Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Provocations by Michael Scheuer
"America is totally unprepared to pay the price in blood, treasure and change of lifestyle" that would be required to defeat militant Islam. In part, this is because official Washington fails to recognize the motivations of the Islamists, and, quoting Rami Khoury of Beirut's Daily Star, is promoting a fantasy foreign policy based on imagined realities.
We are at war with militant Islam not because of who we are; American national security is threatened by the policies that we pursue. This doesn't mean that the U.S. government is evil or comprised of warmongers; it does, however, mean that we have to face up to assessing the costs and benefits of U.S. action.
Based on his analysis of bin Laden's speeches, Scheuer identifies six main U.S. policies that draw the ire of the Islamists:
1) civil and military presence in Saudi Arabia
2) unqualified support for Israel
3) military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world (Yemen, Mindinao, etc.)
4) policies designed to keep the price of oil low
5) U.S. support for governments oppressing Muslims (India, China, Russia, etc.)
6) U.S. support for police states in the Islamic world
A decade of polling confirms that these six themes resonate in the Islamic world (even if Muslims don't agree with bin Laden's methods).
We must shape policy accordingly--assessing the costs and benefits of particular policies.
Scheuer says it has been hard to have a realistic assessment because of what he terms "historical confusion." The belief of the last three administrations that the U.S. government has responsibilities to the world and not to the United States; the erosion of the constitutional and moral priority of protecting American lives and interests; the belief that every war and crisis around the world impacts U.S. national security interests. We should return to the Founders' common sense approach that the national interest consists of those matters which mean life or death for the nation.
He criticized the "moral cowardice" and unwillingness to spend the capital necessary to get things done; our inability to achieve energy independence (and so give us more options to withdraw from the Middle East); our inability to secure our borders; our willingness to be distracted from critical tasks like securing the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal in favor of other less pressing matters; our unwillingness to accept that fighting and winning wars means inflicting catastrophic damage on the enemy; that the tendency to engage in half-fought, inconclusive wars allows for the resurgence of enemies.
Very frank and unpolitical assessments. As one comment from the floor--said after Scheuer was asked what he would do if he were president--was that Scheuer could not get elected at all by expressing these views:
"No nation has a right to exist--not the United States, not Belgium, not Israel, not Saudi Arabia." Nations rise and fall based on their own ability to secure their existence and win allegiance.
Elections in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to convince those with the guns to abide by the process. There is "no way to salvage Iraq", although "we cannot leave Afghanistan until will have killed bin Laden", given his unique and historic position in Al-Qaeda.
We must be prepared to be "extraordinarily brutal" in destroying the current generation of Islamist insurgents.
The U.S. strategy should be one of deflection: the U.S. should get out of the way of an internal Muslim war (as he put it, Muslims should be killing Muslims, not Americans--the Islamist struggle is with regimes in the Muslim world.)
Bin Laden found the "glue" for his movement in anti-Americanism; this is what holds it together.
The United States has a huge emotional commitment to Israel; it is not grounded in security interests.
A great deal of heated debate and discussion followed. A very "un-Washington" presentation, indeed. But definitely food for thought.
US can no longer maintain a hyper powerful military deterent, multiple strategic advantages in access to energy and other resources, and provide enough social insurance to persuade its citizenry to accept the risks of participation in global economy.
I am a strong supporter of Israel. I don't delude myself that this support is cost-free for the United States. It is incumbent upon those who want a strong US-Israel tie to make the case why the benefits outweigh the costs (or a second argument that abandoning Israel brings no benefit). But we have to move away from the thinking that doing right is cost free.
It also seemed that a lot of the attendees really felt he underplayed the importance of lifestyle issues for the Islamists. Maybe they don't care to die about people having a beer with lunch, as Scheuer said, but that doesn't mean that if they had the opportunity they wouldn't at some point want to impose their values. I didn't agree with his assessment that the Islamists would be happy with the Middle East and wouldn't have designs elsewhere.
There was an article in the Asia Times about the Taliban resurgence yesterday, which suggested that Taliban has state support. Who are these countries, what can be done to build international consensus against them - this trend has to be recognized and stopped otherwise all gains post 9/11 will be lost. Its not just the state support - the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sunnis in central Iraq and Shia militias in southern Iraq are just a few examples of extremists thriving on strengthening local support. These do not point to a good prognosis on the "war on terror".
There are other competing/overlapping global concerns such as energy/resource competition that are likely to eventually worsen these trends. Without building a global framework where issues like energy, extremism/terrorism and economic pressures are collectively addressed with support of all major world powers, we are not going to see much progress on these fronts.
Scheuer raised an interesting distinction this afternoon. He said we should envision the "war on terror" as an insurgency--insurgencies have ways of regenerating their cadres and continuing the struggle. He noted that in 2004 both Bush and Kerry claimed progress in the war on terror because 2/3 of the Al-Qaeda leadership had been caught or killed. A traditional terror group would have been crippled by this and that's why the captured/killed metric doesn't really help.
The question about the next half century is whether a US disinclination (or increasing inability) to police the eastern hemisphere will bring less stability to those nations and religions that live there, and if so, at what cost to us. Any significant detonation of nuclear weapons (eg. Israel vs. its adversaries) will have an immediate effect on the environment of the entire northern hemisphere. A religious war between Europe and the Middle East could also undermine democratic civilization in Europe with consequences for our own security and way of life. The trend of technology is likely to empower smaller states and private groups that enjoy current levels of freedom in which to exploit this technology for purposes destructive to us or to our civilization.
In the long run, American security and national interest are inseparable from the condition of the world as a whole. Instead of spasms of ad hoc military action, we need a plan for the kind of world we are entering that sets out what all nations (including our own) need to sacrifice for some higher minimum standard of the common good.
Traditional thinking about international relations has premised itself on assumptions about the physical limits of technology and state and private action, without really acknowledging the extent to which these limits are themselves transient. We can't retreat to an earlier kind of isolation. If we try, the world will fall back into past patterns armed with more powerful weapons and we will pay a higher price.