Battling bin Laden

Michael Scheuer is a worried man—and an angry one. He's worried by what he regards as the United States's failure to devise a successful strategy against Osama bin Laden and angered by what he sees as the political timidity behind that failure. Scheuer has a claim to be heard. He was a CIA officer for almost 20 years. In the 1980s he was involved in the arming of the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets. For much of the 1990s he ran the team hunting for Osama bin Laden. In 2004 he quit the CIA to write a book titled "Imperial Hubris," an account of years of Western failure to take seriously the growing threat of Islamist terrorism. Now Scheuer has written a new book, "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq." He spoke with NEWSWEEK'S John Barry about it. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you write this new book?
Michael Scheuer:
Because I think our country is in trouble. The enemy we are facing, Osama bin Laden and the movement he heads, is much more dangerous than anyone gives him credit for. Much smarter, much more talented, and now increasingly recruiting a new generation that's better educated, not just in school terms but in operational and especially technological ways. We defeated the swashbucklers. The Errol Flynns of the jihad are gone; they're about to go on trial in Guantánamo. Now we have the gray-suited fellows who are quiet, don't draw attention to themselves, but are tremendously savvy.

Have we underestimated Osama bin Laden?
I think there is tremendous racism in our response to bin Laden. He wears a beard and a robe and lives in a cave. (I doubt that's true, by the way. It's the made-for-Hollywood version.) So we dismiss him. But it is just extraordinary to treat your enemy as an idiot, especially when you are losing two wars to him, and when our director of national intelligence is warning that Al Qaeda is rebuilt, refitted and stronger than ever.

We've been fighting bin Laden for longer than we fought World War II. Why haven't we won?
Because our political elite do not want to level with the American people about the real reasons why bin Laden hates and opposes us. Our leaders say he and his followers hate us because of who we are, because we have early primaries in Iowa every four years and allow women in the workplace. That's nonsense. I don't think he would have those things in his country. But that's not why he opposes us. I read bin Laden's writings and I take him at his word. He and his followers hate us because of specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Bin Laden lays them out for anyone to read. Six elements: our unqualified support for Israel; our presence on the Arabian peninsula, which is land they deem holy; our military presence in other Islamic countries; our support of foreign states that oppress Muslims, especially Russia, China and India; our long-term policy of keeping oil prices artificially low to the benefit of Western consumers but the detriment of the Arab people; and our support for Arab tyrannies who will do that.

You say bin Laden has laid all this out. But one doesn't hear discussion of this in the current presidential campaign.
I've come to the conclusion that it's just too inconvenient for our political class. It's much easier to tell Americans that crazy people are after you and tomorrow morning your daughter is going to have to go to school in a burqa. And we have so few people, even now, with real expertise in the Arab world. In the year 9/11 happened, there were three Ph.D.s awarded that bore on Arab affairs. Three, in the whole country. One was in Islamic architecture. One was in Islamic poetry. The third was in Islamic history. And things haven't gotten a lot better since. We are still not building the intellectual capital we need. In the cold war did we say, "We really don't need to understand what Marx or Lenin or Stalin wrote because they are just gangsters, not smart men, just nihilists, and we can beat them because we are the good guys"? No. We built, with government money, institutions to study the Soviet Union. But almost nothing comparable is being done now. The effort is tiny. And more often than not you find that the outfits we do have are funded by Saudi money. Which means there are real constraints on what they can say. So I read in the National Review or the Weekly Standard about Osama bin Laden being a gangster or an idiot or both. But I have to tell you there is a touch of genius here. To pick the six elements of U.S. foreign policy that are most entwined with our domestic politics is a great piece of analysis. Because it makes frank debate so tough.

And if we don't have that debate?
Look, we have a political class in this country that lives and dies by polls. They don't go to the john without looking the polls. Well, polls tell us that in the Muslim world somewhere around 75 to 80 percent agree with Osama bin Laden that American foreign policy is meant to undermine or destroy Islam. Now, nowhere near that percentage is going to pick up an AK-47. But how many does it take to cause you a problem? Osama bin Laden is, in some sense, talking about a war of liberation. And it is true that for 50 years we have supported tyrannies that have oppressed Muslims, tyrannies with strong fascist elements. We hear a lot of talk about "Islamofascists." Yes, there's a lot of them out there. And they're all on our side. They're in Riyadh, Amman, Kuwait City, Cairo. Even Bernard Lewis, the patron saint of our neocons, has written that the governments that rule Muslims are basically [practicing] European fascism adapted to the sand … We can continue the current course of American foreign policy, but we need to realize that over time this may involve us in sending troops to fight on every continent as new generations of young Muslims sign up under the Al Qaeda banner. The candidates in the presidential campaign are talking about reviving jobs and wages and moving toward universal health care. None of that is going to be possible if this country is involved in some generation-long struggle with millions of Muslims. My own view is that it's more sensible to confront the fact that our foreign policies toward the Arab world [add up to] the one indispensable ally Osama bin Laden has.