Book Review: Marching Toward Hell

By Jim Miles

Marching Toward Hell – America and Islam after Iraq.  Michael Scheuer.  Free Press (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2008.

Michael Scheuer’s new work “Marching Toward Hell” is very clear with its overall purpose of exposing where American interests have gone wrong in their interactions with the various peoples, beliefs, and religions of the Middle East.  As an ex-CIA agent specifically working on gathering information on Osama bin Laden and al Queda, Scheuer appears to have a solid background of information on the message and intentions of bin Laden.  He also has a solid perspective of putting ‘America first’ that more often than not contradicts the neo-traditional view of American exceptionalism and unilateralism.   

There are moments when his obvious pro-American rhetoric becomes too edgy, but given the nature of his career and his place within the American establishment, those moments can be seen as a natural part of his personal paradigm – America first, quit the stupidity of a foreign policy that only attracts more people of the world to dislike, hate, and attack us. There are several main ideas that run through the course of the work, each receiving slightly different emphasis as time and place changes through events. 

Scheuer starts very strongly, stating that his goal is to “reconstruct how the United States found itself in an untenable set of foreign policies and national-security strategies” on 9/11; and secondly, to explain and “assess the costs of the U.S. government’s stubborn and obviously losing rearguard action to maintain these catastrophically deficient policies and strategies.”  The latter idea he reinforces consistently and very simply by stating throughout the book that, yes, the U.S. has lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, always referring to the loss in past tense – not that it is a possibility but that it has already happened. 

Associated with the maintenance of the catastrophic policies he argues effectively “policy makers from both parties…must stand guilty of wilful historical ignorance, a paucity of common sense, and…a disastrous degree of intellectual hubris.”  That statement is no news for many who have opposed war from a well-informed perspective, but to an American audience, coming from someone obviously proud of their country in many other respects, it is a clear stark statement of culpability in the disasters in the Middle East. 

Ignorant Elites

From that starting point the concept of ignorance is also tied in with the “elites”, not well defined, but obviously intended to mean the foreign policy decision makers and power controllers in a fully bipartisan critique.   The elites reveal a “staggering level of ignorance and dishonesty,” “ignorant of history,” hold “those who have made it in contempt,” the seeming “permanent obtuseness of their [Americans] elite,” and a “wilful blindness to this reality.” 

The reality that the elite are blinded to in the realm of foreign policy carries several facets.   First he recognizes that “the energy resources upon which the U.S. economy depends are controlled by foreigners, among whom are Muslim leaders.”  Secondly he understands that “our immense and growing debt,” which allows the continuation of the war effectively subsidized by possible economic/ strategic opponents, “is increasingly held by” foreigners who are either economic rivals or energy masters who “run directly counter to U.S. national security interests.”   Finally, and this is repeated at intervals throughout the book, the elite “has put the United States in the addle-brained position of backing both sides in a vicious religious war between Israelis and Arabs, thereby making us part of an endless war in which we have nothing at stake but the emotions, religious affiliation, and divided loyalties of two small segments of our population.” 

Israeli Firsters

Scheuer recognizes the power of one of those “small segments.” It is not so much the Israeli lobby itself that he criticizes, but the “Israeli-firsters,” those of the elite who whole-heartedly adopt the cause of Israel as the cause of America. He describes them as “dangerous men…seeking to place de facto limitations on the First Amendment to protect the nation of their primary attachment [Israel].” He vociferously denies that “to believe that relationship is not only a burden but a cancer on America’s ability to protect its genuine national interests…equates to either anti-Semitism or a lack of American patriotism.”  He concludes that these elite Israeli-firsters “are either the most suspect in the realm of loyalty or simply resolute liars who champion the fantasy of identical U.S. and Israeli national interests.” 

Within his extensive and well referenced notes, a worthy read for further details and support, Scheuer says “it ought to be a source of pride for Israeli citizens” for the success of their intelligence services, but it also “speaks volumes abut the gullibility or cupidity of the U.S. governing elite.”  That note follows a text comment on “what can only be describes as superbly effective covert political action by Israel’s intelligence services [remember the author’s CIA experience for this perspective].”  The issue of foreign policy with Israel is “perhaps the only one that is certainly immune to challenge or change.”   American policy towards Israel is “absolutely irrelevant and manifestly counterproductive to the national-security interest of the United States,” and further “Americans and their future are put increasingly at risk,” as Israel “contributes nothing to America’s economic welfare or strategic security but is a drain on both.” 

Scheuer also recognizes the contradiction in Israel demanding that the “fairly and democratically elected Hamas government…must renounce a large part of the basis for its election.”  Accordingly it seems clear that the “right to exist is based not on a right at all but on one side’s ability to coerce abject surrender from the other.”   Americans themselves do not demand a right to exist, and “has no more right to exist than does Israel, Palestine, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Belgium or Russia.”  

All this on Israel is the first part of the “shackles” placed on American foreign policy.

Oil, Saudi Arabia, and bin Laden

The second shackle is oil.  What common sense is there to a foreign policy that after the Saudi demonstration of intent with the oil embargo in 1973, continued to rely on that same country for its energy sources?  In his usual bold strongly worded manner of criticism, Scheuer says “shortsightedness, negligence, and stupidity were and are blatant in Washington’s decisions to tie U.S. national security to that of another nation-state, and to acquiesce in ceding to the anti-American Saudis control over U.S. access to the strategic commodity of oil,” leaving American governments with “virtually no room to manoeuvre in the Muslim world,” leading directly into “bin Laden’s well-laid trap.”

Unlike the popular media that echoes the mindless semi-theological name calling from the elite – use of the words such as “evil”, “wickedness”, “savages”, “immoral” – Scheuer does not underestimate his opponent. Quite the opposite as he says of bin Laden that his “focus on the impact of U.S. foreign policies in the Muslim world suggest either genius or extraordinary good luck.”  Not having much belief in the significance of luck he continues, “I think it is best to give America’s most dangerous enemy the benefit of the doubt and judge bin Laden to be a near political genius.”

Scheuer’s position arises from examining the consistent wording, demands, and actions from bin Laden himself.  Well before 9/11 the CIA had information on the tactics and whereabouts of bin Laden, information not utilized to capture or kill him because, as Scheuer sees it, the leaders, the elite, always had other “nuances in international politics” that trumped any actual attack on bin Laden himself.  It might need to be considered that the elite needed someone like bin Laden in order to push forward with their own designs, however misguided they might be. Bin Laden, unlike the Iranian Ayatollahs who have played the American game of labelling the other “evil” and “wicked”, has consistently put forth several demands that are the ‘trap’ into which the Americans have stepped.  

Bin Laden’s demands are quite explicit and clear, and unlike the projections from Bush and his coterie of neocons, it has nothing to do with “They hate us because of our freedoms.”  Scheuer lists them as “precise, limited, and consistent”:  U.S. presence on the Arab Peninsula; unqualified support of Israel; support for states oppressing Muslims (e.g. Russia); exploitation of oil resources; military presence throughout Islamic world; and U.S. support and funding of Arab police states.   Each step the U.S. has taken with its foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia and Africa has only provided support for bin Laden’s contentions and “have strengthened bin Laden’s argument in the minds of hundreds of million of Muslims.”

The focus on U.S. foreign policy produces a “glue of unity” for the “diversity of a highly fragmented Islamic civilization”; “those who argue that hatred of U.S. lifestyles and electoral process motivates our Islamist enemies….is either sadly stupid or a studied liar.”  Another additional fear factor dispelled is that of global jihad.  None of bin Laden’s focus as presented above has anything to do with Muslim global domination, and this as well fits into the recognition of his activities of a defensive jihad against transgressions on Muslim territory, not against American activities in other parts of the world.
Solutions Explicit But Undefined

The shackles of oil and Israel, the elitist ignorance of the American government, the antagonism of the Muslim world supported by the predictions and indictments of bin Laden have created a losing position for the Americans no matter what they attempt to do.  The height of the hypocrisy and ignorance are Americans blaming the Iraqis and Afghanis for not being able to put together a decent democratic society in the American image. Scheuer works within the realm of American exceptionalism with one major qualification, “American democracy and republicanism are unique and largely unexportable.[italics added]” The theme of “arrogance…ignorance and naiveté” of the elite is reiterated for American leaders “trying to install America’s system in devoutly Islamic lands.” 

His answers are not as well developed as his testament to the losing cause of the current foreign policy based on the six elements of bin Laden’s basic demands listed above. However, he is quite explicit in saying America first (domestic policy trumps foreign policy, let’s do something about our own class divisions first), forget about supporting Israel and being dragged into any war it wants; physically secure the U.S. (border fences, trenches, watch towers, minefields) – a bit of a paradox in his arguments here as means of separation are highly porous and expensive, and in this case, in my mind, only reinforce the militant insularity of the American elite; state control over militias; congressional control over declarations of war rather than the “tyranny…where the decision to go to war rests with one individual;” energy independence; and finally, a foreign policy toward the Islamic world that is “noninterventionist, commerce oriented, non-ideological, focussed on life and death national interests.”

The latter statement is a weakness throughout the work, in that while advocating to leave the Muslim world alone, Scheuer does not define what his perceived “life and death interests” are, certainly not domestic policy of an American firster, one would hope.  He does not indicate what the national security interests of the U.S. are.  All U.S. presidents since Eisenhower have indicated that oil is of strategic interest to the U.S.  How will that be handled, other than the vague reference to energy independence?  What then are the U.S. national interests that would lead to American intervention abroad, if any?  Commercial interests in the past as with Latin America?  And what of the CIA’s own role in undermining various governments and associations since the 1950s, will that continue?

A final note on Scheuer’s position with the CIA.  He admits that he is one to have initiated the rendition program but says that the way it was intended to be used is not how it actually was used – a valid idea, good intentions, with different outcomes.  As one of his underlying themes throughout his book is that of “unintended but predictable consequences” regardless of intent, he loses his argument in this case, as he does not seem to have been able to predict or foresee that a rendition program, to states that do use torture and do not have the legal protections as provided by U.S. law, would have many negative consequences, both for the individual and for the reality and perceptions of American foreign policy as well. 

There are moments of Scheuer’s own America-centrism that are not easy to accept but do not detract validity from his arguments to any degree (as with Ronald Reagan being the unqualified conquering hero of the Soviet Union).  Otherwise “Marching Toward Hell” is a readily accessible read and Scheuer has supported well his ideas on bin Laden and why America has lost the wars in the Middle East.  He does not mince his words, and will probably make many enemies at home, but his arguments will not be defeated by rhetoric and hubris alone, the main weapons the elite would have against him.  

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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