Wednesday, June 15, 2005
We have made frequent mention of The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis's BBC documentary about the war on terror, which has recently been recut as a theatrical feature (and is now, BARBARians please note, playing at San Francisco's Roxie). Our stouthearted colleagues at Cursor directed us to a Nation review of the film by Peter Bergen, the author of Holy War, Inc., who admires Curtis's take on the American neocon movement but rejects his argument that the menace posed by al Qaeda is largely illusory:
It is positively eerie to watch then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deliver a supremely self-assured speech in a 1976 press conference about the gathering strength of the Soviet war machine that just as easily could have been one of his gung-ho Pentagon briefings decades later. Curtis explains that the CIA found Rumsfeld's view of the Soviet military buildup to be a "fiction"; but that did not stop Rumsfeld from establishing a commission of inquiry into the putative buildup that was known as Team B and was run, in part, by Wolfowitz. In one of the strongest sections of the documentary, Curtis explains:You may be intrigued to learn that the clash of civilizations began in 1949, when Sayyid Qutb, soon to become "the Lenin of the radical Islamists," heard Frank Loesser's song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" played at a church social and decided that Western culture was hopelessly corrupt. Was it, we wonder, the Johhny Mercer-Margaret Whiting Capitol recording that sent the airplanes crashing into the towers 52 years later?Team B made an assumption that the Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated they were undetectable. For example, they could find no evidence that the Soviet submarine fleet had an acoustic defense system. What this meant, Team B said, was that the Soviets had actually invented a new non-acoustic system, which was impossible to detect. And this meant that the whole of the American submarine fleet was at risk from an invisible threat that was there, even though there was no evidence for it.This was an early formulation of the Rumsfeldian doctrine that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. To devastating effect Curtis deploys Dr. Anne Cahn, a government arms-control expert during the 1970s, who explains, "If you go through most of Team B's specific allegations about [Soviet] weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong." Team B's exaggerations, according to Curtis, were all in the service of the neoconservative creation of "a simplistic fiction, a vision of the Soviet Union as the center of all evil in the world." Central to this fiction was the idea that the Kremlin was behind the violence of militant nationalist insurgencies from Belfast to Palestine (not to mention the attempt on Pope John Paul II's life). Claire Sterling expounded this theory, which has since been thoroughly debunked, in The Terror Network, a book that influenced the thinking of Reagan officials and neoconservative analysts like Michael Ledeen, who now argues that Tehran has replaced Moscow as the terror network's base of operations. Curtis can be faulted for overlooking the horror of the Soviet system, something the neoconservatives appreciated better than most leftists, but he is correct that the neoconservatives injected a theological fervor into American foreign policy and that they were willing to look past the flaws of anyone willing to confront America's enemy--such as the fanatical Islamist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose party received at least $600 million in US aid to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and who is now one of the most wanted terrorists in Afghanistan . . . .
In his effort to portray Al Qaeda as a construct of US officialdom, Curtis misses the real story about the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda. It's not that Bush officials created the myth of a nonexistent organization but that Al Qaeda simply did not fit their worldview of what constituted a serious threat, and so they largely ignored it until they evacuated their offices on the morning of September 11, 2001. A database search for any statements by senior Bush officials about bin Laden or Al Qaeda that were made before the 9/11 attacks yields negligible results. And we know from the 9/11 Commission that while Bush Cabinet officials met thirty-three times before 9/11, only one of their meetings was about terrorism. Al Qaeda was not a subject that exercised senior Bush officials either privately or publicly before 9/11 because they were preoccupied by state-based threats--hence their focus on China, Iraq and ballistic missile defenses (which do nothing, of course, to protect against terrorist attacks).
This was especially odd because rarely have our enemies warned us so often about their intentions. Imagine for a minute that officials in the Japanese high command, beginning in 1937, repeatedly stated that they were intending to attack the United States. Imagine then how differently the events of Pearl Harbor might have played out four years later. Well, that's exactly what bin Laden did beginning in 1997, repeatedly warning in widely broadcast interviews on CNN, ABC and Al Jazeera that he was launching a war against the United States. But those warnings were taken by certain members of the Bush Administration as the fulminations of a wannabe rather than a capable adversary. As former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke recounts in his book Against All Enemies, when the Deputies Committee of sub-Cabinet officials met for the first time in April 2001 to discuss terrorism, Wolfowitz--who had long been preoccupied by discredited conspiracy theories that Iraq was behind the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993--testily said, "Well, I just don't understand why we are beginning talking about this one man bin Laden." In short, Wolfowitz, at least until the 9/11 attacks, would have agreed with Curtis's assessment that the threat posed by Al Qaeda was a "fantasy." The leading neoconservative in the Administration did not seek to inflate the Al Qaeda threat but rather misunderstood its significance--until it was too late.