Anonymous makes several arguments in Imperial Hubris for why we're losing the war on terrorism. Some are a matter of keeping score in the military ventures we've undertaken. He sees our intervention in Afghanistan as a disaster. While not as strident, a host of mostly liberal critics generally agree, arguing that the Bush administration has allowed Afghanistan to slip back into warlord-dominated instability. The prescription this critique implies is a vigorous nation-building effort. Anonymous rejects this entirely. Expanding Hamid Karzai's writ across the country is a recipe for violence, he writes: “After twenty years of war and ineffective or alien government in Kabul, the regions, subregions and tribes have never been more autonomously minded and jealous of their prerogatives.” Democratization in Afghanistan, he believes, is a mirage. “We focus on issues that don't matter to Afghans–women's rights, democracy–and we denigrate those things that matter to Afghans–Islam, tribal and clan relationships, ethnic pecking orders,” he says. Sometime soon, “you're going to have a government back in Kabul that looks like the Taliban, perhaps under a different name.” The proper purpose of the 2001 war, he believes, was to use U.S. forces to annihilate the Qaeda presence in the country and do no more. With our inability to do that, our garrisoning of troops in Afghanistan and support of a weak central government of ethnic minorities provides little aside from an Islamist rallying cry against U.S. occupation–what he terms “an unmitigated defeat.”
Then there's Iraq. “[T]here is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq,” he writes.
All Muslims would see each day on television that the United States was occupying a Muslim country, insisting that man-made laws replace God's revealed word, stealing Iraq's oil, and paving the way for the creation of a “Greater Israel.” The clerics and scholars would call for a defensive jihad against the United States, young Muslim males would rush from across the Islamic world to fight U.S. troops, and there–in Islam's second holiest land–would erupt a second Afghanistan, a self-perpetuating holy war that would endure whether or not al-Qaeda survived.
The reason we've made these mistakes, he argues, is that we fail to understand that bin Laden doesn't hate us because of our freedom. Or, rather, while he does hate the licentiousness and modernity that the U.S. represents, it's not what compels him to declare war on us. Nor does an anti-modernist bent explain bin Laden's appeal across the Muslim world. Instead, it's what Anonymous identifies as six points bin Laden repeatedly cites in his communiqués: “U.S. support for Israel that keeps the Palestinians in the Israelis' thrall; U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian peninsula; U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants; U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low; U.S. support for apostate, corrupt and tyrannical Muslim governments.” Combined with his charismatic biography, bin Laden's strategic success has been to frame these arguments through a Koranic prism, “to convince everyone that U.S. policy is deliberately anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic,” he says. Bin Laden's critique presents in resonant Islamic terminology a coherent jihadist explanation for practically everything Muslims can find offensive about the U.S.–the most deadly slippery slope there is. And the more Americans insist on treating bin Laden's anger with the U.S. as a pure hatred of freedom, the less equipped we'll be to answer him in a battle of ideas.
But Anonymous doesn't really consider it possible for the U.S. to answer bin Laden in a battle of ideas throughout the Islamic world: U.S. support for what many Muslims may see as unjust policies has drained us of our credibility, he argues. He combines that critique with a rejection of anything resembling democracy promotion. Woodrow Wilson, to Anonymous, is a “bloody-handed fantasist.” Insisting on democratic reform in the Muslim world then becomes naïve futility–even though one of Bin Laden's rallying cries is, as Anonymous puts it, U.S. support for “tyrannical Muslim governments.”
Without the option to work for reform, a large portion of what Anonymous advocates is essentially a policy of brutal and unforgiving war.
To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden. Progress will be measured by the pace of killing
Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills–all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. [S]uch actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.
While military force will surely be necessary in the war on terrorism, a scorched-earth policy of warfare, especially in the age of Al Jazeera, seems tailored to play into Bin Ladens arguments about U.S. desires to destroy Islam, to say nothing of transforming the U.S.'s war on terror into something resembling Russia's dirty war in Chechnya, or the Indian or Chinese responses to Islamic extremism. (Which, as Anonymous observes, is something Bin Laden denounces the U.S. for supporting.) I asked him about this.
ANONYMOUS: The war we need to conduct is simply to protect America. It's to stop the enemy, to have him cease and desist from attacking us. It is not–I hope it's not–to make them democratic, or to make them become libertarians or whatever, whereas the Indian intention in Kashmir is to install Hindu domination. The Chinese intention in western China is genocide: a silent genocide as they're doing in Tibet by inundating the Uighurs with Han Chinese. And the Russians are intent on doing what they tried to do in Afghanistan: to subject the population and eliminate whatever percentage of that population is necessary.
TPM: But isnt it enough like those governments, or certainly like Russia in Chechnya, in that youre calling for scorched-earth tactics? And isn't that at the heart of what the Islamic resistance in Chechnya views as Russias attempt to destroy Chechnya–and what in fact fuels the Islamicization of Chechnya?
ANONYMOUS: I think that's a good argument. My argument, I think, taken from the whole book, is that we've left ourselves with no option but the military option, and our application of military force against our foe, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, has not been particularly intimidating. They've ridden out two wars. They're on the offensive at the moment. What are we left with? If we don't use our military power, we really just sit and take it.
TPM: But isn't the argument that we'd be using our military force disproportionately?
ANONYMOUS: The question is survival. What are we going to do, dive an airplane into the Grand Mosque at Mecca? No, we're not going to do that. Proportional war ends up being war forever, because they'll never stop being able to attack us, and if the cost they pay is minimal, it just goes on forever. That's where we are now.
TPM: When you say that we're left with few options besides military options, what are the other options we should be pursuing?
ANONYMOUS: I try to outline them in the book. I dont think very many of them will even be debated. I think we should look somewhat at our relationship with Israel. Clearly we need an energy policy, not just in the United States but in the West, that makes us less dependent on oil out of the Gulf. For myself, I can't figure out what American interest we would have in Saudi Arabia if it wasn't for oil. If they all killed each other to their heart's content, it wouldn't affect America at all.
TPM: Is there an ideological war America can wage against al-Qaeda?
ANONYMOUS: I think the whole idea of public diplomacy is finished. For a long time, America was indeed viewed as a broker, as a mediator. Franklin Roosevelt helped ensure the British empire went away. [Eisenhower] stopped the Israelis and the French and the British at Suez. Ronald Reagan supported the mujahideen. There's none of that left anymore. No one gives us the benefit of the doubt. Partially, I think a large part, because of our policies. But also because of the domination of Arab satellite television. Our words are never going to be listened to while Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera is broadcasting live every day from the West Bank, as homes are being bulldozed and the Israelis are fighting the Palestinians and the Palestinians are blowing up the Israelis. No one's out there to listen.
Our ideology of democracy and personal freedoms and civil liberties can have an effect in the world–by example, not by transfer. [Not] by our trying to transfer it, by putting it on a CD-ROM and giving it to Chalabi and saying, “Here, you have three months to install this.”
TPM: But can't we support, and materially support, Arab liberals? And in the case where it would hurt Arab liberals to be associated with us, to say “We'll back away and give you what you need?” In order [for them] to seek an open path according to [their] local circumstances?
ANONYMOUS: I'm not sure if there is a liberal element out there anymore in the Arab world, insofar as someone who would stand up and say “We want to adopt Western society or democracy.” I think we're so viewed as malignant in the Islamic world that there aren't that many people who would say that, first because they're mad at us, and second because they'd risk being killed by people who disagree with them. So I'm not so sure we can talk our way out of this one. I think that's probably one of the most important points of this crossroads we're at. No one's going to listen. It doesn't matter what we say. It doesnt matter how many Madison Avenue people we hire to put out the word, to put out magazines. Aint no one out there listening anymore.$NOAD$>
As the above exchange illustrates, I think relinquishing the promotion of democratic reform in the Muslim world limits our options in the war on terrorism to basically military measures that stand a significant chance of spiraling out of control. And there are Muslim liberals and reformers out there–just ask Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim. After the occupation of Iraq, and especially after Abu Ghraib, it's hard to disagree with the proposition that our credibility is in serious disrepair, but that's not an argument for cutting our losses and ceding the intellectual battlefield to the jihadists. In order to sharpen this point and chart a course forward in what Anonymous rightly identifies as a war of survival, Imperial Hubris is worth examining and debating. … [Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall]