There are two things about which this book’s authors are certain. The first is that the United States is going to be attacked in a more deadly way than the 11 September 2001 raids on New York and Washington. The second is that President George W Bush’s so-called war on terror has only made the terrorists stronger.
The two authors depict a bone chilling future in which America’s deadliest foes, the Islamist terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, will strike again and again, as the US behemoth wreathes in pain, unable to defend itself.
One might say: wow!, and wonder why the US administration is so oblivious of the threat that the two authors depict in such graphic terms?
However, you might then wonder what evidence there is that the US is losing the war on terror, and that Islamist radicals will hold the initiative in what looks like a clash of civilisations.
The authors offer four reasons for their pessimistic forecast.
First, Muslim societies that were traditionally averse to violence on religious and ethical grounds are changing their culture to legtimise weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs, and now regard “holy war” as the only way to defend their faith. In this context, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s readiness to go to war to protect its nuclear programme is just one example.
Secondly, many moderate Muslims who had nothing to do with radical groups are now attracted by the bellicose discourse of the Jihadists. Professor Samuel Huntington’s claim that we are heading for a clash of civilisations is now echoed by many Muslim political and social leaders.
Thirdly, more and more freelance terrorist groups, that copy-cat Al Qaeda, are appearing in many countries, especially the Western democracies that do not know how to cope with such an enemy within. The terrorist attacks in Madrid and London are just two examples.
Finally, a number of local conflicts in the Muslim world have the potential to develop into broader wars involving other nations and some of the Muslim communities in Europe and North America.
The problem is that the authors offer no evidence to back those assertions. They talk of a “pervasive hatred of America” which is supposed to fuel terrorism in the Muslim world, as if this were sufficient to prove their thesis.
The present book by Benjamin and Simon is a sort of sequel to the one they published four years ago under the title of “The Age of Sacred Terror” in which they had shown how bureaucratic infighting and the failure of political leaders to appreciate the threat allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place.
Interestingly, the two authors served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as counter-terrorism experts. Thus part of the criticism for the failure to prevent 9/11 falls upon them. This new book is partly motivated by an effort to show that, when it comes to counter-terrorism, the Bush administration is as incompetent as the one headed by Clinton. One cannot help feel that Benjamin and Simon might have been motivated by a measure of partisan score settling.
That, of course, has always been the bane of American politics- at least since the early 1970s. Many American intellectuals and academics enjoy a stint with the government, as experts or officials. That stint then identifies them with one of the two parties that dominate American politics. And, from then on it is virtually impossible for them to discuss any issue without some element of partisanship.
Benjamin and Simon are no exceptions. They admit that Clinton was incompetent but insist that Bush is even more so.
In the sections of the book that deals with the supposed “next inevitable attack”, the authors offer little more than we have already seen in dozens of other anti-Bush books in the past three years.
A good part of the book deals with Iraq and is designed to show two things.
First: Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq for reasons other than combating terrorism and, in the process, deceived the Congress and the American people by portraying Saddam Hussein as a threat to American security.
Secondly, the whole Iraq project is a disaster. Iraq will never become a democracy because Arabs, for reasons never spelled out, prefer despotic regimes.
Benjamin and Simon claim that Iraq will become a black hole like Afghanistan under the Taliban, and thus a haven for Jihadist organisations seeking to overthrow all Muslim regimes before embarking on world conquest.
The authors blame President Bush for ignoring the advice not only of the State Department but also of the US military leaders who were reluctant to become involved in Iraq. Worse still, Bush gave the signal for war without adequate planning for the post-war period.
Those with a closer knowledge of Iraq, however, would know that Benjamin and Simon are wrong both in thinking that Iraqis are somehow genetically incapable of building a democracy, and in claiming that Iraq will either fall apart or become a haven for terrorists.
The authors would have done themselves a service had they taken time to read some of the histories of the Second World War, indeed of any war in history. Had they done so they would have realised that war never obeys the script written planners and bureaucrats. War is a messy business, always full of surprises, and never produces the exact results desired by armchair strategists. Since the authors offer absolutely no evidence to back their dim view of Iraqi prospects there is no need to go for fuller rebuttal here. The least that one can say is that the jury is still out on Iraq.
The most interesting part of the book deals with weaknesses in US defneces on the home front.
Here, the authors offer precise information and evidence on targets, obviously attractive to would-be terrorists, that have not been secured. The authors show that the creation of a new government department called Homeland Security and the re-organisation of US intelligence services under a new chief have done little to increase the nation’s ability to forestall terror attacks.
According to Benjamin and Simon the US machinery of state is a heavy structure with little flexibility facing a light, fast-moving enemy that can strike anywhere anytime.
So, is there no hope for the US?
Yes, there is.
According to Benjamin and Simon, a new administration, under a Democrat president, would do wonders. Benjamin and Simon might be invited to regain the positions they had held under Clinton. And then? Well, Clinton did not prevent either the 1993 attack against the World Trade Center or the 9/11 ones.
There can be no serious discussion of such a vital topic unless American scholars learn to set their partisan prejudices aside- something that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.