America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between
America and Its Enemies, by George Friedman. Doubleday, 354 pages,
The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, by Gilles Kepel. Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $23.95.
America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by Anatol Lieven. Oxford University Press, 274 pages, $30.
What We Owe Iraq: War and Ethics of Nation Building, by Noah Feldman. Princeton University Press, 154 pages, $19.95.
Now that the shouting and sloganeering of the election season is behind us, there may be an opening for a serious discussion of the complex arguments about terror and the war in Iraq laid out in George Friedman’s America’s Secret War. Mr. Friedman, who runs Stratfor, a private intelligence-gathering organization, has a record of clear-eyed thinking. He has the unusual ability to view events through the eyes of not only American but also foreign political leaders. There’s no posturing or rhetoric with Mr. Friedman: He approaches problems like a policymaker forced to select from an unappetizing menu of options. The United States, as he sees it, is in the treacherous business of enlisting Saudi Arabian and Pakistani allies—who are also our enemies—into at least a supporting role in the war against Islamism. Viewing the landscape of terror in geopolitical terms, he takes the reader through the intricate politics of the Islamic world, in which Shiite Iran—a charter member of “the Axis of Evil”—quietly supported U.S. wars against the Sunni regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
He reverses the conventional judgment about the Bush administration: President Bush, he writes, “has been portrayed as strategically simplistic and politically adroit and opportunistic. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case.” Mr. Friedman lays out a sophisticated case for linking the war on terror to the war in Iraq—a case that an inarticulate and often incompetent Bush administration could not seem to make.
Al Qaeda, he notes, assumed it had executed a masterstroke on 9/11. They knew the U.S. would try to strike back. But Al Qaeda’s leadership assumed it was invulnerable in its Afghan strongholds. They expected it would take at least six months for the Americans to launch a response. The delay—like the failure to respond to earlier terror attacks—would be taken as additional proof of American impotence.
In the pre-9/11 world, both the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services played a major role in the rise of Al Qaeda. Even after 9/11, the pragmatic Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was reluctant to do more than act as a mediator between the U.S. and the Taliban. But within a mere month of 9/11, with the help of the Russians, we had rented the Taliban’s Afghan military opposition, bypassed General Musharraf by airlifting our Special Forces into the mountains, and begun the war on the Taliban. Still, it took the simultaneous threat of nuclear war with India to bring General; Musharraf around to cooperating against Al Qaeda—a risky business in a country where 65 percent of the population thinks that Osama Bin Laden is a hero.
Saudi Arabia, which had treated American soldiers sent to protect the regime from Saddam Hussein as no better than hired help, assumed it had America by the short hairs. The U.S., notes Mr. Friedman, didn’t scare the Saudi royals nearly as much as did Mr. bin Laden. But the U.S. was in no mood for Saudi equivocation. In the month after 9/11, the C.I.A. received two credible—but thankfully erroneous—reports of a terrorist nuclear device in New York. Those reports sent the administration into a cold sweat. It became clear that it was impossible to fight a largely defensive war against determined terrorists with deadly weapons. They could, as Mr. bin Laden bragged in the pre-election videotape aired on Oct. 29, keep the U.S. on tenterhooks and cost the government billions by constantly jerking the American chain with feints and hints of future attacks.
The U.S. needed a way to force the Saudi regime not only to take action against Mr. bin Laden’s Saudi backers but to force the royal family to make a strategic decision: Which side are you on? Faced with American pressure, the Saudis floated a phony Arab-Israeli peace plan, blamed Saudi-American tension on those nefarious neoconservatives, and launched an expensive stateside P.R. campaign. But still—perhaps because of Al Qaeda attacks within the kingdom—the Saudis refused to cooperate. Here was one of the key reasons to go into Iraq. As a military matter, Iraq is “the single most strategically located country in the Middle East.” It borders not only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but also Syria, a junior partner in “the Axis of Evil,” as well as Iran and Turkey. “The U.S.,” writes Mr. Friedman, “was not driven by bloodlust or some cowboy mentality,” but by a desire to make it clear that in the only calculus in the Arab world that counted, it was to be feared more than Al Qaeda.
Still, the Saudis—like the Pakistanis with regard to Afghanistan—assumed that the Americans couldn’t go into Iraq without their cooperation. Wrong again. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Saudis—worried, among other things, about an American seizure of their oil fields—were forced to crack down on Al Qaeda’s funding sources. Americans weren’t taking “maybe later” for an answer. The U.S., notes Mr. Friedman, “moved from being hated and held in contempt to being hated and feared—a substantial improvement in terms of getting nations to act in accordance with U.S. wishes.” And like the Pakistanis, the Saudis have crossed the line in cooperating with us against Al Qaeda; they can’t go back. “The U.S.,” Mr. Friedman argues, “has reshaped the Islamic world to such an extent that Islamic nation-states are now using their intelligence services to attack and undermine Al Qaeda.” They were forced despite themselves to cooperate against terrorism.
Going into Iraq, Mr. Friedman argues, wasn’t a good idea; it was just the best available option. While he supports the broad strategic concept behind the war in Iraq, he’s scathing when it comes to its execution. He singles out Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for particular criticism. Mr. Rumsfeld, who kept on talking dismissively about the Iraqi opposition as “dead-enders,” was very slow to see that Saddam Hussein had been planning for a guerrilla war from the start. Meanwhile, the administration—having placed all its rhetorical eggs in the W.M.D. basket—was left verbally defenseless when they weren’t found. Still, Mr. Friedman concludes that trends in Iraq favor the U.S., even if, “because of the political failures of the Bush administration, [most Americans] seem unaware of it.”
Mr. Friedman’s conclusion would come as a shock to the conspiratorial Gilles Kepel, who has written The War for Muslim Minds, and Anatol Lieven, whose book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism reduces U.S. foreign policy to pop psychology.
Mr. Kepel, an influential Parisian academic and erudite flack for French foreign policy, has written a book in which all our problems, from 9/11 to the Palestinian intifada, have been produced by one man: Ariel Sharon. In Mr. Kepel’s world, the late Yasir Arafat never walked out of the Oslo peace talks and began the second intifada. In Mr. Kepel’s world, the 9/11 attacks, whose planning began in 1996, were merely another response to Ariel Sharon becoming the Israeli prime minister in 2000. It would take a far longer book than Mr. Kepel has written to unravel all his errors of fact and chronology. But one point deserves mention: The U.S. first began to arm the mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the Carter administration. It was a policy designed in 1979 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a man almost as hostile to Israel as the French foreign ministry is. But in Mr. Kepel’s world, the policy was begun by Ariel Sharon’s allies, the American neoconservatives—never mind that the neocons who didn’t gain influence until 1981, when Reagan had assumed the Presidency. Did the editors at Harvard University Press actually read this manuscript?
Anatol Lieven’s American Nationalism is cut from similar cloth. During the Cold War, there was a whole genre of revisionist histories that explained the conflict with scant reference to Stalin or the Soviet empire. Rather, they traced the problems to the psychology of American life that produced a false fear of communism. Substitute “Islamism” for “communism” and you have much of Mr. Lieven’s book. There’s no need to analyze the aims and tactics of the “alleged threat” from the jihadis, since for Mr. Lieven, American foreign policy stems from a “psychological hatred and fear of the outside world.” Mr. Lieven, an Englishman who’s associated with the Carnegie Endowment, goes on to explain the deep ties between the U.S. and Israel by arguing that the Americans see the Jews as the cowboys and the Palestinians as the Indians.
Reading Messrs. Kepel and Lieven underscores the wisdom of Middle East scholar Barry Rubin’s comment that when it comes to Judeophobia, “rather than easing the Middle East’s madness, Europe has caught the disease itself.”
Noah Feldman’s What We Owe Iraq is a tightly argued but highly academic argument about why, in the name of both ethical norms and our own self-interest, we ought to support democracy in Iraq. But despite the fact that Mr. Feldman, an N.Y.U. law professor, was an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the book’s abstract treatment of the issues leaves the reader without a feel for Iraqi politics. Mr. Feldman never deals, as Mr. Friedman might have, with the central paradox of holding elections in Iraq. In order to make sure they are as fair as possible, we have to be neutral among the three major contending groups, Shiites, Kurds and Sunni. But the Shiites have generally been our allies and the Sunnis our enemies—a dilemma worthy of Mr. Feldman’s attention.
Since 9/11, there’s been a continuous flow of books on American foreign policy, terrorism, Iraq, and the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most are forgettable; few have the power and insight of George Friedman’s taut and smartly argued America’s Secret War. With the election behind us, Mr. Friedman’s argument provides the basis for a substantive debate on the relationship between the war in Iraq and the threat of Islamist terror. Let the rational arguments begin!