocritical cant and political "spin" that has distorted and undermined any meaningful effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the very real threat posed by the emerging global insurgency it represents. We are blinded, says Scheuer, not just by partisan politics but also by a radical inability to see beyond our own cultural parameters:

"The way we see and interpret people and events outside North America is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centeredness amounting to what I called ‘imperial arrogance’ in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes. This is not a genetic flaw in Americans that has been present since the Pilgrims splashed ashore at Plymouth Rock, but rather a way of thinking America’s elites have acquired since the end of World War II. It is a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us, a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components."

We have created, in bin Laden, "the enemy we want, not the one we face," and our insistence on misunderstanding him, or his appeal, will have fatal consequences – which are just beginning to be felt on the battlefield in Iraq, and whatever future battlefields the War Party has all mapped out for us.

We must shed our comforting illusions, Scheuer avers, and face the reality of the threat posed by bin Laden and his followers worldwide. Unless we recognize what they are, and what motivates them, we cannot undertake any meaningful and successful action to defeat them.

Reading Scheuer’s wonderful book, one begins to realize how much this mantra of "they hate us for what we are" – instead of what we do – is really a form of appeasement because it disarms us in advance, and confirms the radical Islamist critique of American policy as an eternal war waged on Islam by the "Crusaders and the Jews," as bin Laden says. We are doing bin Laden’s work for him, in Iraq – "the hoped for but never expected gift" – and, since the day the World Trade towers fell, throughout the world. Iraq is the "gift" bin Laden received from Washington that "will haunt, hurt, and hound Americans for years to come."

On the question of Israel, Scheuer bravely confronts the "third rail" of American foreign policy, descrying the policy of unconditional support to that country as an albatross of unbearable weight tied ’round our necks, one that could well drag us down into a relentless war against a billion-plus Muslims. Yet all discussion, he notes, of this inexplicable policy, which hurts our national interests, is forbidden:

"Almost every such speaker is immediately branded anti-Semitic and consigned to the netherworld of American politics, as if concerns about U.S. national security are prima facie void if they involve any questioning of the U.S.-Israel status quo."

The Kerry people may lift his critique of the Afghan war, but were surely horrified by Scheuer’s bitterly ironic paean of admiration for

"Israel’s diplomats, politicians, intelligence services, U.S.-citizen spies, and the retired senior U.S. officials and wealthy Jewish-American organizations who lobby an always amenable Congress on Israel’s behalf."

He sarcastically hails the Israelis and their American supporters who "have succeeded in lacing tight the ropes binding the American Gulliver to the tiny Jewish state and its policies," perceptively noting that this conflation of American and Israeli interests been so successful that, "for many Americans," Israeli nationalism "has become deeply entwined with American nationalism" – to which I would add, only in certain quarters.

Given the veracity of the news that U.S. law enforcement has discovered a cabal of spies for Israel who burrowed their way into the Pentagon’s policymaking wing, that crack about "citizen-spies" certainly was eerily prescient.

One hopes, however, that Imperial Hubris is not prescient in other ways, such as the author’s prediction that – given the status quo policies maintained by our government, which give wide credence to bin Laden’s propaganda efforts – we are doomed to fight a savage war in which "killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes." Scheuer has been widely misinterpreted as advocating a savage war of attrition, including the "razing of infrastructure," as he puts it, but it is clear from the text that the author means only to give us fair warning:

"This sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world."

The idea that we are going to "drain the swamp" of Arab resentment by imposing "democracy" at gunpoint is a typically self-serving example of Western narcissism, which presumes to know what is best for everyone on earth. Locked into our role as "a hectoring, white-faced, pistol-packing, Wilsonian schoolmarm," as Scheuer puts it, we are a bulwark of Central Asian and Middle Eastern dictatorships (e.g., Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, et al.), Concerned only with maintaining cheap oil and Israel’s regional hegemony, we are fueling the worldwide insurgency – not a mere terrorist conspiracy – that poses a deadly danger to us all.

"The choice," writes Scheuer, is "between keeping current policies, which will produce an escalating expenditure of American treasure and blood, or devising new policies, which may, over time, reduce the expenditure of both."

We must choose between unconditional support for Israel and "an unending war with Islam." We must choose between the advice of John Quincy Adams, who warned that America must not "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," and "the sordid legacy of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, which soaked the twentieth century in as much or more blood as any other ‘ism.’"

In Imperial Hubris no sacred cow goes unslaughtered, and, for that reason alone it is worth a read. It is also filled with instances in which the present administration basically blew it, especially in Afghanistan, which explains the interest of Kerry and his minions, who seem to have made some use of it in last week’s debate. But the Kerry people are unlikely to take to Scheuer’s basic prescription, which is that we had better damn well stay out of the affairs of other nations unless we are prepared to deal with the consequences of meddling in that which we neither understand nor appreciate. Scheuer’s view of the Israeli lobby, in particular, is far too politically incorrect for the Kerry-ites to ever embrace.

In summing up the spirit and theme of this fascinating and very valuable book – which offers, among other things, a portrait of OBL that rings truer than any I have read elsewhere – I would call your attention to one of the author’s more endearing subtitles, a section called "Thought Police Be Damned: Nothing is Too Dangerous to Talk About."

Now that‘s my kinda guy! In talking about these previously forbidden subjects, Scheuer – who has been effectively silenced by the national security bureaucracy – has done us all a very great service.

No one who has opinions on the subject of al-Qaeda, the Afghan war, the Iraq disaster, or the so-called "war on terrorism" can possibly be taken seriously until and unless they have read Imperial Hubris from cover to cover. Buy this book, read it, and recommend it to your friends.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].