Bloody battle is hard to swallow

Imperial Hubris
April 8, 2005

Anonymous - otherwise known as Mike Scheuer, a senior analyst at the CIA until his recent resignation - is a man who has rather a lot of contempt for rather a lot of people and institutions, including "effete", "Italianate" and "Gucci-suited" political leaders, international law, civil servants, generalists, time-serving senior military officers, so-called academic experts, the Ivy League, the Vatican, Anglicanism, the media, allies of the US, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton and others. Perhaps the temptation to express such gratuitous vitriol proves harder to resist when writing and publishing anonymously. But his deepest anger is curiously more measured, and is reserved for the Bush Administration in its persistent inability to grasp the reality and urgency of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden.

Anonymous is on a mission to warn of massive misjudgements being made in the "war on terror". His warning will not be welcomed by those convinced that the bin Laden/al-Qaeda threat to the West is more the stuff of myths and nightmares than strategic reality. In spite of the book's subtitle, the central argument of Imperial Hubris is not that the West is losing the war on terror, but that it is fighting the wrong war altogether.

The book argues that the US and the West are being attacked by bin Laden and al-Qaeda, not because of what the West is (democratic, tolerant, liberal and so on), but because of what the West has done and continues to do to the Islamic world. The driving force in al-Qaeda's campaign is that of defensive jihad, provoked by perceived Western attacks on the Islamic faith, the Muslim people and on Muslim lands. The result is a "worldwide Islamic insurgency" against the US and the West. Al-Qaeda poses a sophisticated, determined and vengeful threat, and bin Laden is described as "a practical warrior, not an apocalyptic terrorist in search of Armageddon".

To ignore the evidence and to persist in thinking of a global campaign of terror against democracy, freedom, secularism and so on, waged by an evil, criminal genius with a band of devoted and suicidal followers is, argues Anonymous, woefully and fatally mistaken. These are not mere criminals, and the West's response has to be something more than a law-enforcement operation on a global scale.

Up to this point, Imperial Hubris could be described as a compelling read. Anonymous is clearly well informed, he has the conviction and authority of the insider, and he argues trenchantly on subjects he knows well (particularly Afghanistan). He makes an important contribution to the debate, especially with his observation that bin Laden might be a general who cannot control his troops - individual Muslims might decide to take up arms in bin Laden's global defensive jihad as a matter of private conscience and duty. If so, the campaign might be undone by its own popularity, becoming incoherent and uncoordinated and losing its central motive force. This could be good news for Western governments, whose best response might be simply to be patient and to allow entropy to take its course.

But it is when Anonymous sets out his alternative to the law and order approach that Imperial Hubris becomes indigestible. He advocates nothing short of a "war to the death", fought with "fury and bloodthirstiness", with "relentless, brutal and, yes, blood-soaked offensive military actions until we have annihilated the Muslims who threaten us". Citing the 144th Psalm ("Cast forth lightning, and scatter them: shoot out thine arrows and destroy them"), he insists: "We must kill many thousands of these fighters in what is a barely started war that will be unimaginably costly to each side" and predicts: "The piles of dead will include as many civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniform."

Decades of research and analysis in the CIA might have taught Anonymous much about the "enemy", but he has paid too little attention to his own side. If "war to the death" is meant as a serious proposition, then the kindest response is to suggest that Anonymous reads a little more and tries to discover why, for the past several centuries, Western societies and governments have been trying to develop a rather different approach to international conflict. Anonymous might argue that the West's assumptions and expectations are irrelevant and self-defeating in the face of a new, clever and very determined Islamist enemy, and that until the West changes fundamentally its policies towards the Islamic world it must put its own survival before its loyalty to such niceties as humanitarian law.

But the problem with Imperial Hubris is that elected Western governments are what they are, and are simply (and, I would argue, thankfully) unable to take the course the book recommends. Unless, of course, Anonymous is exaggerating for effect, trying to jog the West out of its complacency.

But, if so, an otherwise important message is unfortunately lost in the madness of what is proposed.

Paul Cornish is about to become professor of international security and head of the New Security Issues Programme, Chatham House.

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

Author - Anonymous
Publisher - Brassey's
Pages - 309
Price - £18.50
ISBN - 1 57488 849 8

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