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BOOK REVIEW:

A Guide for the Perplexed: Intellectual Fallacies of the War on Terror

by Chalmers Johnson

[This essay is a review of The Matador's Cape, America's Reckless Response to Terror by Stephen Holmes (Cambridge University Press, 367 pp., $30).]

Stephen Holmes has written a powerful and philosophically erudite survey of what we think we understand about the 9/11 attacks—and how and why the U.S. has magnified many times over the initial damage caused by the terrorists.
There are many books entitled "A Guide for the Perplexed," including Moses Maimonides' 12th century treatise on Jewish law and E. F. Schumacher's 1977 book on how to think about science. Book titles cannot be copyrighted. A Guide for the Perplexed might therefore be a better title for Stephen Holmes' new book than the one he chose, The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror. In his perhaps overly clever conception, the matador is the terrorist leadership of al Qaeda, taunting a maddened United States into an ultimately fatal reaction. But do not let the title stop you from reading the book. Holmes has written a powerful and philosophically erudite survey of what we think we understand about the 9/11 attacks—and how and why the United States has magnified many times over the initial damage caused by the terrorists.

Stephen Holmes is a law professor at New York University. In The Matador's Cape, he sets out to forge an understanding—in an intellectual and historical sense, not as a matter of journalism or of partisan politics—of the Iraq war, which he calls "one of the worst (and least comprehensible) blunders in the history of American foreign policy" (p. 230). His modus operandi is to survey in depth approximately a dozen influential books on post-Cold War international politics to see what light they shed on America's missteps. I will touch briefly on the books he chooses for dissection, highlighting his essential thoughts on each of them.

Holmes' choice of books is interesting. Many of the authors he focuses on are American conservatives or neoconservatives, which is reasonable since they are the ones who caused the debacle. He avoids progressive or left wing writers, and none of his choices are from Metropolitan Books' American Empire Project. (Disclosure: This review was written before I read Holmes' review of my own book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic in the October 29 issue of The Nation.)

He concludes: "Despite a slew of carefully researched and insightful books on the subject, the reason why the United States responded to the al Qaeda attack by invading Iraq remains to some extent an enigma" (p. 3). Nonetheless, his critiques of the books he has chosen are so well done and fair that they constitute one of the best introductions to the subject. They also have the advantage in several cases of making it unnecessary to read the original.

Holmes interrogates his subjects cleverly. His main questions and the key books he dissects for each of them are:
Is Islam the Culprit or Merely a Distraction?
In addition to these broad themes, Holmes investigates hidden agendas and their distorting effects on rational policy-making. Some of these are: Cheney's desire to expand executive power and weaken Congressional oversight; Rumsfeld's schemes to field-test his theory that in modern warfare speed is more important than mass; the plans by some of Cheney's and Rumsfeld's advisers to improve the security situation of Israel; the administration's desire to create a new set of permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East to protect the U.S. oil supply in case of a collapse of the Saudi monarchy; and the desire to invade Iraq and thereby avoid putting all the blame for 9/11 on al Qaeda—because to do so would have involved admitting administration negligence and incompetence during the first nine months of 2001 and, even worse, that Clinton was right in warning Bush and his top officials that the main security threat to the United States was a potential al Qaeda attack or attacks.

This is not the place to attempt a comprehensive review of Holmes' detailed critiques. For that, one should buy and read his book. Let me instead dwell on three themes that I think illustrate his insight and originality.

Holmes rejects any direct connection between Islamic religious extremism and the 9/11 attacks, although he recognizes that Islamic vilification of the United States and other Western powers is often expressed in apocalyptically religious language. "Emphasizing religious extremism as the motivation for the [9/11] plot, whatever it reveals," he argues, "terminates inquiry prematurely, encouraging us to view the attack ahistorically as an expression of 'radical Salafism,' a fundamentalist movement within Islam that allegedly drives its adherents to homicidal violence against infidels." (p. 2) This approach, he points out, is distinctly tautological: "Appeals to social norms or a culture of martyrdom are not very helpful." They are tantamount to saying that suicidal terrorism is caused by a proclivity to "suicidal terrorism." (p. 20)

Instead, he suggests, "The mobilizing ideology behind 9/11 was not Islam, or even Islamic fundamentalism, but rather a specific narrative of blame" (p. 63). He insists on putting the focus on the actual perpetrators, the 19 men who executed the attacks in New York and Washington—15 Saudi Arabians, two citizens of the United Arab Emirates, one Egyptian, and one Lebanese. None of them was particularly religious. Three were living together in Hamburg, Germany, where they did appear to have become more interested in Islam than they had been in their home countries. Mohamed Atta, the leader of the group, age 33 on 9/11, had Egyptian and German degrees in architecture and city planning and became highly politicized in favor of the Palestinian cause against Zionism only after he went abroad.

Holmes notes, "According to the classic study of resentment, [Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)] 'every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering; more specifically, an agent, a "guilty" agent who is susceptible of pain—in short, some living being or other on whom he can vent his feelings directly or in effigy, under some pretext or other.' If suffering is seen as natural or uncaused it will be coded as misfortune instead of injustice, and it will produce resignation rather than rebellion. The most efficient way to incite, therefore, is to indict" (p. 64).

The role of bin Laden was, and remains, to provide such a hyperbolic indictment—one that men like Atta would never have heard back in authoritarian Egypt but that came through loud and clear in their German exile. Bin Laden demonized the United States, accusing it of genocide against Muslims and repeatedly contending that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia ever since the first Gulf War in 1991 was a far graver offense than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even though that had led to the death of one million Afghans and had sent five million more into exile.

The fact that the 9/11 plot involved the attackers' own self-destruction suggests possible irrationality on their part, but Holmes argues that this was actually part of the specific narrative of blame. Americans feel contempt for Muslims and ascribe little or no value to Muslim lives. Therefore, to be captured after a terrorist attack involved a high likelihood that the Americans would torture the perpetrator. Suicide took care of that worry (and provided several other advantages discussed below).
The United States as "Sole Remaining Superpower"
Another subject about which Holmes is strikingly original is the subtle way in which the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the United States' self-promotion as the sole remaining superpower clouded our vision and virtually guaranteed the catastrophe that ensued in Iraq. "Because Americans have sunk so much of their national treasure into a military establishment fit to deter and perhaps fight an enemy that has now disappeared," he argues, "they have an almost irresistible inclination to exaggerate the centrality of rogue states, excellent targets for military destruction, [above] the overall terrorist threat. They overestimate war (which never unfolds as expected) and underestimate diplomacy and persuasion as instruments of American power" (pp. 71-72).

Holmes draws several interesting implications from this American overinvestment in Cold-War-type military power. One is that the very nature of the 9/11 attacks undermined crucial axioms of American national security doctrine. In a much more significant way than in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, a non-state actor on the international stage successfully attacked the United States, contrary to a well-established belief in Pentagon circles that only states have the capability of menacing us militarily. Equally alarming, by employing a strategy requiring their own deaths, the terrorists ensured that deterrence no longer held sway. Overwhelming military might cannot deter non-state actors who accept that they will die in their attacks on others. The day after 9/11, American leaders in Washington D.C. suddenly felt unprotected and defenseless against a new threat they only imperfectly understood. They responded in various ways.

One was to recast what had happened in terms of Cold-War thinking. "To repress feelings of defenselessness associated with an unfamiliar threat, the decision makers' gaze slid uncontrollably away from al Qaeda and fixated on a recognizable threat that was unquestionably susceptible to being broken into bits." (p.312) Holmes calls this fusion of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein a "mental alchemy, the 'reconceiving' of an impalpable enemy as a palpable enemy." He endorses James Mann's thesis that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and others did not change the underlying principles guiding American foreign policy in response to the 9/11 attacks; that, in fact, they did the exact opposite: "[T]he Bush administration has managed foreign affairs so ineptly because it has been reflexively implementing out-of-date formulas in a radically changed security environment." (p. 106)

Unintended consequences also played a role, Holmes argues: "If conservative Congressmen had not blocked [Pennsylvania Governor] Tom Ridge's nomination as Defense Secretary [in 2000] for the ludicrously immaterial reason that he was wobbly on abortion, then the Cheney-Rumsfeld group, including Wolfowitz and [Douglas] Feith, would have been in no position to hijack the administration's reaction to 9/11" (pp. 93-94). Rumsfeld enthusiastically endorsed Bush's description of his "new" policies as a "war" because the Office of the Secretary of Defense then became the lead agency in designing and carrying out America's response.

Writes Holmes, Neither Powell nor Rice "provided a gripping and persuasive vision of the United States' role in the world that might have counteracted the megalomania of the neoconservatives, and neither was capable of outfoxing the hard-liners in an interagency power struggle."
There was little or no countervailing influence. "By sheer chance," Holmes writes, "Rice and Powell—no doubt orderly managers—have pedestrian minds and perhaps deferential personalities. Neither provided a gripping and persuasive vision of the United States' role in the world that might have counteracted the megalomania of the neoconservatives, and neither was capable of outfoxing the hard-liners in an interagency power struggle." (p. 94) The costs of equating al Qaeda with Iraq and of concentrating on a military response were high. "It meant that some of the troops sent to Iraq in the first wave believed, disgracefully, that they were avenging the 3,000 dead from September 11. Cruel and arbitrary behavior by some U.S. forces helped stoke the violent insurgency that followed." (p. 307)

American confusion about the nature of the enemy—rogue state vs. non-state terrorist organization—produced two different counterstrategies, both of which almost certainly made the situation worse. First, by focusing on a rogue state (Iraq), rather than on a non-state actor (al Qaeda), the Pentagon drew attention to what it came to call the "hand-off scenario" in which a nuclear-armed rogue state might hand over weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who would use them against the U.S. To counter this threat, the Pentagon developed a strategy of preventive war against rogue states with the objective of bringing about regime change in them. The only way to prevent nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups—so the argument went—was to forcibly democratize Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, some of which had long been allied with the United States.

The other strategy was a return to what seemed like a form of deterrence: a "scare the Muslims" campaign. This involved a resort to massive "shock and awe" bombing raids on Baghdad with the intent of demonstrating the futility of defying the United States.

By reacting to the threat of modern terrorism with an attack on a substitute target—without even bothering to calculate the enormous potential costs involved—the Pentagon greatly overestimated what military force could achieve. Both the regime-change and overawe-the-Muslims approaches carried with them potentially devastating unintended consequences—particularly if any of the premises, such as about who possessed WMD, were wrong. Overly abstract ideas were substituted for empirical knowledge of, and logical responses to, an enemy's capabilities. Thus, insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, two devastated, poor countries, have managed to fight one of the most powerful American expeditionary forces in history to a virtual standstill. In short, "America's bellicose response to the 9/11 provocation was not only dishonorable and unethical, given the cruel suffering it has inflicted on thousands of innocents, but also imprudent in the extreme because it was bound to produce as much hatred as fear, as much burning desire for reprisal as quaking paralysis and docility. Some of the sickening effects are unfolding before our eyes. That even more malevolent consequences remain in store is a grim possibility not to be wished away." (p. 10)
Complicity of the Left in American Imperialism
Holmes is also interesting on why the American Left has been so ineffectual in countering the efforts of Washington's pro-war party. Deeply guilt-ridden over the Clinton administration's failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda and frustrated by the constraints of international law and United Nations procedures, some influential progressives in America had already advocated a preemptive and unilateralist turn in American foreign policy that the Bush administration hijacked. Human rights activists had heavily promoted intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo to halt ethnic cleansing—and doing so without any international sanction whatsoever. Some of them became as enthusiastic about using the American armed forces to achieve limited foreign policy goals, as did many neocons. Even U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright made herself notorious with her 1993 wisecrack to then Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

Although Holmes tries not to overstate his case, he suspects that the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s—at one point he speaks of "human rights as imperial ideology" (p. 190)—may have played at least a small role in the public's acceptance of Bush's intervention in Iraq. If so, it is hard to imagine a better example of the disasters that good intentions can sometimes produce. The result in Iraq, in turn, has more or less silenced calls from the Left for further campaigns of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. The U.S. is conspicuously not participating in the U.N. intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The Rule of Law
As a legal scholar, Holmes is committed to the rule of law. "[L]aw is best understood," he writes, "not as a set of rigid rules but rather as a set of institutional mechanisms and procedures designed to correct the mistakes that even exceptionally talented executive officials are bound to make and to facilitate midstream readjustments and course corrections. If we understand law, constitutionalism, and due process in this way, then it becomes obvious why the war on terrorism is bound to fail when conducted, as it has been so far, against the rule of law and outside the constitutional system of checks and balances." (p. 5)

This short-circuiting of normal constitutional procedures he sees as probably the most consequential post-9/11 blunder of the Bush administration. The President's repeated claims that he needs high levels of secrecy and the ability to arbitrarily cancel established law in order to move decisively against terrorists draw his utter contempt. "By dismantling checks and balances, along the lines idealized and celebrated by [John] Yoo, the administration has certainly gained flexibility in the 'war on terror.' It has gained the flexibility, in particular, to shoot first and aim afterward." (p. 301) Although such an assumption of dictatorial powers has happened before during periods of national emergency in the United States, Holmes is convinced that the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s helped anesthetize many Americans to the implications of what the government was doing after 9/11.

Even now, with the Iraq War all but lost and public opinion having turned decisively against the President, there is still a flabbiness in mainstream criticism that reveals a major weakness in the conduct of American foreign policy. For example, while many hawks and doves today recognize that Rumsfeld mobilized too few forces to achieve his military objectives in Iraq, they tend to concentrate on his rejection of former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki's advice that he needed a larger army of occupation. They almost totally ignore the true national policy implications of Rumsfeld's failed leadership. Holmes writes, "If Saddam Hussein had actually possessed the tons of chemical and biological weapons that, in the president's talking points, constituted the casus belli for the invasion, Rumsfeld's slimmed-down force would have abetted the greatest proliferation disaster in world history" (p. 82). He quotes Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor: "Securing the WMD required sealing the country's borders and quickly seizing control of the many suspected sites before they were raided by profiteers, terrorists, and regime officials determined to carry on the fight. The force that Rumsfeld eventually assembled, by contrast, was too small to do any of this." (pp. 84-85) As a matter of fact, looters did ransack the Iraqi nuclear research center at al Tuwaitha. No one pointed out these flaws in the strategy until well after the invasion had revealed that, luckily, Saddam had no WMD.

With this book, Stephen Holmes largely succeeds in elevating criticism of contemporary American imperialism in the Middle East to a new level. In my opinion, however, he underplays the roles of American imperialism and militarism in exploiting the 9/11 crisis to serve vested interests in the military-industrial complex, the petroleum industry, and the military establishment. Holmes leaves the false impression that the political system of the United States is capable of a successful course correction. But, as Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, puts it: "None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of checks and balances?. The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them."

The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge, still growing military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire.
There is, I believe, only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge, still growing military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic—becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force. To take up these subjects, however, moves the discussion into largely unexplored territory. For now, Holmes has done a wonderful job of clearing the underbrush and preparing the way for the public to address this more or less taboo subject.
Copyright 2007 Chalmers Johnson. Chalmers Johnson is the author of the bestselling Blowback Trilogy—Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic(2007). This article was originally solicited, edited and published by Tom Dispatch, and is republished in the Chronicle with permission of the author.


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This story was published on November 1, 2007.