How to read Imperial Hubris.

How to read Imperial Hubris.

How to read Imperial Hubris.

How to read juicy books.
July 14 2004 1:52 PM

The Misunderstood Osama

How to read Imperial Hubris.

Book cover

The anonymous CIA analyst who wrote Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror managed to preserve his cloak of anonymity until two weeks before his book's publication—a stealth operation that made the agency's WMD spycraft look masterful by comparison. The Boston Phoenix reports that the analyst's name is Michael Scheuer.

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He spent three years as the Counterterrorist Center's Osama Bin Laden station chief. In Imperial Hubris, Scheuer argues that Americans misunderstand Bin Laden and al-Qaida and have little sense that we're losing the terror war. As usual, Slate's reading guide fast-forwards you straight to the juicy parts. Grab a copy and read along.

Osama Doesn't Hate Our Freedom

Page 8: The fundamental flaw in our thinking about Bin Laden is that "Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than what we do." Muslims are bothered by our modernity, democracy, and sexuality, but they are rarely spurred to action unless American forces encroach on their lands. It's American foreign policy that enrages Osama and al-Qaida, not American culture and society.

Page 11-13: How is the United States threatening Muslim lands? The post-9/11 crackdowns on Muslim charities have effectively ended tithing, which is one of the five pillars of Islam; our casual denunciations of "jihad" sneer at a central tenet of the Muslim faith. America supports corrupt anti-Muslim governments in Uzbekistan and China, "apostate" governments in the Middle East, and the new Christian state of East Timor. And, above all, it continues to house occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Osama Isn't a Madman

Page 114-6: Bin Laden isn't a loose cannon trying to bring the world to Armageddon. He's an eloquent and rational actor, more CEO than gangster. He often blames Muslims for their failure to repel Western invaders. His analyses of al-Qaida's victories and defeats are often more cogent than Western leaders' tirades against him.

Page 124: One element American commentators underestimate is Muslim love for Osama—"love for his defense of the faith, the life he lives, the heroic example he sets, and the similarity of that example to other heroes in the pantheon of Islamic history."

Page 127-33: More evidence for Osama's coherence: His taped addresses display a remarkable consistency in theme and tone. Bin Laden almost always defines American-led forces as the primary enemy, emphasizes the centrality of al-Qaida as an incendiary force, and exhorts young Muslim men to join the fight. The last plank has subtly changed since 9/11. Before, Osama would shame young men into enlisting; now, he smothers them with encouragement and suggests that jihad is a natural stop on the path to manhood. Scheuer says this shows al-Qaida is having no trouble recruiting new charges.

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Muslims Listen to Jerry Falwell

Page 3: When evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson hold forth on foreign policy—usually with encomiums to Israel and denunciations of Islam—Muslim thinkers tend to conflate their words with the official positions of the U.S. government. There's no separation of church and state in Islam, and Muslims assume the same applies to America. So every time Falwell inveighs against the "terrorist" Prophet, the hate might as well be coming directly from George W. Bush.

Muslims Listen to CENTCOM Briefings

Page 234-5: The daily war briefings, which showed video of precision-guided missiles hitting their target, did us no favors in the Muslim world. For one thing, they reinforce the notion that interloping "crusaders" are killing Muslims every day. For another, the bloodlessness of the videos suggests that we might not have the stomach necessary to win the war on terror.

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We Lost Afghanistan

Page 22-25: America's response to 9/11 was a "complete disaster." After Bin Laden's daring attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies in East Africa, we should have had a "next-day" attack plan ready for future strikes. Such an attack could have decapitated al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan on Sept. 12. Instead we waited more than three weeks to invade Afghanistan, and Bin Laden and key operatives had time to escape.

Page 28, 38-40: We should have been overjoyed to find the enemy hiding in Afghanistan, a nation into which we had poured resources and experts to eradicate the Soviets. Yet our strategy there betrayed our misunderstanding of Afghan history. Our first act was to align ourselves too closely to the Northern Alliance, an unrepresentative body that will never gain wide acceptance, and give its cronies key positions in the new government.

Page 42-44: The United States ignored Afghanistan's war heroes, the rugged mujahadeen who helped drive out the Soviets. They should have been courted or killed before the war. Now, with their private militias, they will terrorize Hamid Karzai's government for years to come.

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Page 49-51: Afghans can't be bought off with bribes. Plying them with money usually guarantees that they will do the opposite of what the United States asks. Case in point: Despite offering millions in reward money, not a single Afghan has turned over a "high-value" Taliban or al-Qaida target to U.S. forces.

Page 181: Our insistence on a swift, bloodless war prevented us from decimating enemy forces. American soldiers killed (at most) one-fifth of the Taliban soldiers, leaving the rest to escape across borders or disappear into the countryside. Worse, the military doesn't know what percentage of al-Qaida's force it killed because no one bothered to tally al-Qaida's forces before the war.

Training Camps: Not Just for Terrorists Anymore!

Page 217-8: Al-Qaida's "terrorist training camps" were anything but. The majority of the rank-and-file were paramilitary troops trained to fight their "corrupt" native governments. The bona fide terrorists—suicide bombers, assassins, et al.—made up a small portion of the camps, much like special forces do on an Army base. So while the United States was fixating on terrorists, it ignored the huge, well-trained Islamist armies the camps were producing.

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Page 219: Our own terrorist training camp is Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The fighters imprisoned there have grown in stature in the Muslim world; when they return to the battlefield, they will be greeted as rock stars. And thanks to American medical care, they'll be among the most robust Islamist fighters in the world.

The Problems of Hubris

Page 173: Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suggested Afghans build a five-star hotel in postwar Kabul—"presumably," Scheuer cracks, "for the rush of well-off European tourists eager to be targets for rounds from a 122 mm rocket launcher."

Page 180-2: Perhaps our biggest failure in Afghanistan and Iraq was our failure to seal the borders in the two countries before the wars started. In Afghanistan, thousands of enemy fighters slipped into Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. The United States failed to apply the lesson in Iraq, and Islamist fighters slipped infrom Syria and Jordan.

Page 182: The United States tapped Mongolian troops for occupation duty in Iraq, despite the historical enmity between the nations. The infamous Mongol general Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked Baghdad in 1258, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and remains one of Iraq's most despised villains.

Page 185-8: The Department of Justice and the FBI have paralyzed American war efforts with their bizarre reliance on law enforcement: "Are we waging war, or hot on the trail of Thelma and Louise?" Scheuer asks. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, who obey only God's law, are unlikely to quiver when indicted in New York courtrooms.

Page 193-4: Government officials have endangered American policy by leaking classified information to journalists. After the 1998 missile strikes against al-Qaida, a source told the Washington Times that intelligence officials were monitoring al-Qaida's phone calls. Bin Laden and company immediately stopped using the phones. Scheuer says the most shameless al-Qaida leakers work at the FBI, Defense Department, and White House.

Page 223-5: Scheuer scoffs at our love of coalition-building. Bringing other nations into Afghanistan ensured that the military would fight too cautiously to really destroy al-Qaida and the Taliban. Coalition-building also gave cover to murderous "terror wars" by the Chinese and Russians, who joined our cause with ulterior motives. Scheuer compares American presidents to "teenage girls who cannot possibly go to the restroom in a public venue without the accompaniment of their closest girlfriends."