JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us.
We all remember September 11, the day that made infamously famous Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists. But even before that time, there was within the CIA a unit that focused solely on this nefarious individual. That unit was headed by our guest this morning, Michael Scheuer, who was, from 1996 to 1999, the first chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit.
Mr. Scheuer spent many years studying Osama bin Laden, America's most formidable and implacable enemy. Available biographies depict bin Laden as crazed and marginal or simply as a gangster, fanatic, and nihilist. However, our speaker writes that these accounts have contributed to a widespread and dangerous denial of his impact and significance.
In Osama bin Laden, Mr. Scheuer shatters many of the myths that still dangerously persist in Washington, nearly a decade after 9/11. As an alternative to these fictions, he provides a corrective, one that is without the preconceptions that form the core of most Western analysis, which, he argues, have chronically underestimated bin Laden, his abilities, and his influence.
Our speaker's assessment of bin Laden is drawn mostly from primary sources, such as speeches and interviews bin Laden has given, as well as testimony, spoken or written, by those who grew up with him in Saudi Arabia and fought alongside him in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
What emerges is a person who has remarkable leadership skills, strategic genius, and considerable rhetorical abilities. It is a portrait of bin Laden as he is, not as we wish him to be. In Mr. Scheuer's judgment, should we choose to ignore this evaluation, we do so at our own peril.
Despite being the most hunted man in the world, many have asked, why, after ten years, has Osama bin Laden eluded capture, and why have we failed so miserably in containing the terrorist group he leads?
For the answer, please join me in welcoming the man who has said he has come, not to praise bin Laden, but to help bury him, our guest this morning, Michael Scheuer.
Thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Good morning, everyone. I'm honored to be here this morning. I do appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.
The book I just published with Oxford is "corrective" in that there have been some very valuable books on Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and Islamic militancy, but they have been mostly drawn from testimony by people who talk about him, sometimes people who are admirers. Some books are based on what the Saudi intelligence service chief, Prince Turki, has said about him. So I thought, "All of these books contribute, but there ought to be a balance."
I am by training a pedantic historian. In my archive of material, I have about 180 different documents, what I would call primary source—interviews, speeches, essays, comments—over 850 pages of material, which have not been exploited to any great extent. I'll give you three quick examples:
- Steve Coll's book, called Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, two citations.
So I thought there was room to both write a biography of bin Laden and try to match his words to his deeds.
The Council asked me this morning to focus at least partially on Yemen. So what I will try to do is to take three things: Yemen, Egypt, and the unrest in other places in the Middle East at the moment, and, finally, a quick look at southern Sudan, to see what cost we're paying for not having read what bin Laden has written and said. My own belief is that we haven't had an enemy since Ho Chi Minh and General Giap who has been so eager for us to understand what the problem is, what he and his people intend to do about it, and how they measure their own progress in the war.
I have called the talk "Discoveries, Non-Discoveries, and Inventions." Before he was elected as president, Abraham Lincoln tried his hand at writing a talk which he hoped would earn him paying invitations to speak from citizen groups around Illinois and neighboring states. Lincoln called the talk "Discoveries and Inventions," and he delivered it in Springfield and very few other venues. The talk had little traction, and Lincoln quickly moved on to other activities.
While the content of this talk by our 16th president need not concern us here this morning, the talk's title, "Discoveries and Inventions," strikes me as two-thirds of an appropriate description of the U.S. government's approach to al Qaeda since Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States on August 23, 1996. The final third of this description, I would argue, would be the term "non-discoveries," making an apt description of Washington's awareness of al Qaeda, its locations, goals, and its talent for exploiting unexpected opportunities.
In this brief talk this morning, I would like to cite and discuss three issues that fall into these categories: discoveries, non-discoveries, and inventions. In the category of discoveries falls the issue of Yemen. Yemen constitutes Washington's discovery of the obvious. In the category of non-discoveries, one would find the current events in Egypt. The unrest in Egypt constitutes Washington's non-discovery of the obvious. And in the category of inventions lies the unfolding events in southern Sudan. In southern Sudan, we are seeing Washington and its allies in the midst of inventing a cause célèbre for exploitation by those who oppose America in the Muslim world.
Discovering the obvious, Yemen. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Yemen problem is Washington's "discovery" over the past three years that it is a hub for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. In America's war against Islamist militancy, this sort of late discovery of the long and blatantly apparent is commonplace, as is Washington's inability to see the Islamist problem as a whole rather than as a series of independent and non-associated parts that need to be addressed seriatim.
Yemen, of course, is every bit as much a congenial stomping ground for bin Laden and his organization as was Saudi Arabia and as are Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bin Laden's family is part of Yemen's al-Kindi tribe, which has long been based in the country's Hadramaut and Ma'rib governorates, and it was from here that his father Mohammed emigrated to Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden was raised by his father to remain loyal and considerate toward his tribe, and his religious education taught him of the high regard in which the Prophet Muhammad held the people of Yemen. The Prophet said that they are among the best of Muslims because of their early conversion to Islam and their always-willingness to fight for the faith.
During the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden worked in humanitarian affairs with many Yemenis. When he formed a fighting force, and ultimately al Qaeda, in 1988, there was and still is a prominent Yemeni representation in the group. After the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1989 and the Afghan communists were defeated in 1992, Yemen was one of the first theaters of operation that bin Laden turned his attention to, and the third issue on which he and the Saudi regime had a major falling-out.
In the early 1990s, bin Laden was determined to assist those Yemenis struggling to overthrow Yemen's Marxist government. He raised money for their cause, recruited fighters, and sent trained al Qaeda cadre there to both assist and train the Yemeni anticommunists in combat. Bin Laden saw no difference between the Yemenis' anticommunist struggle and that of the Afghan mujahideen, and he fully expected the Saudi regime to both aid his efforts and to send the Yemeni Islamists the same sort of aid.
Riyadh, however, approved of the stability that it thought the Marxist regime in Yemen would bring, and with U.S. support, sought to stop the flow of weapons, funds, and fighters to the Yemeni Islamists. Saudi officials tried to shut down bin Laden's Yemen-focused activities, but without complete success, in part because he relocated to Sudan in late 1991. Bin Laden would later cite the Saudi interference as another proof of the Al Saud family's policy of supporting infidels against Muslims.
Despite Riyadh's warnings, bin Laden himself appears to have traveled to Yemen on several occasions. He paid for the construction of two training camps and helped fund and plan urban bombings and the assassination of Yemeni communist officials.
When the anticommunist Yemenis prevailed, President Saleh, then and now the leader, recognized that he had come to power with the help of bin Laden and other mujahideen, Yemeni and otherwise, who had fought in Afghanistan and who could not be summarily ejected from Yemen. This reality was underscored by the fact that Saleh's ruling council would long include a Yemeni who fought in the Afghan jihad and was a close associate of Osama bin Laden, a man named Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli.
Some al Qaeda members settled in Yemen in the middle 1990s, although not in large numbers. They usually married Yemeni women, lived and worked in local communities, and remained involved in al Qaeda's logistical, financial, and administrative activities. This cadre also established safe houses for al Qaeda cadre transiting Yemen or sent there for rest and relaxation.
Other Islamist fighters also settled in Ali Saleh's Yemen, including members of Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic jihad. Al-Zawahiri's group used Yemen for the same purposes as al Qaeda, and his men participated in a joint operation with al Qaeda, which was a botched bombing attack against U.S. forces transiting Aden for Somalia in December 1992.
Throughout the 1990s, and almost certainly up until this day, Islamist fighters belonging to al Qaeda and the Egyptian jihad have had strong relationships with Yemen's major Islamic leaders and scholars, especially Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani.
After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda suffered a severe initial setback, but has since recovered and now poses an increasingly serious threat to President Saleh's regime. Al Qaeda's operations in Yemen were disrupted in 2002, when a U.S. drone killed the group's Yemeni chief, a man named Abu Ali al-Harithi.
It took several years for al Qaeda to recover, but under the leadership of a 33-year-old Yemeni named Nasser al-Wahayshi, formerly one of bin Laden's secretaries and assistants, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been rebuilt and has expanded numerically and geographically across Yemen. The group now seems able to stage attacks on Yemeni government personnel and facilities more or less at will.
Since 2009, moreover, al-Wahayshi has been cooperating with the above-mentioned Tariq al-Fadhli and his anti-Saleh separatist movement in south Yemen. Last month, for example, al-Fadhli publicly burned a U.S. flag and announced an anti-U.S. attitude that is very similar to al Qaeda's.
The long-established base and now growing strength of al Qaeda in Yemen clearly poses a threat to the stability of Saleh's regime and to U.S. interests there and elsewhere on the Arab Peninsula. Saleh's forces clearly cannot control the whole country and, even with growing U.S. aid, will not be able to eradicate al Qaeda, which will continue to attack Yemeni regime targets and use Yemen for training, logistical, and administrative purposes.
Perhaps more important, al Qaeda's now-strong position in Yemen completes a geographical ring of access to and egress from Saudi Arabia that did not exist before 9/11. With strong presences now in Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia and elsewhere along the coast of East Africa, al Qaeda no longer has to rely on getting members into and out of the kingdom via official and well-guarded entry and exit points.
In all likelihood, Washington's late discovery of al Qaeda's long and obvious operational base in Yemen will prove to be the stimulus for another expensive and ultimately ineffective U.S. counterterrorism campaign. I would note, had we read what bin Laden said, we would have certainly been more aware, well before 9/11, of the importance of Yemen to al Qaeda.
In the category of non-discoveries, currently unfolding events in Egypt are an excellent example of Washington's propensity for the non-discovery of the obvious when it comes to al Qaeda and its Islamist allies. As you all noticed, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Senators McCain and Graham are leading Americans to believe that a transition to democracy is under way in Egypt, a process which they claim will undercut the message of bin Laden and other Islamist leaders.
The media, after interviewing numerous clean-cut, educated, and professional middle-class Egyptians, who represent what is a thin veneer of Westernization in Egyptian society, have seconded the politicians' optimism, calling the process another example of "people power" and a resounding defeat for al Qaeda and other Islamist groups.
In response to such commentary, one doesn't know whether to weep or laugh. But we all should be amazed at the politicians and the media and their now nearly 15-year inability to discover the obvious.
Notwithstanding the prominence of English-speaking and Westernized Egyptians in the media's coverage of events in Tahrir Square, the great mass of Egyptians are not thirsting for Jeffersonian democracy. Egypt outside of parts of Cairo is a very pious and deeply conservative Muslim nation. For most Egyptians, there is no possible reason, religious or rational, for what we would call the separation of church and state.
Indeed, largely ignored by both U.S. and Western politicians and the media is the reality that popular hatred for Mubarak and his regime is, in significant measure, generated not only by poverty, oppression, and brutal treatment, but by the regime's decades-long and ruthless persecution of Islamists, its co-optation of so many leading Islamic scholars as agents of religious approval for any action the regime wants to take, and its willingness to deal with Israel and close Egypt's border with Gaza, thereby denying the Egyptians the possibility of aiding the Palestinians.
As a historical aside, finally, it strikes me as exceedingly ahistorical for so many well-educated Western politicians and journalists to expect that in a time of crisis, turmoil, and violence, the Egyptian people will reach for an alien ideology—namely, secular democracy—rather than the rope of Allah and the safe harbor of Islam.
In terms of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and their allies, events in Egypt and Tunisia and the rumblings in Jordan and Yemen are unalloyed good news. The Islamists' main enemies always have been the Arab tyrannies and Israel. The United States has been and is the first target, because it is the key protector of each and an important funder of several.
Whatever regime follows those that fell in Tunisia and may or may not fall in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, and elsewhere, the successors are certain to be weaker, less capable in terms of maintaining order, less willing to ruthlessly suppress Islamic militancy, and less willing to serve as Israel's bodyguard, or at least its border-control agent.
For bin Laden, al Qaeda, and their allies, then, the long-ago-declared intention of weakening and ultimately destroying the Arab tyrannies and Israel will be advanced, whatever the outcome of the current regional unrest. All of this will have fallen into their lap without expenditure of significant manpower or financial resources and, so far, without any sign that Washington and its allies appreciate how much the so-called and wished-for change they support in Egypt and elsewhere advances the Islamists' agenda.
Finally, in the category of inventions, Washington and its allies have a marked talent for inventing situations and undertaking actions that unnecessarily, and even obliviously, strengthen the traction that the words and warnings of bin Laden and other Islamists have across the Muslim world. Current events in southern Sudan are an excellent example of how the West invents issues that advance the Islamists' agenda and their appeal.
Three of the major components of bin Laden's indictment of the United States and its allies are as follows:
- Washington is the leader of a Christian-Jewish crusader effort to damage and ultimately destroy Islam.
- The West is intent on occupying oil-rich Muslim countries and exploiting their resources.
- Third and similarly, the West is intent on creating agent governments in Muslim lands who will do its bidding in terms of oil supplies.
In an era when George Clooney has replaced Henry Kissinger as the main American strategist, we have in the past two months supported, endorsed, and funded, with our European allies, a referendum in southern Sudan, in which 98 percent of the population voted to secede from Muslim Sudan and create a Christian country.
This, of course, is a windfall for the Islamists. Having argued that America and its allies are intent on dividing Muslim countries, we have not only removed a significant portion of Sudan's land, but have awarded the new Christian country with the great bulk of oil reserves in the southern part of Sudan.
We have invented a problem for us that will indeed increase the appeal of bin Laden's words, and not just his words, but provide evidence, whether on television or on the Internet, of the West's intention of taking Muslim lands for Christians and exploiting or controlling oil resources in the Muslim world.
These are three instances where, had anyone in a leadership position in the United States bothered to read what bin Laden or other Islamists have said, we may have been quicker off the mark to try to do something about Yemen, we might not be so lulled into the idea that whatever will turn out in Egypt will be a good thing for the United States, and certainly we would not have intervened in a place as absolutely irrelevant to the United States as southern Sudan and created not only a new country, but a new Christian country. One would have thought that our own experience with secession may have informed our decision on whether we wanted to support that elsewhere.
With that, I'll close. If you would like, I'm happy to answer questions or any comments you might have.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: My name is Kevin McMullen.
I'm interested in the interplay between the organization in the government and these persistent results. I haven't been in the CIA, but I have been in the military, including high-level staffs. They are supposed to have long-range planning cells. Whenever you run into the guy from the long-range planning cells at the gym, he always tells you that they are always taken from their real work to deal with the current crisis. Often you walk in in the morning and ask yourself, what is today's drop-everything crisis?
Did you find that you could do your work in your organization, but it had no connection with the level of real policymaking?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: That's right, sir. I came into the agency as an analyst in 1982, and in 1985, I spent the rest of my career, after 1985, in the Directorate of Operations. The one thing that became apparent is that we jettison long-range analysis in favor of the crisis of the day. That was, in part, due to the nature of the world, but it was also, in part, due to, at least in my experience, each president after Mr. Reagan was less interested in what the intelligence community had to say. His view of the world was formed by what he thought.
There is a lot of firefighting that goes on—Somalia one day, will the euro survive another day. The long-range planning, long-range analysis is something the agency was very good at and is less good at now—I think to our detriment.
QUESTIONER: Always the complaint about political scientists in general and about American politicians and the public is that they are not interested in anything that happened earlier than three weeks ago.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: That's a very good point, sir. I teach at Georgetown a course on how the phenomenon of al Qaeda fits into Islamic history. The first book my graduate students read is a biography of the prophet. They hate it. But by the time they are at the end of the course, they say, "Well, we couldn't understand what's going on today without it."
My experience with senior policymakers is, if you wanted to draw an analogy or cite an example more than five or ten years old, they would say, "That's history. I don't need to know it," and move on. Every day is a new adventure.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
How have your views on Osama bin Laden changed, if at all, since your first book, which you wrote anonymously, to now? Some people have said that he doesn't really matter anymore.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes. Whether it's on the deficit, Osama bin Laden, or other things, there's a lot of whistling past the graveyard going on.
My initial book was called Through Our Enemy's Eyes. What I tried to do in that book was to use the documentation available then to outline the motivation for the war and the ability of bin Laden to appeal to Muslim opinion.
I guess one thing that I came away with after ten more years of accumulating documents was that he would make a great American politician. He has a very concise message, and he stays on message. The one thing I have found is that he has been tremendously consistent over time. He has not expanded. There has been no mission creep in his agenda. There has been a studied reluctance to draw attention to himself as sort of a Western celebrity. When you match words to deeds, there is really an extraordinary meshing of the two.
I was trained by Jesuits, and if there was an Islamic Jesuit school, I suspect he may have gone to it.
The other thing that comes very clearly, not only from bin Laden, but a lot of Middle Eastern people, a lot of Muslims, is that their perception of time is so extraordinarily different than ours that they have a great advantage. We tend to think that if we haven't heard from somebody in six months, he's dead, that we have defeated him. There have even been claims that he has retired and turned the mantle over to Zawahiri.
But when we speak of "soon," we are speaking of two days or two weeks or maybe a month. He, from the start, has talked about the second and third generation of what he's trying to do out into the future.
The other thing I would point out is that there are no contact points at all between at least Americans' sense of patience and their sense of patience. They don't expect things to happen quickly. We cannot tolerate things that don't happen quickly.
All of those things were something that I tried to note in my first book and that are much better documented in this one, and more fully explained—a consistent, dangerous, determined enemy, who is indeed waging a religious war against us. I have also learned that we increasingly are unwilling to talk about that particular aspect of things.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Most of the things I have heard about what's going on in Egypt, whether pessimistic or optimistic, seem to be based on an assessment of the role that the army will play in the transition from whatever we have now to whatever we will have. Can you comment on that?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes, sir. There are three organizations that work in Egypt: The first is, to some extent, Mubarak's government and bureaucracy—it's thoroughly corrupt, but it is ruthlessly efficient—the army, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, while not the ten-foot-tall danger that people have been saying, is indeed a countrywide network, stronger in the south than in the north, but countrywide, with an extraordinary organization for delivering government services—health care, education, legal assistance, food—and so has an alternative structure that could be used to govern.
I don't know a great deal about the Egyptian army. I have worked with the intelligence service and with parts of the army, and have found them very professional.
But there is also a concern in all armies in the Middle East over the past 20 years of a creeping Islamization. Certainly it has happened in Jordan, to some extent. It has happened seriously in Pakistan. I suspect there are sympathizers with the Brotherhood or supporters of the Brotherhood in the military. After all, the people who killed Sadat came out of the army. The army is a strong institution. It was news to me that it was so very dear to the Egyptian people during these demonstrations. But you always learn new things.
At the end of the day, the army will go with whatever entity can keep stability in Egypt. I'm afraid that anything that follows Mubarak will have to include the Brotherhood, simply because it has an organization that can govern.
That's where I am on that.
QUESTION: Ann Phillips. I'm on the board of the International Peace Institute.
Speaking about Sudan, as you know, there was a civil war there that was fought for about 18 years. It was quite a struggle. Many thousands of people were killed. The south was not just Christian, but Christian and animist, and they were the object of terror directed towards them by the north, with the Muslims. This was their struggle. Their leader was Garang, who, you remember, was the man who signed the accords with the north. He was killed in a plane accident—I think just before they were signed.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes.
QUESTIONER: My point in mentioning all of this is that we didn't create this. This was their struggle. It went on for 18 years. Are you suggesting that we should have interfered and stopped the civil war and not allowed the Christians and animists to fulfill their own desire for self-determination?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Exactly the opposite, ma'am. We should have just stood clear and let the cards fall where they may. It's an area of the world in which we have no interest except for oil.
QUESTIONER: How did we interfere?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: We interfered, certainly, by arranging, backing, and validating the election and letting the Sudanese government know that the West was fully on the side of the people who were about to tear their country apart.
I really don't care, one way or another, except that in the long run, it earns the United States great anger in the Muslim world. Ultimately, the Christians and animists in southern Sudan will certainly be attacked by Islamists.
QUESTION: Howard Lentner.
You claim that the Obama Administration is supporting the democratic movement in Egypt, but I perceive it differently. I perceive the Obama Administration as articulating sentiments about democracy, but it's fundamentally backing Suleiman and the Mubarak regime and is opposed to what the demonstrators are requiring. I would like you to comment on that.
Also it seems to me that you are setting up a dichotomy between Islamists led by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and American interests. But even as you commented, for example, about the Egyptian army, there are other agents in the Muslim world that are trying to influence the events as they unfold in Egypt and in other countries. Don't you think that these other agents are also influential and have a role to play in working out the future of those countries?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: On the first, I would agree that we have seen sort of a backwards and forwards dance by not only the Obama Administration, but by the Republican Party. At first they were all pro-people power and then they kind of faded a little bit. Now they are pro-people power, but they want Mubarak to stay through the elections. At the end of the day, what we have done—both parties—has been to intervene on both sides. As a result, whoever takes power will be less inclined to be favorably inclined to us, if you will.
Intervention is a very difficult thing to resist once you have begun it. Now we are watching the wages of intervention. At the end of the day, our support for Mubarak has been an intervention on the side of tyranny, and to believe that most Egyptians will forget that when it's over is really ahistorical or unreasonable.
In terms of the other agents that are involved in Egypt or elsewhere, the veneer of Westernization in the Muslim world and support for separation between church and state is broad and very, very thin. The view that it exists in strong elements is primarily a function of who the media talks to.
In Egypt, if Mubarak goes, you will probably have ElBaradei or somebody like that, who talks the talk of democracy, but at the end of the day, he will need the Brotherhood, and ultimately their goal is power. Whether they ever achieve it is one question. Will they try to achieve it, is not a question.
I don't see a groundswell in any parts of the Muslim world for a change in government that would be in what we have defined our interests to be. Certainly in terms of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, we have put all of our coins, at least insofar as our support for Israel, on tyranny.
I carry no brief for the Israelis, but they have at least been honest. They have said very clearly that if Mubarak goes, King Abdullah goes, even the young Assad—if they go, it's a tremendous problem for them, because tyranny at least closes the borders.
I guess we just differ, sir. I don't think there is any real traction for secular democrats in the Muslim world.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Since you like to put everything into threes, I would like to ask you a trinity of questions.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: That's good. I can't do fours.
QUESTIONER: Given your Jesuit background, we understand where it all comes from.
Number one, why is it so strange that the U.S. would try to follow its own interests and would want stability and opportunity for people living in a country and so forth?
Number two, why does Osama bin Laden have to dominate an interpretation of Islam? His is not the only way. We're concerned about a militant Islam as in Iran, where we have been very upset with the consequences, both for world politics and for the Iranian people. There are other models of Islam. Certainly Indonesia is much more tolerant. There should be other prospects, because Islam is a great religion. Osama bin Laden does not have the only interpretation. What about the Sufis and so forth?
Third, when you talk about the Egyptian people, with 80 million people, it's very hard to talk about them all at once. But what we have seen in the demonstrations are the young people, who would like to make a decent living. They have been exposed to some kind of education, but it hasn't given them the tools for them to have jobs.
One of our credos that we try to export is free enterprise. How are we going to do that? What has your analysis of Osama bin Laden and others told you would be a way to help the young people in Cairo who are in the streets?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I would say that just because a person wants a job doesn't mean he's not in favor of a government that has a strong portion of Islamic law involved in it. In Indonesia, for example, I find it rather—not what you said, but what the president said, that Indonesia is the example of tolerance in the Islamic world. Of course, there have been times in the last five or six years that you could drive around at night without your car lights on by the light of burning Christian churches. So I'm not sure Indonesia is completely tolerant.
One thing that has occurred in my lifetime is a bloating of the definition of U.S. interests. National interests are mostly life-and-death things—access to energy, access to freedom of the seas, and now the freedom of the air, an ability to defend ourselves. Frankly, that the idea of human rights, women's rights are hardly national interests outside the United States, and certainly nothing we should intervene to promote. The idea that someone loses a son who is a Marine so that Mrs. Mohammad can vote in Iraq, to me, is just a crime.
I'm not at all convinced that the export of democracy is A), exportable, and B), that if we can export it, there are very many people who really want it.
We are, as a nation, ahistorical. Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama should both have been laughed out of the White House when they said they were going to try to install democracy anywhere.
We have been at democracy and republicanism since 1215, when Runnymede was, about 800 years ago. We're not quite perfect. It seems to me that to expect to put that on a CD-ROM that Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama can give to Mr. Karzai and say, "Here. You have six months or three years to do this," is singularly ignorant, either of the process by which we got from Runnymede to here or the strength of the non-separation, if you will, of church and state in the Islamic world.
Are there different interpretations of Islam? Without doubt. There are many. It's rather a Western construction that somehow Sufism is an alternative. Clearly it's not. Shia is not an alternative. The Sunnis dominate the Islamic world.
What bin Laden depends on cuts across every one of those, though. He is not an original thinker. His operations, his rhetoric, his evidence, if you will, Islamic speech, political speech, is extraordinarily dependent on precedent. It comes from primarily two documents that are common to Muslims no matter where they are, the Qu'ran and the sayings and traditions of the Prophet, the Hadith.
His appeal cuts across the Arab world, cuts across the Far East, cuts across North America for Muslims. And he has found, whether through luck or a bit of genius, something that unites a terribly fractious Muslim world, one that is divided ethnically, linguistically, sectarian-wise, and that's a detestation of U.S. foreign policy.
The glue which holds the movement together, which we see growing around the world, is the fact that he has been able to portray in legitimate Islamic terms the foreign policy of the United States as an attack on Islam and as an effort to steal Islamic land, whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, or southern Sudan.
I don't think we disagree on anything. Frankly, if there is a non-problem in the Muslim world, it's Iran.
Iran, surely, of all the governments we support in the Middle East, is the most representative. How many times has the presidency of Egypt turned around in the last 30 years?
It is surrounded by U.S. military bases. It is surrounded by a Sunni world that would rather kill the Shia than us, and it's faced with a peaked energy resource that is now hurting the future of their economy. If Iran isn't fully contained, in Cold War terms, I don't know what country would be, although Iraq was fully contained and we had a useless war there.
QUESTION: Cory Evans. Thank you for your presentation and for taking my question.
In partial defense, perhaps, of policymakers, policymakers often face conflicting priorities. Of course, the conflict with Osama bin Laden is a major priority, but there are, of course, other priorities, too. Is it possible that in places like Egypt policymakers are aware that the course of action that they are taking will strengthen Osama bin Laden, but that they just see no other way; they have other priorities that they have to pursue?
Perhaps Sudan would be another example of the same thing. They know that this will help Osama bin Laden, that it will play into his narrative, but they feel like they have foreign policy goals or even moral goals which they are promoting which are so important that they are willing to make that sacrifice.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: That could well be. I always think the one thing that is lacking in the American government is the primary organizational principle that America comes first. We intervene willy-nilly.
For example, on the ranks of idiocy, do we really care who rules in the Ivory Coast? Yet the United States put sanctions on the fellow who lost the election but won't leave and supported UN sanctions on him. We seem to have a thirst to intervene on any pretense—a botched election in the Ivory Coast, the jailed female poet in Burma. What in the world are we doing? We're earning anger. We're expending funds. I don't think we put America first.
Again, how would our interests in Egypt be served? Probably by saying, "This is an Egyptian problem. You settle it, and we will deal with whoever is the government."
One of the worst things that has happened is this idea that we won't deal with governments that we don't like. We would know much more about Iran if we had a diplomatic presence in Iran. You deal with what you find in the world, and what you want sometimes is rather irrelevant.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.
If you were called in to advise President Obama on bin Laden and he said, "Michael, tell me what I practically can do to solve this problem," what would you tell him?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I would say to him that the first step is domestic: Tell the truth. We have had four presidents since Mr. Reagan who have consistently lied to the American people. I have to believe, given the colleges they attended, that they meant to lie to them because they are not ignorant men.
This war has virtually nothing to do with women in the workplace. It has nothing to do with elections or freedoms or liberty. It has nothing to do with me having a drink after work. Yet we continue to hear from our presidents that they hate the way we think and the way we live.
The crux of the problem: The reaction that Osama bin Laden has and other Islamists have is to what our government does. There is sort of implicit in our government's rhetoric a racism, or at least a superiority, that somehow Muslims cannot distinguish between the American people and their government. Anybody who has traveled in the Middle East has found that Americans generally are very cordially greeted and welcomed. Our government, on the other hand, is detested for what it does.
The American people have to decide on these things. Are there a number of policies that are motivating and uniting our enemy? If that's the case, are they policies that are absolutely essential to the U.S. in terms of our national interests? If they are, then keep them. But realize that as we go forward, the cost of those policies, which are not viewed in the Muslim world as benign and humanitarian, will be extremely costly in terms of blood and money.
Once you have that basis, you perhaps can proceed in a rational manner. But we hear, for example, that they are thugs and gangsters, and, as President Bush used to say, "We're going to kill them one at a time" or bring them to trial.
Well, I was at that from July of 1995 forward, and we are still at it, and yet the problem is growing in terms of the number of insurgencies around the world and the reach of various Islamist organizations. Now we are seeing young male Muslims in our own population turning against us, not because of the way we live, but invariably because of what the government does overseas.
In the first instance, in the most important instance, it's a domestic problem. It's a matter of simply telling the truth.
QUESTION: I'm David Hunt.
Michael, I wonder if you could talk for a little bit about Iran. What are your views about how we should be viewing Iran and how we might be dealing with them differently or in some other way?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: If there is an apt partner for the United States in the Middle East, it's probably the Iranians. They know better than anyone else that they are surrounded by the enemy. Iran is kind of like Fort Apache surrounded by the Sioux.
I really get bent out of shape about this whole worry about nuclear bombs. If we had been serious about this when the Germans and the French sold them the initial technology in the 1990s, we would have stopped it then. To be afraid of Iran, you have to believe that they are complete fools—the dumbest people Allah ever created. They can't possibly hurt us militarily, and the Israelis would fry them if they even looked like they were going to twitch toward a first strike.
I don't think they are stupid people. Part of the reaction is, frankly, that in the last 20 years, they have heard nothing from the West, from the United States, from its allies, from the Israelis, except, "It's time for a war with you," that Iranians are somehow the Nazis of the 21st century, UN sanctions, and the rest of it. Frankly, the Iranian government would be negligent not to be seeking a nuclear weapon.
How to deal with them? Keep them contained. They can dabble with Hamas and they can dabble with Hezbollah, but they can't hurt the United States, except in one instance. Because our executive and legislative branches have been criminally negligent in terms of domestic security, border control, and immigration control, we have allowed the Iranian intelligence service and Lebanese Hezbollah to establish a very significant infrastructure in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Though it's used for a number of things—espionage for economic reasons, keeping an eye on the young shah and his supporters—it can be used for terrorism.
If we or the Israelis attack the Iranians, we'll have a significant violent response in this country. I don't think they will use it as a first-strike weapon. They are too afraid of us. But when it comes to revenge or avenging a strike, I think they might.
We really need to get an estimate of what the threat really is and then deal with it accordingly. The Persians are a tremendously hardworking, capitalist-oriented people. The leadership they have is certainly problematic from our point of view, but, again, it's a more representative political system than Egypt and certainly than Saudi Arabia.
We are so mesmerized still by the embassy seizure that Americans can be frightened very easily by just raising the bogey of Iran.
JOANNE MYERS: The Carnegie Council, as you all know, is a forum for discussion. I can see by some of your faces that you disagree with what our speaker has said, but I want you to know that it's an opportunity to listen to different ideas, different points of view, whether you agree or disagree.
With that being said, I thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: This is the first time I have ever had anyone disagree with me!