Imperial Hubris: An author reviews the reviews of his book

Mr. Rockwell’s suggestion that I review the reviews of my book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism, gives me a unique opportunity to evaluate the success of the book in prompting and influencing debate on the nature of America’s war on Islamist militancy, as well as to survey the range and content of the reviews the book has received.

What the book says

First, let me restate my intent in writing the book. My work was meant to inform Americans about the threat Islamist militancy posed to our country. The book is strongly nationalistic. I do not aspire to be a citizen of the world; being an American citizen is enough honor for one lifetime. The message I wanted to deliver can be summarized in three points.

  1. Our Islamist enemies — led and personified by Osama bin Laden — attack America for what we do in the Muslim world, not for what we believe or the way we live. They attack us because they believe America, through its policies and actions, is tying to destroy Muslims and the Islamic faith. Our political leaders from both parties do not understand this, or, if they do, are willfully lying to the electorate. There is no other explanation for their abject wrong-headedness.
  2. The war in which America is engaged is a war for survival, not a police action, a regime-changing or nation-building exercise, or, least of all, a law enforcement problem. We cannot talk our way out of this war, and we cannot — and must not try — to appease our way out of it. Indeed, we are faced not by a choice between war and peace, but a choice between war and endless war.
  3. Today America is defending itself only through intelligence and military operations. These can hold the ring for a while, but to crush our Islamist enemy — as we must — the lethal power of these services must be complemented by a review of and debate about our policies toward the Muslim world. Not aimed at appeasement, this review, and the debate it engenders, would ensure that our long-in-place policies still serve U.S. national interests. If they do, fine, we will have make do with military and intelligence means. If they do not, we can alter them in a way that protects America’s interests while we simultaneously destroy our foes at every opportunity.

The book’s reception

I think any author would be pleased by the reception my book received. I was not only pleased, but shocked. The book has sold more than 150,000 copies, long excerpts have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, and it was on those papers’ bestseller lists for several weeks. I have had numerous opportunities to talk about the book and my ideas on television, radio, and in print interviews, and have been asked to present talks in several public venues. With the exception of several sui generis Fox TV correspondents, I have been well treated on all occasions. The best part of this media experience has been participating in radio call-in shows. The eagerness of Americans to seek new information, question my ideas and judgments, and try to pin me down for specifics have reaffirmed my belief that Americans are not the simpletons their political leaders too often treat them as.

Notwithstanding these many positives — for which I am genuinely grateful — I have been disappointed by the failure of many reviewers to understand the book’s intent. This failure speaks either to the murkiness of my prose and the weakness of my arguments, or to the agendas of my reviewers. Likely it is a mix of both.

Reviews from the left

My book has been embraced on the left by those eager to attack President Bush and his neoconservative advisers, especially on the issue of Iraq. I oppose the Iraq war because it made crushing our bin Laden-led Islamist enemies vastly more difficult, and because self-initiated, offensive wars are incompatible with the principles on which the Founding Fathers grounded U.S. foreign policy. This said, the book devotes only a few of three-hundred pages to Iraq, and rarely mentions President Bush. Simply, Imperial Hubris is not about either Iraq or President Bush.

After disgorging their anti-Bush venom, reviewers on the left have consistently referred to the “schizophrenic” nature of the book. The argument they make on this point is that while I claim that our Muslim foes hate and fight us because of what we do in the Islamic world, I also assert that more and more-lethal military and intelligence activities must be undertaken in America’s defense. Well, I am guilty as charged. At a basic level, America is suffering from the postwar mangling of our educational system that allows the inculcation of such errant nonsense as the idea that all wars are evil, as well as from the willingness of our elites to preach the lie that wars can be fought and won with few combatant casualties on either side and even fewer civilian casualties.

As a consequence, since 2001 most of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Iraqi armed forces escaped America’s daintily applied wrath, went home with their guns, and have lived to merrily fight another day. My point was not schizophrenic, but just this: It does not matter whether Muslims are angered by the simple fact that we intend to kill all those who intend to kill us. What matters, and this point was seldom caught by reviewers on the left, is that we cannot kill 1.3 billion Muslims, that while we must in the short term kill far greater numbers of our enemies, this lethality must be coupled to a policy review aimed at trying to cut into the now steadily growing numbers of Muslims willing to take up arms against America. We cannot stop this growth in its tracks, but we can decide to use all the tools at our command — economic, diplomatic, propaganda, as well as military and intelligence — to slow it over time. It does not seem to me schizophrenic to try to broaden the range of tools available to America by adding non-lethal ones to a more aggressive use of the lethal.

Reviews from the right

For the most part, reviews of Imperial Hubris from the right have been more straightforward and less nuanced. I am simply and variously described as a “liberal appeaser,” an “Islamist fellow traveler,&rdquot; and — my personal favorite — a “rightwing weasel” who always “blames the Jews.” The consensus on the right seems to be that my intention was to “blame America” for the problems we are having at the hands of Islamist militants. The use of these epithets necessarily sets the tone and shapes the content of the reviews. Oddly, the reviews from the right have not noted the sharp nationalistic tone of my book, suggesting, perhaps, that the neoconservatives now in the saddle in Washington are truly more interested in the glories of empire than in the security of America.

There is, in the American context at any rate, nothing “conservative” about a policy of empire-building. Traditionally, as Colonel Ralph Peters brilliantly argues, America has been the killer of empires not their creator. American conservatism has meant regarding war as a last, not a first resort, and going to war only to destroy foes who present a genuine threat to America’s survival. Never has it meant or sanctioned offensive wars of our choosing, and the explicit rejection of John Quincy Adams’s timeless principle that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Many of the reviews of my book from the right seem to me — as a Republican diehard, a nationalist, and a moderate isolationist — to be grounded in nothing more than repackaged Wilsonianism, a set of ideological fantasies that have helped to soak the world in blood since Versailles. The traditional principles of U.S. foreign policy — non-intervention, freedom of the seas, avoiding detrimental alliances, being the exemplar not the installer of democracy in the world, not picking fights abroad, etc. — appear as foreign to some of my reviewers on the right as they so manifestly are to the neoconservatives. Many in both categories would not know the difference between an American founder and an Atlantic flounder, although our current foreign policy suggests that the advice guiding it comes from minds similar in quality to the latter not the former.

Summing up

So far, I have failed in terms of what I intended my book to do. I have failed to stir any sort of substantive debate, and the nationalist, America first — not America alone — content of my argument has gone virtually unnoticed. I am responsible for that failure, and will work to clarify my prose and sharpen my argumentation on the chance I am tempted to write a third book on America’s war with Islamist militancy. There is also the chance, of course, that the problem is not my writing, but that I have not changed with the times. I suppose that there must be a chance that our elites are right when they preach casualty-free wars and the efficacy of democracy crusading; that everyday, working Americans really believe that their liberty is safe only if we impose our brand of freedom elsewhere at bayonet point; and that, to do so, American parents are gladly willing to spend the lives of their sons and daughters to ensure foreigners are just like us. Call me stubborn, but if there is anyone in non-elite America who believes this I would like to meet them because, as George Strait sings, I have some ocean-front property in Arizona to sell.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and he helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.