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Truthdig Radio: Osama bin Laden and Nuclear Meltdown
Posted on Mar 16, 2011
In this premiere episode of our weekly radio show, former bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer tells us why we’re losing, renowned physicist Frank N. von Hippel tells us to fear the bomb and Juan Cole says Arab protesters are looking for a New Deal.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, a new weekly show featuring the best in news, criticism and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m Peter Scheer, Truthdig managing editor. Today we’ll be hearing from two Middle East experts, former bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer of the CIA and informed commentator Juan Cole. We’ll also check in with renowned physicist Frank von Hippel about the threat of nuclear power and weapons. Along for the ride are Truthdig editors Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Josh Scheer and myself. Here we go.
This is Truthdig radio; I’m Peter Scheer. I’m joined by Joshua Scheer and Robert Scheer, and Michael Scheuer, the adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. He was a former intelligence officer at the CIA, where he served as the chief of the Bin Laden Issues Station, and as a special adviser to the chief of the Bin Laden Unit. His new book is “Osama Bin Laden.”
Michael, you’ve argued in the past that bin Laden has been caricatured by this country, to the detriment of our national security. Can you explain that?
Michael Scheuer: Well, I think I can. You know, you’re always lucky if you’re fighting an idiot or a madman, because they make mistakes. And yet 15 years, 16 years after bin Laden declared war, he’s still at…he’s still on the loose, and according to our own intelligence chiefs, poses an increasing threat both at home and abroad. You know, what can you do to measure a man’s effectiveness? I think you look at his words and deeds. And from my study of him, there’s a pretty close mesh. For example, he said early on, “We can’t possibly beat the Americans by ourselves. What we need to do is incite other Muslims to join the war and to take a nontraditional approach toward dealing with the Americans. First, to try to take advantage of international economic conditions to drive the United States toward bankruptcy; second, to spread out the military and intelligence forces so they have little reserves and no flexibility; and third, to create political dissent inside the United States, and to strip away our allies one at a time.” And so, if we’re looking at…using their own metrics, he’s been a pretty successful man. And to argue that somehow he is just another gangster or thug, and not very bright at that, I think is a mistake that harms only us.
Peter Scheer: Osama Bin Laden actually said at one point that people should read your book if they wanted to understand why we’re losing the war on terror. Can you put that into context with the war in Afghanistan, which is now our longest war?
Michael Scheuer: Yeah. I think he was simply saying that “we have told you…”—we, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants—“…what this war is about, and yet you don’t listen. This war is about what you do in the Muslim world, not how you live as Americans in the United States. Whether it’s elections or democracy or liberty or gender equality or beer after work, we don’t care about that. This war is about what you do in the Muslim world. And in terms of Afghanistan—Afghanistan is a place where he wanted to lure us to, because he thought that the Taliban and al-Qaida and their allies could bleed us slowly to death, and that we would not have the will to win. And from 1997 until 2001, each of the attacks al-Qaida staged against us was meant to prompt our deployment to Afghanistan in ways that were greater and more costly than simply shooting cruise missiles. And of course after 9/11 we went there, and unfortunately we stayed instead of just going there to kind of beat them up and get out.
Robert Scheer: You know…hi, this is Robert Scheer…and I really liked reading your book. It’s very clear, the “Bin Laden” one. And you point at, though, in terms of the contemporary issues…here we have a situation in the Mideast where ostensibly we’re primarily concerned with fighting terror, terrorism, and we’re fighting bin Laden, but we get caught in these ethnic and religious differing currents. And, you know, 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, for instance, but we have a close alliance with Saudi Arabia. And at one point, I think it was on NPR, you mentioned that even bigger and more powerful than the Israel lobby is the Saudi lobby. And we’re at kind of an odd moment now where we’ve focused on Iran, and we’re very worried about the Shiites in Bahrain, for instance, and we will probably support the Saudis in extending their influence, and we’ve made Iran the main issue. And according to your own writings, Iran is not the main issue.
Michael Scheuer: No, I think Iran instills the definition, if you will, of a “contained enemy” that we used during the Cold War. They’re surrounded by a Sunni population that would rather kill them many times over before they got around to us or the Israelis or the Brits. They’re now…over the last 15 years they have become surrounded by American military bases, and the U.S. Navy could cut off their access to the high seas almost instantly. And third, their economy is driven by energy production, which has peaked. And so if that’s not the definition of a contained state, I’m not sure what it would be. But the problem for us, of course, is Saddam was a fully contained entity in Iraq, and we still went into a foolish war with him.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, but the point I was getting at is that, you know, this sort of Shiite-Sunni thing, which is now basic to the debate. We see the influence of Iran in Lebanon; we see it expanding in Iraq because we got rid of Saddam Hussein, who was their military opponent. And just taking it to, actually, the issues of this week—one is Gen. Petraeus saying we’re winning in Afghanistan, we need to have a long-term presence; you’ve argued that that’s a sucker-punch that we’re responding to. And the other is the turmoil, some of which is very exciting, in the Mideast, again is being cast in this terrorism/anti-terrorism, bin Laden/anti-bin Laden. So we’re going to now rally around Saudi Arabia, when in fact it represents some of the worst tendencies in the Mideast, and was the place that we’re at least funding, and certainly a number of the recruits for bin Laden came from.
Michael Scheuer: Yeah. Well, we have to support the Saudis because the Saudis are our masters. Now, you know, in the relationship, we are the slaves; they are the masters. They supply the swing country production in terms of oil; they buy a great deal of our debt; and we’re on the hook to defend them. They buy enormous amounts of weaponry, but they can’t defend themselves. And I think you put your finger on it: Bahrain…all the rest of what’s going on in the Middle East is basically noise. If the Saudis and the Bahrainis and the Ahmadis start shooting at Shias—and apparently they have done that to some extent today—if that becomes a prolonged war, we could very well get sucked into that war, along with the Iranians. And so I think your point about Bahrain being a flashpoint is exactly right. I think it’s the most dangerous spot in the Middle East at the moment. And in terms of the Saudis, the Saudis probably are the single most dangerous state to the United States in the world. You know, Iran or…China is a threat and Russia is a threat, but we recognize them; we watch them; we know they’re a threat. But the Saudis, the king comes to the White House and they hold hands with the president while all the while he’s paying for a brand of Islam to be taught in the United States that is extremely anti-Western, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian. And it is a reflection of how dependent we are on the Saudis that we really don’t do anything to defend ourselves.
Robert Scheer: You know, I want to pursue this a bit, because you’ve criticized the 9/11 Commission Report as very limited. And there’s a box in that report, I think it’s…I forget what page it’s on, which says that they were not allowed to interview the key witnesses, the people that are…you know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others. They were dependent upon other interrogation, and they couldn’t even interview the interrogators. And I wonder, do we know enough about the relation of bin Laden to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to these people, how the whole thing was done? And are we still pursuing ghosts here, or are we on the right track?
Michael Scheuer: No, I think we pretty well know how the operation worked that attacked us on 9/11. I think the people who…the 9/11 truthers are just…are very skeptical. It’s their right to be skeptical, but it’s obvious that the attack was done by al-Qaida. What the 9/11 Commission blurred, and what I resigned from the agency over, was the refusal to talk to the American people about the responsibility of some of the senior people in government for 9/11. But more importantly, the 9/11 Commission talked about U.S. foreign policy and basically said, “Well, the Muslims are too dumb, really, to understand how good our foreign policy is for them. So we have to really do a better job at communicating our good intentions.” And I think both of those things were a real detriment to the United States, and need to be corrected somehow.
Josh Scheer: So if we…I’m sorry, Michael, this is Josh…and if we continue on this current path, what is the endgame?
Michael Scheuer: Well, the endgame is an endless sort of war. I argued in 2002, when I published my first book, that our goal should be to make sure that the coming generation of young Muslim males have less reason to focus on the United States, and that the only way to do that was to deny them the motivation of our foreign policy, which also provides a certain glue of unity in a very diverse and fractious organization. We have not done that. And so we have now another generation that has come to adulthood in people like Awlaki, in people like the young Libyan Abu Yahya, who are now a second generation of al-Qaida, and we now need to worry about the third. As long as our foreign policy remains constant in the Middle East—our support for the Saudis, our support for the Israelis, our presence on the Arab Peninsula, a number of other things—we will do nothing to dent the motivation of our enemies. And so we can kill them with drones, we can extradite them with rendition, we can kill them on the battlefield; but really, all that will be is a body count, not a measure of progress. And our enemy will grow faster than we can possibly cope with it.
Peter Scheer: I want to ask about this question of foreign policy. We run a columnist, William Pfaff, on our website, who recently wrote that American foreign policy appears now to be made by people who have no concept of foreign countries or their history or how they operate. And there’s no shortage of people like you, who present a very rational critique of that policy, and yet we seem to go down this road all the time where, you know, in the case of Afghanistan we’re presented with very, very limited options, all of which involve ground war of some kind. How do we get out of this morass of stodgy thinking in foreign policy?
Michael Scheuer: [Laughs] You know, I would suggest: Never again vote for anyone from the Ivy League. [Laughter] We’ve had now four consecutive presidents who came out of Harvard or Yale or Columbia, and they don’t see the world as it is. They see the world they want to be. Mrs. Clinton, wandering the world at the moment to champion feminism…which clearly we want to do in the United States, but it will cause wars in many other places in the world. I don’t know how we get around it. I think at base, our problem in foreign policy has much to do with our problems in education. That we don’t teach things that are unpalatable; we don’t talk about religion to our children, or the power of religion to our children, so they don’t understand that; and we are, at the elite level…Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Bush, they put me in mind of Marxist-Leninists, who believed that communism would inevitably triumph. And our leadership in both parties tends to believe that secular democracy will ultimately triumph, and that anyone who opposes it is simply medieval or just a plain anarchist of some kind. And that’s a mistake, and that will lead to war.
Peter Scheer: But how can they believe that, if they’re backing these regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, that…
Michael Scheuer: Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it? That’s exactly right. One of the points that is a very good one is, how can you be preaching democracy in Bahrain when you’re supporting the Saudi government who’s in Bahrain shooting down Bahrainis? But we seem to be able to cope with that kind of contradiction and move ahead as if it didn’t matter. It must take a very much smarter person than myself to be able to accommodate those two thoughts and think you’re succeeding.
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