What Mike Scheuer says may shock you.
Mike Scheuer thinks we're in trouble. "The United States has been defeated, stalemated or frustrated on every front on which it has chosen to engage al Qaeda and the forces it leads and inspires," writes the 22-year CIA veteran who headed the agency's hunt for Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks. "Americans must begin to do the thinking that their elites have proved themselves incapable of doing. . . . The people themselves must become the engines of their own and their country's survival."
Praised for their clear-eyed analysis of militant jihad and rigorous use of verifiable, unclassified sources, Scheuer's books have solidified his position as the leading historian of al Qaeda. But with his third book plunking onto shelves in February, he has fashioned himself into a public polemic, willing to provoke, shock and, yes, offend in order to get your attention.
Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq (Free Press), is the first book Scheuer wrote as a private citizen, without his erstwhile pseudonym, Anonymous. He left the agency in 2004. And while he says his relationship with its publication review board has been good, one wonders if his bosses would have let him write like this: "The lives of our military children are being sacrificed so that U.S. leaders can bleat and preen in international conferences about the pride they take in bringing democracy and freedom to Afghanistan's unwashed Muslim masses," he writes in a bluntly titled chapter that lays out his policy solutions, "A Humble Suggestion-America First." Scheuer exhorts his readers to acknowledge the failures and inconsistencies of the war on terror. Rather than pursue global terror networks, he writes, the U.S. military has been overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting essentially unwinnable wars with the wrong goal-democracy-building.
Critics of that enterprise have questioned whether Muslims are socially equipped to manage democratic, secular institutions. But Scheuer doesn't condemn Islamic governance. Instead, he excoriates the American "governing elite" for supposing that eight centuries of democratic evolution can be swiftly unpacked abroad, or that the citizens of Afghanistan really want "100 bars in Kabul," or that Muslims place women's liberation as high in their political hierarchy as we do. "It would take an odd mind-set indeed for any parent to be able to take comfort in knowing their child was killed so Mrs. Muhammad can vote, vamp and abort," Scheuer writes.
In this frothy rhetoric, which is at times, frankly, jaw-dropping, one can hear strains of Howard Beale, the outraged TV talk show host in the 1976 film
Network, who commands his audience to rise up against the innumerable adversaries underpinning a pre-1980s American malaise. "I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' "
Scheuer is not crazy. But, like Beale, he is unleashed, impassioned and reaching a wider audience than at any point in his career. "I wrote this book because I thought we were sinking," Scheuer says, devoid of cynicism, a skill that he peculiarly seems never to have acquired. "I think Americans would appreciate at long last some kind of honesty." The book "probably has something to offend everyone," Scheuer says. His most outrageous assertions become the long poles in a tent that, he hopes, will cover all: "What I've tried to do, deliberately, is to create room for discussion."
It's one we could probably stand to have. Like the best provocateurs, Scheuer can be loved or hated, but he can't be ignored. His earlier books were praised by bin Laden himself as a clear, accurate explanation of al Qaeda's ambitions. That's as stunning an endorsement as anyone could offer. What Scheuer has to say will make a lot of people as mad as hell. But we tune him out at our peril.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.