‘Fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist’: Michael Scheuer interview
by Ian Sinclair
A CIA operative for 22 years, including three as the head of the Agency’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1996-9, Michael Scheuer is no stranger to controversy.
His first book, written anonymously as he was still a serving CIA officer, compared bin Laden’s public statements to those made by US revolutionary giants such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Published in 2004, the 58-year-old American’s second book Imperial Hubris was a bestselling full-frontal assault on the US government’s “war on terror.”
It was endorsed by none other than bin Laden himself. “If you want to understand what’s going on … then read the book of Michael Scheuer,” said the most wanted man in the world in 2007.
Scheuer was in Britain last month to promote his new biography of bin Laden and I caught up with him at his hotel in central London before he gave a public lecture at the London School of Economics.
“We’ve had three presidents, you’ve had two or three prime ministers, who have told the British and American people we are at war because Muslims hate freedom, they hate gender equality, they hate elections,” he says. “But if we were facing the people who were willing to blow themselves up because our daughters go to university it wouldn’t even rise to a level of a nuisance.” So why are the US and Britain primary targets for al-Qaida? “I think it’s pretty clear,” he says. “They don’t like what we do in their world – whether it is support for the Saudi police state or support for Israel or our presence on the Arab peninsula.” Not since Ho Chi Minh has the US had an enemy who has been so frank about their motivation for fighting and how they intend to win, Scheuer says.
“It’s kind of a racist idea that somehow Muslims are so stupid that they are willing to kill themselves because we have McDonald’s or because I have a beer after work.” As a result of this self-imposed ignorance, Scheuer believes the West has underestimated al-Qaida and is “fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist.”
The US Establishment – Democrats and Republicans – “are, quite simply, lying to Americans,” Scheuer argued in his first book. With his election to president in 2008, Barack Obama can be added to this rogues’ gallery. “Obama gave a speech on May 19 in which he called for regime change in six Muslim countries,” Scheuer says. “Had Bush made that speech and come to London I don’t think Bush would have gotten the reception that Obama got.”
Scheuer maintains that this top-level deceit continues because the US is unable to extract itself from the Middle East, after failing to act following the 1973 oil embargo. “No politician wants to go to the electorate and say: ‘We’ve been stupid and derelict and criminally negligent in not doing anything about energy’,” he says. “So what’s easier to do than scaring people and avoiding any kind of discussion about whether a policy change could help remove the motivation from much of al-Qaida and also slow the process of the attraction of its ideas to the coming generation?”
While Morning Star readers will likely broadly agree with much of Scheuer’s analysis, he is no dove, and he certainly not sympathetic to progressive politics in general. On several occasions during the interview he disparagingly refers to Amnesty International, “the left” and the American Civil Liberties Union. He argues this is “a substantive war” with an enemy that has to be defeated. The killing of bin Laden by US special forces was “a great operation,” he says, although the political aftermath was badly botched.
The impact of bin Laden’s death on al-Qaida is significant but not fatal, Scheuer believes.
“The key to the whole situation is how the succession works out.” Although this is being presented in the West as a power struggle, Scheuer maintains that “the reason it is taking so long is that, in an odd way, al-Qaida is a small ‘d’ democratic organisation. “There is a shura council who will pick the next leader and they obviously haven’t settled on anyone yet.”
Scheuer is highly critical of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, although his analysis might best be termed ‘the fight-the-war-better school of criticism.’ “I think the only way to have addressed Afghanistan was with a very much larger military operation that lasted 12-15 months,” he says. With a doctorate in history, Scheuer is a keen student of past military campaigns. “You would certainly be able to do what the British did in Afghanistan in 1878, which was to make it quiet for 20 years.” How? “By conducting what the British used to call ‘a punitive expedition’’”. That is, “break as much of al-Qaida and the Taliban as you could and then leave with the full knowledge you might have to do it again. But leaving them with the impression there really is a cost to playing around with American security.”
If this sounds like a bloodbath, that’s probably because it would be. “Bush had a window for savagery after 9/11,” Scheuer says, which although I’m not totally sure, seems to be an endorsement of this course of action.
“I think the only way to fight it is by telling the truth,” he says when I ask him what he would like to see done. “For example, Israel is an enormous burden on the United States and people pick up guns to fight us because of our support for Israelis. That’s a fact. “It’s not an opinion and you don’t have to agree or disagree with it, because it’s a fact. “Whether you choose to support Israel or not is a different matter. But – and I’ll sound like your father but I don’t mean to – everything in life has a consequence. And to imagine we can do what we’ve done with the Israelis and not have consequences is adolescent.”
How does Scheuer deal with the considerable flak he continues to attract? “The biggest problem I have is abuse and threats indirectly from the people who support Israel,” he replies.
In 2009 Scheuer was sacked from his position as a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, after several donors threatened to withdraw funding after he described Obama as “dancing the Tel Aviv two-step.”
“That’s part of the game,” he says. “If you are an American and you question the worth of the relationship with Israel you are going to be labelled as an anti-semite and anti-American.”
During the Q&A session at the LSE lecture later that day, Scheuer is back to his old tricks, stunning the audience with his answer to a question about al-Qaida’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians. “I’ve not yet seen al-Qaida endorse indiscriminate attacks on civilians … the 9/11 targets were perfectly legitimate military targets as defined by the United States and its allies in World War II.”
While some of his positions may jar uneasily with progressives, undoubtedly the plain-spoken and direct Scheuer continues to be an important voice of reason on this emotive issue.
As the LSE professor noted in his introduction to the lecture, “there is no-one better to speak about Osama bin Laden than Michael Scheuer.”
Michael Scheuer’s Osama bin Laden is published by Oxford University Press (£14.99). Scheuer blogs at www.non-intervention.com