International Affairs Forum: A central premise of your book, Marching Toward Hell: American and Islam After Iraq is that Al-Qaida’s motivations don’t lie in who we are but in what we do, in our policies towards the Muslim world. As a result of these policies, past and present, how far off track do you think we are on the War on Terror?
Dr. Michael Scheuer: I think you can hardly be on track if you don’t understand what motivates the enemy. I was reading a new book by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam?, and they identify the major problem for the United States and the West with the Muslim world as the impact of our policies on that part of the world. The most interesting thing is that they find there’s no difference in that attitude between what they call moderates and radicals. So if we’ve got the most fundamental thing wrong, I don’t see how we can expect to prevail anytime soon in this war that we are engaged in.
IA-Forum: Do you see any chance of change among the West’s political elite to move away from this school of thought in dealing with the Islamic world?
Dr. Scheuer: I don’t see any right now. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference between Senator McCain, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. For awhile it looked like Senator Obama was a little different, but he has moved towards being unequivocally pro-Israel in the last couple weeks. I suspect that whoever is the President four years from now, we will see the same situation or worse than we’re facing today. We’ll still be in Iraq, we’ll still be losing in Afghanistan.
The problem for our politicians is that you can’t go to the American people and say we’re sending your men and women overseas so they can make sure the Saudi police state stays in power and can steal all the revenue from the Saudi people from the production of petroleum. You can’t say we’re in this war because of our support for Israel to some extent and now Americans are going to have to die because we’ve pledged support to Israel.
It’s a very difficult set of foreign policy issues to discuss, so what happens is we fall back to the inane but very powerful argument that they hate our liberties, gender equality, freedom in the workplace, and want to wipe our society out.
IA-Forum: What would you advocate for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
Dr. Scheuer: I am very much a non-interventionist. I think you can’t do everything at once, but the one thing we are terribly negligent on is energy. It’s been thirty-five years since the first oil embargo and we have done very little to wean ourselves away from dependence on foreign oil. Now the Saudis control whatever small amounts of swing capacity is left, but they also hold a huge proportion of our debt. So we’re really in the position of being beholden to a state that is extraordinarily anti-American in its activities in terms of spreading a form of religion that’s very anti-American and anti-Christian. It seems to me that if we’re going to start somewhere it has to be with oil. If you did something about oil it would be clear to Americans that there is nothing in the Arab Peninsula that’s worth the life of a soldier. A big step ahead for America in the Muslim world would be to stop supporting some of these Arab tyrannies that we and our allies have supported for almost sixty years now.
IA-Forum: Your policy thoughts on Israel?
Dr. Scheuer: My policy with Israel is that I don’t see Israel as an important ally to the United States in any kind of fashion. Ultimately, that’s one man’s opinion. But I try to attack very hard in the book the idea that somehow if you’re not a full supporter of the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship, you’re less than a good American-you’re unpatriotic, you’re an American hater, you’re an anti-Semite, or you’re just crazy. There’s a whole legion of American citizens who take it upon themselves to denigrate other Americans if they criticize the American relationship with Israel and I think that is clearly not the way we should be working in a small republican political system such as ours. I think that is a grotesque way to approach debate on foreign policy.
Just because my position is I don’t think we would miss Israel if Israel didn’t exist-I don’t think we’d miss Bolivia if it didn’t exist-it doesn’t mean I’m less of a patriot or less an American than David Gergen, Elliott Cohen, or [Gabriel] Schoenfeld from Commentary. It just means that I have a different opinion.
IA-Forum: Back to the subject of intervention in the Middle East, what is your response to those who are pro-democratization and believe that it works to prevent cross border conflicts?
Dr. Scheuer: If they could bring some evidence to the table that would be a useful thing. There’s a whole theory, I gather, that democracies don’t fight each other. But the American Civil War occurred between the two most democratic nations on earth, Athens was a democracy, Sparta was a democracy and they fought each other, most of the Italian city-states were republics–democracies of some sort–and they fought each other. So saying the more you democratize the more peaceful things will be, that sounds very good if you say it fast, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of inspection.
It’s especially the case if you’re trying to impose a secular democracy on a Muslim/Islamic state. There’s no reasonable expectation that that attempt would work and there’s every expectation that it would cause more violence rather than less. I think, like many things today, this democratizing business is a good slogan but there’s not much behind it.
IA-Forum: How you would assess Al-Qaida’s current strength, not only the group itself but its influence?
Dr. Scheuer: Its influence is extraordinary. The rise in the number of groups that are attacking the United States and its allies either rhetorically or with violence is growing a great deal. We now have two distinct tiers of threat. There is Al-Qaida itself, the group that remains under the command and control of Bin Laden and Zawahiri. According to Admiral McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, it’s all but completely refitted since 9/11 and is as powerful, and perhaps more powerful, than it was on that date. There is a whole second tier of threat from groups that have been instigated or inspired by Al-Qaida but have no command and control relationship with Bin Laden. These are the people that were responsible for attacks in London and Madrid and any number of cells that have been broken up in North America, Europe, and Australia. I think the threat is growing markedly.
People tend to forget that Al-Qaida has always designed itself primarily as a political-religious vanguard organization and not as a fighting vanguard. It has always seen itself as an engine of incitement. From that perspective, they’ve been extraordinarily successful.
IA-Forum: You’ve called them insurgents, not terrorists.
Dr. Scheuer: Yes. I think we’re so bound and determined to make this problem, at least from political leaders’ viewpoints, manageable. We want to define it as a small problem, so terrorists by definition are on the lunatic fringe of society and we want to not have to fight too hard against it in terms of causing collateral civilian damage. So we look on it as kind of a law and order problem, saying we’re going to bring them to justice one person at a time.
I was involved with this first hand since 1995 and I’ll tell you, after twelve years of operating in that manner, there are far more of these insurgents out there than there were in 1995. One man at a time isn’t working. Al-Qaida itself is very much an insurgent organization modeled on those groups that fought the Soviets. They’re always expecting to be fighting a far more powerful enemy and so they put a great amount of time planning for leadership succession. We’ve seen it. We’ve claimed that we’ve killed dozens of number two’s, number three’s, number four’s, and number five’s and yet authorities in the United States and the West continue to say that Al-Qaida is as dangerous as ever. That’s because they train for leadership succession. When someone gets killed, wounded, or captured, the person that takes over is not as competent as the person who was removed from the scene, but is certainly not a novice-he has been an understudy. One of the reasons I had been hoping that we would abandon this terrorist label is by using the word insurgent or thinking in terms of insurgent groups, we would have a much better idea of what the enemy looks like, how much bigger it is, than anything we’re ever characterized as a terrorist group.
IA-Forum: What effect have military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq had on these groups?
Dr. Scheuer: Certainly they don’t like the initial phase of air power. But in both cases they have learned to operate in ways that limit the effectiveness of our air power. Overall, the insurgents in both places sort of look up now and say ‘listen, we rode out the air power stuff and now the Americans don’t come after us’. There’s very little hand to hand combat now. They stay in their garrisons; they try to get surrogates to come after us. Basically what the attitude is of the Mujahideen, Al-Qaida, and others is simply contempt for the United States military. They think we’re afraid to inflict casualties on them and their supporters and they definitely believe we are afraid to take causalities. That’s not the fault of our troops, it’s the political rules that they operate under. I often say, and I think it’s true, that so handicapped are our forces by political restrictions that they’re much more targets for the enemy than they are killers of the enemy. I think our military power is not at all respected, and in many ways it shouldn’t be because we have not unleashed our military power to any great extent.
IA-Forum: Do you think there has been too much emphasis on dealing with threats at the state level such as Iran, versus groups like Al-Qaida?
Dr. Scheuer: What I wrote in the beginning of my book is that in some ways we talk about the Cold War being over, but we really don’t act as if it is. For example, Iran might be a threat to the Israelis, but otherwise it’s surrounded by an ocean of Sunnis who hate it, it’s surrounded by American military bases, and it’s running out of petrochemicals in the next fifteen to twenty years. It’s going to be increasingly economically deteriorating. It’s hard for me to imagine any right thinking American could believe that Iran is a threat to the United States. It’s probably a little more of a threat than Iraq was, but Iraq was virtually no threat either. Our leaders in both parties are children of the Cold War and they still think that Russia, China, Iran are the things we need to worry about, not the guys who wear robes and sit around campfires in the desert. That’s too bad, because those are the people that are really hurting America now and can really attack us inside our own country.
IA-Forum: Since the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Homeland Security efforts since 9/11, is the United States a safer place than before 9/11?
Dr. Scheuer: I think the best way to answer that question is with a question: how can anyone say we are safer if our borders are mostly wide open, if our ports are mostly wide open, and law enforcement has to contend with eleven-plus million undocumented aliens? If you can answer that, in spite of all those things, that we’re safer, I don’t know how you arrive at that conclusion, but I admire the optimism of the answer.
IA-Forum: What advice would you give to the next U.S. President?
Dr. Scheuer: The President of the United States is a very important position, and I’m certainly not one to suggest specific things, but I do think that for any President the truth is the place to start. The first Mr. Bush didn’t tell us and then Mr. Clinton didn’t tell us, and this Mr. Bush didn’t tell us. But if we’re going to beat this enemy we’re going to have to understand that we’re not being attacked because of who we are or how we live, because we have elections, liberties, and women in the workplace. We’re being attacked because of what we do in the Islamic world. That’s not to say that what we do is evil or wrong, simply that our enemy is motivated by his perception that our policies are an attack on his faith. Until we have a leader who tells the American people that reality, we are going to be underestimating the threat we face, and probably will remain on the short end of the stick in terms of being able to win the war.
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of ‘Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror’ and the newly released ‘Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq.’ Dr. Scheuer is a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation.
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