Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Provocations by Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Counterterrorism Center's Osama bin Laden unit and anonymous author of Imperial Hubris, gave a very provocative but thought-provoking presentation today at The Nixon Center.

"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.

Patrick Buchanan had said as much 2 years ago when he observed: "the reason that they are here is because we are over there". He was ignored. He had also posed the same question: "What Price Israel? that Alfred Lilienthal had asked 40 years ago.

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.
There is a trend running in recent posts--and Scheuer is the latest--that is that to have a real discussion about foreign policy you have to acknowledge costs.

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.
first mearsheimer and walt, now scheuer ... it seems that cracks are opening up in the dam that has prevented honest discussion about impact of support of israel.
US cannot have rational discussion on Israel when at least a quarter of the population treats the Bible as a real estate deed.
I was sitting in on the discussion as well and I think a lot of people were floored when he siad that the U.S. commitment to Israel is emotional not grounded in security.

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.
That last comment by tni staffer can not be ignored. There are long term issues that do need to be resolved, and just walking away is not the answer. The question is what is the best framework to work through. A single-minded focus on democracy is not the answer, one just has to turn on the dial and listen to the daily news on the latest crisis or bombing in yet another democracy. Eliminating Bin Laden by itself doesn't solve the problem either, maybe it would have been more effective in Nov. 2001.

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.
The next real test is whether Islamists are prepared to reach tactical alliances with some of their traditional foes in order to focus on US. Look how Iran made its peace with Russia despite Chechnya.

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.
All of this comes back to energy. Gas prices are going up and DC politicians try to position themselves that they are going to do "something." We need some leadership on this issue, not posturing before the midterms. Bite the bullet, move to energy independence and then we can free ourselves from involvement in the Middle East.
We certainly can't ignore the Islamists' ideological intentions. But it's important to note that, while we didn't directly cause the Islamist threat, our policy decisions in the Middle East fomented the creation of an environment that was friendly to militant Islamists. Or at the very least made their cries of war and jihad salient to the people they claim to represent.
The gas price at the station right by Georgetown University is $3.14 for regular. At some point the price is going to start people to make changes to their behavior and maybe we'll see some action in Congress, not cosmetic, toward a real energy policy. Don't understand why we continue to impose a major tariff on Brazilian ethanol if Brazil is poised to achieve its own energy independence and we could import more from them.
Michael Scheuer made a real contribution to public debate by insisting that al-Qaida is an insurgency and not just a terrorist group. But I don't think his experience gives his larger views on US foreign policy the same weight.

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.
To build on David's comments, it was interested that in the q and a when asked to go into greater detail on specific policies, he demurred (e.g. how to handle our relationship with China versus anger in the Muslim world over Xinjiang) other than counseling the virtues of silence. I think that there's a point at which you make your committments and then you stick by them and are prepared to pay the price.
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