"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt,” wrote journalist Chris Hedges in his acclaimed 2003 book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” If Hedges is right, the Bush administration’s war on terror is in serious trouble. The failure to find Iraqi WMD, the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, discredited intelligence reports linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, and ongoing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have seriously eroded public support for Bush’s war. And now, his crusade in the name of defending freedom is coming under fire from a provocative new book by a senior intelligence officer at the nerve center of U.S. counterterrorism, which warns that unless we change the U.S. policies that led Osama bin Laden to attack us, all-out war against Islam may be our only remaining option.
“Imperial Hubris” is shot through with the acid politics of the battle raging in Washington over the future of the U.S. intelligence system. Its anonymous author — who was recently identified by the Boston Phoenix as senior CIA analyst Michael Scheuer — argues that U.S. leaders have failed to recognize that bin Laden and his followers are not the evil, apocalyptic terrorists the Bush administration claims they are, but practical warriors with a specific and limited set of policy goals. Theirs is a worldwide religious insurgency that many of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims see as a “defensive jihad” justified by the Quran. America’s Islamist enemies, Scheuer asserts, do not hate America because of “who we are” or “our freedom,” as Bush and his advisors are fond of repeating, but because our policies have devastated the Muslim world. In particular, Scheuer cites the United States’ unqualified support for Israel, its coziness with tyrannical Arab and Asian regimes, its exploitation of Middle East oil resources, and its armed presence on Muslim soil — the latter grievance profoundly exacerbated by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This argument is essentially indistinguishable from that made by leftists like Noam Chomsky after 9/11 — for which they were immediately demonized as appeasers and out-and-out traitors. What’s peculiar about “Imperial Hubris,” however, is that Scheuer is also, murkily and problematically, a hard-line hawk. With admiration he cites “brilliant” über-hawks such as Ralph Peters, Victor Davis Hanson, Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes, as well as clash-of-civilizations scholar Samuel Huntington. Scheuer stakes out a double position: He argues that we must change our policies to remove Muslim grievances, but in the meantime we must hit our Islamic enemies much harder than we ever have if we are to survive an escalating global conflict with them.
The problem with this double-pronged thesis is that it contains tensions and contradictions that Scheuer appears unaware of, or simply glosses over. Unleashing the full force of the U.S. military may win a battle, but it can also lose the war. Scheuer clearly understands this — it is, in part, why he opposed the war in Iraq — but he fails to explore its implications for his own position. He argues convincingly that in Afghanistan the U.S. should have immediately crushed al-Qaida and Taliban forces — it had the intelligence to do so, he says — rather than rely on proxy armies whose leaders have a long history of turning against their imperialist patrons the instant the geopolitical winds of war shift. It would have made sense for the U.S. to have accepted high casualties and engaged in a decisive battle at Tora Bora, from which it is widely believed that bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida escaped.
But would it have made sense to crush Fallujah, Iraq? This is a prime example of the kind of blowback dilemma that Scheuer doesn’t touch. Most observers with firsthand knowledge of Iraq believe that an all-out assault on the city, with thousands of civilian casualties, would have further fueled the anti-American insurgency across Iraq and enraged the Arab world — the kind of strategic error that Scheuer decries. Yet the very right-wingers whom Scheuer praises called for such an assault. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson has even argued that U.S. operations haven’t caused enough collateral damage to Saddam’s Iraq: Only total devastation, he says, would allow the phoenix of democracy to rise from the ashes.
We never learn what Scheuer thinks about Fallujah. His tone aims for brutal realism, but his two-pronged polemic ends up feeling schizophrenic, like Susan Sontag piloting a B-52.
The other peculiar disconnect in “Imperial Hubris” is Israel. Scheuer cites bin Laden’s own words to show that U.S. support for Israel and against the Palestinians is one of bin Laden’s prime grievances — a fact that the media has downplayed. And Scheuer is extraordinarily harsh on the Jewish state, America’s unqualified support for it, and the enormous pressure commentators are under not to criticize it.
“The American political and social landscape is littered with the battered individuals who dared to criticize Israel … Surely there can be no other historical example of a faraway, theocracy-in-all-but-name of only about six million people that ultimately controls the extent and even the occurrence of an important portion of political discourse and national security debate in a country of 270-plus million people … Washington yearly pumps more than three billion taxpayer dollars into a nation that defiantly proclaims itself ‘the Jewish State’ and a democracy — claims hard to reconcile with its treatment of Muslims in Israel, its limitations on political choice for those in the occupied territories, and the eternal exile it has enforced on those camped in the refugee diaspora across the Levant.”
Yet incredibly, the same author who writes this also consistently praises the likes of Ralph Peters, Victor Davis Hanson, Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes — all die-hard supporters of Israel. Essentially, Scheuer cherry-picks from their tactical, hard-line militarist paradigm while completely rejecting their pro-Likud, anti-Palestinian beliefs. We must change America’s foreign policies, he says, but because some of them are sacrosanct and fundamental change is at best far on the horizon, we need to kick some supreme ass in the meantime.
It’s a position that may be theoretically justifiable, especially against stateless enemies. But attacking stateless groups like al-Qaida inevitably means dealing with fragile, nuclear-armed states like Pakistan, which could implode if the U.S. launched a massive assault on its lawless Northwest Territories. Or, to take another example: It is certainly plausible to argue that the U.S. should carry out more targeted assassinations of terrorists, as it did in November 2002, killing six alleged al-Qaida leaders in Yemen with Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned Predator aircraft. But as the blowback from Israel’s use of such tactics in the occupied West Bank and Gaza indicates, they also carry a price. Because Scheuer doesn’t spell out specific guidelines for when the U.S. is supposed to get tough, his prescription often rings empty.
The circumstances of the book’s publication, and the author’s thinly veiled anonymity, have given rise to much speculation about his motives. It is highly unusual for a serving intelligence officer to publish a book sharply critical of the White House. Though the book contains no classified information, by some accounts officials at the CIA, using an arcane set of classified regulations, required Scheuer to be anonymous. The agency may even have tried to block the book’s publication for fear of explosive political fallout. According to the Boston Phoenix, one veteran intelligence official familiar with Scheuer’s situation put it this way: “Think back to 2002, and imagine what would have happened if a book had come out that said ‘by Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit’ on the cover — it would have been a bestseller overnight, reviewed and discussed all over the place.”
In fact the book has already received ample attention from the media, and there’s no great mystery about Scheuer’s intentions. His book is the latest salvo in the intelligence wars that have been raging, to an unprecedented public degree, since 9/11. From Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker pieces to James Bamford’s “A Pretext for War,” numerous members of the intelligence community have written or leaked harsh condemnations of the White House, the Pentagon and their own superiors, whom they accuse of ideologically driven meddling.
The book’s searing criticisms reach well beyond the Bush White House. Scheuer, who from 1996 to 1999 headed the CIA’s special Osama bin Laden task force code-named “Alec,” charges that for more than a decade U.S. policymakers, military and intelligence leaders have failed to grasp the true reasons behind the rise of militant Islam, and in their pursuit of narrow policy goals have overlooked — or manipulated — critical intelligence. This springs from what Scheuer calls American “imperial hubris,” a myopic, self-regarding perspective held by the nation’s elites since the end of World War II. “It is a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us,” he writes, “a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components.” Fear of a casualty-averse public, and an illusory faith in exporting democracy to ancient theocracies, he argues, have left U.S. leaders ignoring “the long, bloody history of warfare, invariably leaving behind half-finished, or, more accurately, half-started wars that will be refought later.” From the first Gulf War to Somalia to Serbia to Afghanistan, “their remains litter the international landscape like huge land mines waiting to be detonated by an unanticipated pressure.”
Top Bush officials get the brunt of Scheuer’s ire. He savages Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for telling reporters more than a year ago that “the bulk of [Afghanistan] is permissive and secure,” while offering platitudes like “Children are out in the street again. It’s a measure of progress, the success taking place here.” Scheuer estimates that nearly 40,000 armed Taliban insurgents were left to fight another day by the Pentagon’s few-boots-on-the-ground battle plan and its failure to seal Afghanistan’s borders from the get-go. “Ignoring reality, Rumsfeld — with the Taleban and al Qaeda intact, [interim President Hamid] Karzai’s writ fading, and guerrilla warfare flaring — went to Kabul in May 2003 to declare victory. Mr. Rumsfeld, to be charitable, is ill-informed; America’s Afghan war is still in its infancy.”
Scheuer also believes the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a grave strategic error, distracting from and exacerbating the real threat posed by stateless Islamic holy warriors. That threat, he warns, is now dire. He says the West has failed to heed bin Laden’s warnings, and his decree that the use of WMD on enemies of Islam is religiously “legitimate.” “No one should be surprised,” Scheuer writes, “when bin Laden and al Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States.”
Scheuer further condemns the Bush administration for its declaration of a war on “terror.” He says he wants to “ensure wide recognition that America is at war with a faith-driven force that dwarfs anything that can, with intellectual honesty, be called terrorism”; the conflict, he says, “must be described as a Muslim or an Islamic problem.” In practical terms, this doesn’t mean declaring war on Islam as a religion, as some extreme right-wingers advocate, but addressing militant Islam’s political grievances — and Scheuer recognizes that Islam doesn’t separate religion and politics as the West does.
But he also recognizes that the U.S. is not likely to address those grievances anytime soon, as it would mean utter transformation of U.S. global relations, so we must prepare for a much more brutal fight. “America is in a war for survival. Not survival in terms of protecting territory, but in terms of keeping the ability to live as we want, not as we must … There are two choices. We can continue using and believing the cant [of current U.S. policymakers], or we can act to preserve our way of life by engaging in whatever martial behavior is needed.” Americans, he notes, better “get used to and good at killing.”
Scheuer’s handling of the intelligence turf wars is more concise and equally pointed. One of his main arguments is that we must re-empower the CIA to fight a covert war against the worldwide Islamic insurgency — and move away from the FBI’s law-enforcement approach. He argues that the missions of law enforcement and intelligence work are “compatible only at the margins” and that policymakers’ drumbeat for a perfectly integrated intelligence community is an “ideology” based on “moral cowardice.” Historically, Scheuer writes, “no agency would cite the refusal of others to cooperate, and all agreed that no such gripe reach Congress. Intelligence-community careers were made by ensuring Congress heard no evil and were ruined by citing the national security risks inherent in falsely claiming effective cooperation.”
In Scheuer’s view the contemporary mandate of the FBI, with its by-the-book approach, has had a devastating impact on the battle against al-Qaida. “For the U.S. military, the law-enforcement focus of U.S. policy makers [overseas] has prevented killing enough of America’s enemies, especially since Sept. 11 … [it] also has dulled U.S. intelligence operations against al Qaeda, especially those of the CIA.” Bitter politics between the agencies only heightened the problem, he says. “Based on my experience, I would say there was ill intent and negligence by senior FBI officers since major operations against bin Laden began in 1996.”
Like Thomas Powers, James Bamford, Seymour Hersh and many other experts, Scheuer charges that the Bush administration has politicized intelligence to an unprecedented degree — and done incalculable damage to national security. He points to the flood of leaks of classified information to the public: “I can say with confidence that the most damaging leaks about al Qaeda come from the FBI, the Department of Defense and the White House. A reliable rule of thumb is that the federal agencies who have done least to protect America from al Qaeda leak the most to take credit for others’ work and disguise their years of failure.”
At the end of his provocative, careening and at times downright sloppy polemic, Scheuer reiterates his hope that a more honest debate about America’s myopic imperialism will lead to “new policies that have potential, over time, for a less confrontational and bloody relationship with Islam.” That would mean addressing taboo issues like religious fundamentalism (both at home and abroad), nonnegotiable support for Israel, and U.S. leaders’ blind faith in the notion of gifting American democracy to the entire globe.
He is not optimistic. For now, Scheuer believes U.S. military confrontation with Islam can only escalate. “Victory,” he writes, “lies in a yet undetermined mix of stronger military actions and dramatic foreign policy change; neither will suffice alone.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)