Imperial Hubris

I occasionally write pieces for the local “alternative weekly” here in Northern Michigan.

Occasionally they’re unwilling to run something because it’s too long or too scholarly or not want they want right now.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really any other local venue for the sort of things I like to write, so you, gentle readers, will be the beneficiaries of the editorial shortcomings of our “alternative weekly.”

Below is a piece on Imperial Hubris.

Analytical Hubris

Oran Kelley


Imperial Hubris



Without stirring up quite the level of brouhaha, another book-length indictment of George Bush’s war leadership in the tradition of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies is being talked about quite a bit these days in Washington. In many ways this more recent book is the best treatment of the War on Terror yet. Like Clarke’s book, Imperial Hubris is written by an intelligence insider with particular expertise in terrorism, but unlike Clarke, the author of this book has little personally to gain from bashing George Bush’s foreign policy. While his knowledge of terrorism is unquestionably deep, the author of Imperial Hubris is, literally and figuratively, a nobody.

The first thing that strikes you about Imperial Hubris, in fact, is the author’s mysterious anonymity. “Anonymous,” we are told, is an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who for several years headed up the section responsible for gathering and interpreting intelligence on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The beltway encompasses a pretty small world, though, and our author’s anonymity has already been blown in a number of prominent publications. It would add nothing to publish his name here: unless you are already a Washington insider, his name means nothing, and if you are a Washington insider, you probably know his name already anyhow. For our purposes it suffices to say that Anonymous has deep knowledge of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and radical Islam more generally. He has apparently read about everything published by or about al Qaeda and associated groups. Our author very much likes his job as an intelligence analyst at the CIA and one doubts he has grand ambitions either within or without that agency.

Of course, as a former CIA specialist on Al Qaeda during the nineties, he has been privy to much secret material as well. None of this sort of material appears in the book, but we must suppose that it helps inform our author’s judgment of things.

Imperial Hubris is not the first publication by our author. Before the attacks of September 11th 2001, Anonymous wrote Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, which, though little noticed at the time of its publication, gained a great deal of respect retrospectively for its prescient warnings about Al Qaeda and for its deep and complex view of the terrorist group that had declared itself our enemy.

Imperial Hubris has many of the strengths of its predecessor. There is much here to be learned about Al Qaeda in the way of fact, and the analysis is subtle, complex and constructed from the viewpoint of Al Qaeda rather than from that of many in the administration, who seem to prefer wishful thinking–“they only hate us because we are so great”–to facts and analysis.

Like the 9/11 commission, much of Imperial Hubris attempts to explain grave failures of America’s intelligence and security apparatus. We expect questions like “Why was the US unprepared for 9/11 when years earlier Osama bin Laden had openly declared war on America?” and, “Why did the US ignore bin Laden’s public statements, which could hardly have made his intentions more clear?” According to our author, though, the list of failures has been extended in the three years since 2001.

Today we must also ask questions like “Why did the US fail to do maximum damage to its enemies in the war in Afghanistan? Why has our leadership enmeshing us in a war and occupation of Iraq, which will do little to make us safer and much to distract us from pursuing our real enemies?” The reasons for these failures lie in three distinct areas: the intelligence community which tends to provide the intelligence which the political masters want to hear, the political leadership, which does not want the intelligence community forcing it into tough decisions that might be left to others, and we ourselves, who essentially want to have the cake of security and peace, and also eat the cake of cheap oil, cheap consumer goods and world dominion.

In the months and years before the attacks of 2001, according to Anonymous, “many US intelligence community leaders ensured that most of the officers recognized the extend of the bin Laden thread were banished.” Why?

To obscure threats they do not want to act against; to preserve the false facade of “seamless” intelligence-community cooperation and disguise the incompetence and dereliction of some agencies; to avoid national security debates that would need to focus on such politically sensitive issues as religion, Israel, and Saudi perfidy, and–most of all–to avoid taking risks that could limit careers, post-government employment, or political aspirations.

In the face of all the millenarian enthusiasm we’ve seen over the last three years (“EVERYTHING has changed!”), Imperial Hubris makes it clear (if the intelligence failures on Iraq hadn’t already) that the intelligence community continues to serve political exigency first and the truth second (if that). Lest anyone misunderstand, Anonymous makes it quite clear that this failure is not a betrayal of the politicians and policy-makers who are the consumers of intelligence analysis. It is done at their behest, either tacitly or explicitly.

Imperial Hubris is nothing short of an indictment of the policies the Bush administration has followed in its War on Terror. To Anonymous, the war in Afghanistan represents a lost opportunity to inflict real damage on Al Qaeda. Directly after the terrorist attacks on the US, war on Afghanistan was delayed for what turned out to be crucial weeks while the US tried to smooth the way diplomatically for an invasion.

On September 11, 2001, according to Anonymous, the US had the opportunity to deal a blow to Al Qaeda that would have been far more severe than what we have so far accomplished. Though Al Qaeda began to make moves to protect itself prior to 9/11, the organization was still extremely exposed in Afghanistan in mid-September. A quick and decisive move against the Taliban and Al Qaeda very early on could have destroyed Al Qaeda as an effective organization. But, as Anonymous points out, we have fought the war in Afghanistan largely through proxies who have not been particularly avid in pursuing American goals in the country. We let al Qaeda slip the noose.

Today, US forces in Afghanistan have very little control over the country, and it seems as if a decline, slow or fast, into the tribalism and conflict that made this country such a fine haven for terrorists is an inevitability. This is particularly so because so much American attention must now be directed to the other war. For experts like Anonymous, Afghanistan looks to be a big part of the future of the War on Terror, not just its past.

The Bush administration followed up what Anonymous calls its “half-war” in Afghanistan in 2001 with a “half-war” against Iraq in 2003. This was an enemy they knew well from the earlier Gulf War, and it was a war they were (rather absurdly) confident they could win easily. As it turns out, the administration was half-right. Beating Saddam’s army was absurdly easy, but the poor preparation for a long occupation has cost us many lives, and will probably cost us many more before we leave Iraq.

The administration has been avid in its attempt to figure the Iraq invasion as part and parcel with the war on terrorism, but Anonymous calls it our “hoped for but unexpected gift” to Osama bin Laden. By invading Iraq, we did nothing to hurt al Qaeda, which wasn’t active in Iraq, but we did a lot to hurt ourselves.

Not only have we tied ourselves down with an occupation that was far from urgently needed, but by invading an oil-rich, Muslim nation we have helped make Osama bin Laden a lot more mainstream in the Muslim world.

Since his declaration of war against the US in 1996, bin Laden has been urging his co-religionists to defensive jihad, an Islamic military reaction triggered by an attack by non-Muslims on the Islamic faith, on Muslims, on Muslim territory, or on all three. In this scenario it is doctrinally incumbent on each Muslim–as an unavoidable personal responsibility–to contribute to the fight against the attacker to the best of his ability.

Osama’s call was to fight America in order to protect the Muslim homelands from American interference. Bin Laden made a lot of hay by projecting nefarious intensions upon America (they plan the take over and control access to Mecca, they plan to colonize and exploit the Arab lands and resources, etc.). By needlessly invading Iraq the US has confirmed the main line of rhetoric bin Laden has been using for years to recruit and stir up anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and since our invasion influential mainstream Muslim clerics have issued fatwas against the US that ominously fall into line with what bin Laden has been saying for years. In many circles, bin Laden’s image has been transformed from alarmist Cassandra to prescient defender of the faith.

For Al Qaeda, the benefit of this will be a big new generation of Al Qaeda recruits and the pathogenic spread of Islamic insurgency through al Qaeda spin-off groups the world over. September 11th was bin Laden’s gambit to provoke a clash of cultures with the West, with the war in Iraq, we have given it to him. We are now more or less fighting the battle that bin Laden chose for us.

The war we fight now–a war against a heroic champion of his faith with broad popularity with Muslims across the world–looks to get very ugly, even as wars go.

As our author sees things now, Al Qaeda is an organization that is changing to an environment where its adversary is somewhat more conscious of the “war” Osama bin Laden declared in 1996. But Anonymous feels Al Qaeda is still a formidable enemy, and he expects attacks of similar or even greater magnitude to those of 9/11 in the near future.

This, perhaps more than anything he could have written, serves as an indictment of the current administration’s pursuit of its War on Terror. The administration has consistently painted anyone who questions their policies as a temporizer, but many, like Anonymous, would not question that the war on Al Qaeda must be pursued with avidity and a certain degree of viciousness. What Anonymous questions is whether Bush has accomplished anything truly significant in his war, or whether he has been doing nothing but making elaborate and expensive gestures to give the appearance of doing something.

The usual administration response to the sort of criticism leveled in Imperial Hubris is that it comes from left-wing appeasers and pacifists. But Anonymous doesn’t fit the bill at all. He is a Republican, an admirer of Ronald Reagan, a cultural conservative, and a dyed-in-the-wool hawk on terrorism. Anonymous believes that “killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes,” that rather we should “proceed … until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us.” The idea of a war on terrorism clearly could have no greater proponent than the author of Imperial Hubris, and George Bush could hardly have a harsher or more effective critic of his conduct of that war.

Here we may remark something else about our author that neither lends to nor detracts from his criticism of the President: He’s gone native.

“Going native” has long been observed in intelligence agents in the field. Over the course of time, they begin to adopt the customs and values of the people they work amongst. The most famous example of “going native” is probably T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia” as he is better known.

Anonymous shows signs of being a less familiar sort of case, the desk-agent gone native. I don’t mean by this that he shows up to his office in Langley dressed as a Mujahideen, or that he wouldn’t happily “kill, demoralize and destroy” Muslim who took up arms against us. What I mean when I say he’s gone native is that he admires Osama bin Laden a great deal more than he admires us.

Anonymous on several occasions in the book pointedly expresses his disgust at the mindless self-indulgence, shameful hypocrisy and moral cowardice of his generation–the generation that also brought us Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Our author clearly longs for an America that would reflect the sort of humane and enlightened warrior culture personified by people like Robert E. Lee and William Sherman. A warrior culture that, in fact, is not badly embodied in Osama bin Laden. The historic American heroes that Anonymous holds up for us–aside from Lee and Sherman, Ulysses Grant, Curtis LeMay, George Patton, and Franklin Roosevelt–are not chosen simply as models for future American leaders. They are chosen as parallels with a current Islamic hero whose name we all know.

The Osama bin Laden we meet with in Imperial Hubris is far from the “Ming the Merciless” character we meet with on Fox News. This bin Laden is, like Lee, steadfast, brave, self-sacrificing, and possessed of a deep sense of honor–he is, we are repeatedly told, a man of his word. Bin Laden is, in short, perfectly cut out to be a hero (and eventually martyr) to the Islamic world. For Anonymous, bin Laden is a “great man” and an enemy to be respected, admired, understood and destroyed.

The parallel figures Anonymous chooses are significant in another way: they all represent figures who were in command when the very existence of the US seemed threatened–the Civil War, the depression, World War II, the nuclear standoff of the cold war. Anonymous would make the argument that our current crisis is of a similarly threatening kind. Here it is easy to think that Anonymous exaggerates the importance of his own object of study. But that, one would imagine is exactly what people though about his pre-9/11.

While our very existence may not be threatened by al Qaeda, the way we have come to live most definitely is. Not just in terms of cheap oil, either. How can a small band of religious fanatics threaten to change our whole way of life? Well, they aren’t so small anymore, and they aren’t fanatics. More and more, especially since the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden has come to represent a current of mainstream Islamic thought. Respectable clerics who once might have mocked bin Laden’s pretensions to leadership are now echoing his view that America is at war with Islam, and that actions needs to be taken to defend it. Al Qaeda is now not so much a terrorist organization as the center of a cultural movement to defend Islam against the US.

And there’s another historical parallel that we can easily make that ought to disturb us. Though Imperial Hubris does not explicitly make this comparison, it is as easy to see the Osama bin Laden we read about there as the new Jesus Christ as the new Robert E. Lee.

Before you write a protest letter, please be aware I am perfectly aware of the limitations of the comparison. There are really big differences between bin Laden and Christ. For starters, Christ was a man of peace, the man of peace, perhaps, and bin Laden is a warrior of a particularly ruthless kind. But as Anonymous points out, bin Laden’s main motivations, insofar as we can tell, are deeply religious, and his primary motivation for war is to defend his lands and his religion from what he sees as Western incursion.

Like Jesus, bin Laden is a man who has emerged as a leader of what many see as a divided and failed people, whose religion is at odds with what most contemporary observers would say was the way of the world. The “way of the world” being defined most vividly by a superstate which dominates his homeland, whose culture seems to influence everything, and whose coin seems to be the currency everywhere. The most prominent political and religious leaders seem to be in the pocket of this superstate, and it has even occupied and desecrated important religious sites in the homeland.

When Jesus faced off against what he saw as the unrighteous leadership of the Jews, and the hard-line literalist but essentially empty religious practice of the Pharisees, he looked a lot like the young Muslims of today who are challenging their pious but cowardly elders, some of whom rule at the behest of the US, some of whom seem to pay more attention the letter than the true force of the Quran.

Like Christ, too, bin Laden leads a fringe movement whose words (and deeds) have great resonance with the mass of believers who have lost faith in their corrupt and irrelevant leaders. Bin Laden’s movement, though, is making faster inroads within Islam than Christianity did in first century Israel. Other fiery young anti-Western activists who formerly would have been marginal (like Muqtadir al-Sadr in Iraq) are gaining strength and taking the lead in Muslim community thanks largely to their embrace of jihad against America.

But Christ’s movement had legs. In 312 AD, Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire and the superstate lost its showdown with the zealous believers (at least that’s one way of looking at it). One can hardly imagine bin Laden’s movement meeting with such success in its confrontation with the contemporary worldly empire. He’d need a St. Paul for that, a figure who could translate his ideas and values into terms acceptable to the denizens of the empire.

Surprisingly enough, it is not hard to think that in Anonymous, with his longing for the simplicity of the warrior ethic and his willingness to for kill on whatever scale necessary to achieve the security of the nation–with all of this it is hard not to think that in Anonymous the warrior ethic of Osama bin Laden may have found its St. Paul.

Whatever its role in the long-term conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and the West, though, Imperial Hubris is an essential read in this election year, especially for its critique of the War on Terror from the perspective of a man who could not want it to succeed more, but who sees little but cowardice and opportunism in George Bush’s conduct of it.



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