Ian Lustick Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Trapped in the War on Terrorism: Conversation Ian Lustick, Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, May 1, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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U.S. Power and Neo-Imperialism

You use the image of a vortex, and I want to point out that in the book you write, "A vortex is a spiral of self-generating change that overwhelms the trajectories of individual objects or the decisions of individual people." It's like a stock market crash. These are self-generating events that basically are unstoppable once the systemic conditions are present. Now you say that there are two conditions here. One is a triggering event, and obviously that triggering event is 9/11. I want you to help us understand how that event positioned the president to take actions, and then ways in which he was influenced by this cabal, because I want to talk a little about who these people were and their ideas that shaped us and moved us in the direction that you've just described.

Okay. I'd make one slight qualification or correction there. The event that triggered the War on Terror as a self-generating cyclone or vortex was not 9/11. We could have, as those folks at the FBI knew, handled that in a more mature, measured way. The event or trigger was the successful victory by the cabal that wanted a war in Iraq as the beginning of a series of neo-imperial wars to transform the image of the United States in foreign policy and help conservatives win elections. That was the main impetus. That was the triggering event. Once they paired this fear of another 9/11 with their particular agenda, they had their war.

Now let's ask, what about 9/11 gave them the ability to do this? The United States has a military that is as big as the next twenty-four countries. That was [true] before 9/11, and it is now. We are militarily super-dominant in the world. Now, that's a dangerous thing for any country, because normally one of the things that keeps countries out of trouble is the fear that if they use their military margin of superiority they might get hurt. But if you have a super-preponderance, you don't experience that fear and therefore need to exercise extra restraint to avoid wars that will always look more promising or necessary than they are. You have to feel through prudence, through wisdom, through bipartisanship, that that military preponderance has to be controlled, because in any country with a lot of power at its disposal, at the top there are always small groups with ideas that go way beyond what most citizens want. If they can get access to the reins of power their ideas, their fantasies can exploit that huge margin of power.

This was America's position once the Cold War ended.

Yes, that's' right. And that was the predicament for this group, the neo-conservatives and others, who did not believe that just because the Cold War was over the United States should enjoy a peace dividend and live as a country like any other country in the world. The United States [should] live as a unique kind of country, a new kind of Roman empire ...

A benevolent empire that would shake the world.

That's right. It's all laid out in the Project for the New American Century, the Weekly Standard's message, and so on.

And this project emerged in the mid- to late-nineties.


So, documents were produced, legislation was passed -- for example, the legislation signed by President Clinton calling for the change of regime in Iraq.

Yes. And if you see the letters that were given to President Clinton, they were signed by the people who brought us the Iraq war: Cheney, now Vice President; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; Paul Wolfowitz; all the people whose names became household words and now are either hanging on by the skin of their teeth, humiliated by Iraq, or have been moved out of office. But we are stuck with, as I said, this self-generating War on Terror that grew out of their success in foisting their supremacist foreign policy adventure on the country.

I have to make one more comment. [Before] 9/11 you had a president whose popularity was very low and he didn't care about foreign policy, and you had one-half of his administration that I just spoke about earlier that had dominated the cabal and prevented its agenda from taking hold. The administration's outlook was still a Kissengerian, Scowcroft, realpolitik, James Baker orientation. After 9/11, the other side of the bureaucratic battlefield won, but they now had a president who had 90 percent to 95 percent approval rating -- enormous political capital. Anything he said at that time that was necessary for the War on Terror would have been done. And he also became a true believer. He was not sophisticated in foreign policy, and from his own testimony, it appears that he believes he's on a mission from God to liberate Afghanistan, liberate Iraq, fight the War on Terror, etc.

These folks, it strikes me, reading your book and having followed this debate, are almost [followers] of what Schumpeter would call an atavism, [longing for] an earlier period when there was a bipolar world. These are remnants of that atavism trying to redefine itself in a world where there's no bipolarity.

Well, that's right. I think Schumpeter, by atavism, meant things that were longer ago in the past. If you read the key documents of this group they are looking back at Reagan. So, what they talk about doing is they want a revival of a neo-Reaganite foreign policy. And that meant, just like Reagan had the "evil empire" as an enemy and was ready to fight "Star Wars" to bring them down and entertain vast ambitions and train Americans to believe that they had a mission in the world that was beyond living well at home -- that's what the cabal wanted. They had been unsuccessful in convincing very many Americans that this was important. But 9/11 was seen as the vehicle for doing this, whether or not there was actually a threat of al Qaeda inside the United States or not.

From my point of view, what they were doing was exploiting the unsophistication of Americans. Americans are not political scientists. As I said, that means they think in very simple, direct terms. They define politics as arm wrestling. "Al Qaeda hit us, we are strong, we are going to hit them." It's a kind of an arm wrestling. "We're going to fight a World War III kind of War on Terror."

But al Qaeda and our enemies of that ilk are fighting a judo match. In judo you use the enemy's strength against him, and that's what they've done. They used, first, our transportation system against us, now they're using the strength of representative democracy by arranging and orchestrating a situation in which its power produces vastly irrational and counterproductive policies by the American government that exhaust our economy, that confuse our people, that alienate the masses of Muslims and Europeans, burn bridges between us and our allies, get us bogged down in Iraq in a conflict that convinces more and more Muslims to believe that the world really is as al Qaeda describes it and not the world of reform and modernization and development.

Let me show your book again. This is Ian's new book, from the University of Pennsylvania Press. book coverNow, I want you to put on your hat as both a student of foreign policy and of the Middle East. In the concluding chapter of the book, you compare this war on terrorism with Kennan's containment doctrine, which was a foreign policy doctrine that worked and shaped what we did in the Cold War, which we eventually won. I want you to talk a little about Kennan, but also then draw on your Middle East expertise to explain to us who the adversary is now.

Okay. If you go back to the fifties, we can see that this is not the first time the United States has been caught in an hysterical spiral that left embarrassing and wasteful and destructive consequences. After the Russians exploded the atom bomb, with the help of spies that had been in the United States, in 1949, which is two or three years earlier probably than they would have on their own, there was an anti-Communist hysteria in this country -- McCarthyism and so on -- that lasted five or six, seven years, and to an extent continued to the point of getting us into imbroglios such as the Vietnam War. But that five or six years of this utter hysteria was based on the idea that there were Communist sleeper cells everywhere. Look what happened: that turned out to be utterly false. There weren't any, [as] we now know from Soviet documents. But everyone believed it, or if they didn't believe it, they couldn't say so publicly.

On the other hand, while publicly that was what was happening, the government -- that is, the foreign policy elite, the military, the intelligence community, President Truman, President Eisenhower -- did not believe this. They had a much more sophisticated view, which meant that we didn't get into wars like Iraq, a war based on taking the rhetoric of the War on Terror seriously. They instead looked closely at the enemy, because a fundamental principle in warfare and in politics is "know your enemy."

That elite was guided by the thinking of a brilliant man by the name of George Kennan, who was a diplomat and an expert on the Soviet Union, and he wrote a famous article based on a long telegram he'd written in 1946 from Moscow, his "X" article in Foreign Affairs, which said we have a new enemy in the Soviet Union -- this was before they exploded the bomb -- and we have to realize they're not our ally, they're an enemy. But what are they like? Do we have to fight a war against them? (Some people thought we had to launch World War III just when we'd demobilized ten million Americans.) "No, we don't. We have to adopt a policy that will consistently embarrass them and thwart their ability to succeed by their own measurements. That policy is containment, political and military, all around the Soviet periphery, and we have to help countries stand on their feet that are ready to fight Communism and to make sure that efforts to cross a border militarily are blocked; but we do not have to invade. We can live with this enemy. It will collapse eventually."

Decades later, because of a consistent American policy, albeit one that went off course a few times, based mostly on a careful assessment of the enemy and its capabilities and of our capabilities, we were able to live under a nuclear threat of imminent destruction for decades, leading a more or less normal national life. How much more dangerous was that threat of incineration of our cities, hour to hour, for decades, than the non-existent threat in the United States of terrorism? And yet we are caught up in a hysteria that threatens to last much longer than the McCarthyist hysteria, and we are making billions and even trillions of dollars of mistakes because of that.

So, what would a real analysis of the al Qaeda-type enemy be like, comparable to Kennan's analysis of the Soviets? Well, there's good work done on this. What you see when you look at al Qaeda closely is that al Qaeda striking the United States was a desperate attempt of a small group of the extreme Muslim school of the Salafis and the jihadis, a group so small that they are actually no more relevant to the Muslim world than the Aryan Nations movement is to American politics. In order to become relevant, they needed to get the United States to play by a script that they had written, to make the world look like it was really based on crusaders and Jews fighting against Muslims. And that's what they did by saying, "Okay, we can't convince many Muslims to follow us in the Muslim world to create a caliphate. We can't even overthrow any of the governments in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, that we've been trying to do. We can't even get enough money to continue our movement." The last gasp was, "Let's treat the far enemy, the United States, as the target rather than the near enemy." And by hitting the far enemy, as Fawaz Gerges has explained and documented well in his book, they were able to use the vast power of the United States against American interests and to harness it for their own purposes, to transform Middle Eastern politics into a discourse and a discussion that fits exactly with their categories, and to bring hundreds of thousands of American and European targets into the Middle East, killing Muslims, whether directly or as collateral damage. These wars then become universities or factories for the production of jihadis and terrorists that can move across the Muslim and non-Muslim world, as happened after the Afghan war that we supported against the Soviets.

So, there's a tension on the side of the adversary [because of] a nationalism which they can't win. Al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian national and failed in his efforts to change Egypt; Osama bin Laden started as a Saudi national trying to change that regime there. So a global war against the United States, and America fighting a global war against them, enhances their position in the debate within that world.

Of course. In the book I have a quote from Osama bin Laden. One of the things that the War on Terror does to defend itself is it prevents its enemy from being known. It does that, for example, by shutting down John Kerry when he said something true about it, which is that terrorism is a nuisance and something that we have to control through systematic law enforcement. The War on Terror wouldn't let him say that. He had to retract it and instead adopt the line that, "I'm going to kill more terrorists, more viciously, than George Bush." In almost every other way, the War on Terror suppresses knowledge of itself. For example, it does not allow the American people to see Osama bin Laden. When he has a videotape out we see a little picture and a couple snippets that CNN has decided to show us, but early on the government told the media, "Don't show these tapes." Well, Osama bin Laden in that famous tape on November 1, right before the election -- it helped George Bush get elected, I think calculatedly so -- said, "It's amazing, all we have to do is raise a little red flag with the words 'al Qaeda' on it and the United States will send armies anywhere in the world. We are essentially in cooperation with the American government and with its corporations because they're all making money off of this war." In others words, he and others in al Qaeda have even made explicit how effective they have been, probably beyond their wildest dreams, at harnessing not only the American transportation system to hit us but the American political system. That's why the book is called Trapped in the War on Terror.

And so, to repeat: behind all this complexity is a very compelling simple point, which is al Qaeda baited a trap, and this administration fell into it.

Yes, that's actually the epigram in the book. It's from Seif al-Adl, the al Qaeda security chief, who says, "We set the bait and the Americans fell into the trap." He's talking about the entire War on Terror, and he's talking about the war in Iraq.

Next page: Escaping the "War on Terror" Trap

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