Homeland Security and Emergency Management Book Report

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Longest War

Homeland Security & Emergency Management

M6A1: Book Review

Bergen, Peter. (2011). The longest war: The enduring conflict between America and al-Qaeda.

New York: Free Press.

As its title suggests, Peter Bergen's book, The longest war: The enduring conflict between America and al-Qaeda, is a chronicle of a war that defies the traditional conventions and definitions of warfare. The war of terror has no clear beginning and no clear end and has challenged many of the assumptions of how warfare is viewed and waged within the United States. It is a long war, an unending war, and even though the book was written before the killing of Osama bin Laden, the orchestrator of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the war will continue to rage on so long as there are state and non-state enemies willing to attack the U.S. using the mechanisms of terrorism. The United States has never been the same since the attacks on one hand yet on the other hand critical deficits still exist in terms of its ability to acquire knowledge about organizations that pose a threat to its national security.

Bergen, a journalist, is intimately familiar with the breadth and depth of the struggle devoted to fighting bin Laden. Long before even the Twin Towers were destroyed, Bergen was part of a CNN news team that interviewed bin Laden before the attacks. Rather than focusing on recent events alone, Bergen attempts to offer a broad, all-encompassing history of the past ten years that tries to explain why people like bin Laden hate 'us' and also attempts to show how the highly regimented, bureaucratic terrorist organization known as Al-Qaeda operates.

One of the great difficulties Americans have in understanding why 'they' hate 'us' is that we tend to regard ourselves as pure exponents of democracy. However, Bergen notes: "there is sufficient truth to aspects of bin Laden's critique of American foreign policy for it to have real traction around the Muslim world," including what Bergen calls American "reflexive" support for Israel; American hypocrisy about promoting democracy while still supporting absolute Arab monarchies when it is convenient; and the recent invasion of Iraq (Bergen 2011: 28). Yet despite the distaste for such actions, a Gallup poll of Muslim countries found that only 7% of Muslims considered the attacks to be justified (Bergen 2011: 28). The supporters of Al-Qaeda, in other words, are a minority, albeit an influential one. Bergen also notes that the idea of Islamic fanaticism is particular to Islam. He notes that bin Laden could hardly be characterized as a religious scholar and that his views are a kind of conglomeration of pathological anti-Semitism and militant Islamism which bin Laden likened to "a burning fire in my intestines" (Bergen 2011: 52).

Given his personal experiences with bin Laden, Bergen is able to paint a disturbingly intimate portrait of the man -- for example, on a personal level the terrorist mastermind was noted for his kindness to others, so long as they were Muslims. The type of intransience and cultural incomprehension characteristic of both the Bush Administration and Al-Qaeda was mutual. "Bin Laden disastrously misjudged the possible American responses to the 9/11 attacks, which he believed would take one of two forms: an eventual retreat from the Middle East along the lines of the U.S. pullout from Somalia…or another ineffectual round of cruise missile attacks" (Bergen 2011: 59). Instead, the Bush Administration effective launched a kind of holy war of its own against what it termed an axis of evil. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" was the mentality (Bergen 2011: 58).

Bergen is very critical of both previous administrations' responses to terror threats before and after 9/11 "After the 9/11 attacks no Bush administration official took responsibility, apologized, resigned, or was fired for what was the gravest national security failure in American history" while in contrast, following Pearl Harbor, the admiral and commander of the Pacific Fleet was immediately relieved of command and demoted (Bergen 2011: 59). While President Roosevelt was open to allowing congressional reports of the attack (ultimately resulting in nine official inquiries), the Bush administration only reluctantly permitted this action to take place (Bergen 39). Even after critical structures were identified by the 9/11 review commission, "it was largely able to skirt the wider policy failures of the Clinton and Bush administrations' handling of the al-Qaeda threat, subjects that were politically too hot to handle" (Bergen 2011: 40).

In short, on a bipartisan level, there was a general unwillingness to pin responsibility on any specific policy or administration, despite the fact that for decades America had been effectively fighting 'the last war' and ignoring the escalating threat of terror that its policies in the Middle East were allowing to fester. A frequent criticism of all administrations, both Republican and Democrat, is that they are constantly fighting the former enemy and shoring up the nation against threats that no longer exist. For the United States, there was still a Cold War mentality to continue to fight nationally-based threats like that of the Soviet Union.

In contrast, Al-Qaeda was a non-state actor with dispersed national identifications and merely united by its hatred of the United States. "The 9/11 attacks were an enormous tactical success for al-Qaeda. They involved well-coordinated strikes on multiple targets in the heart of the enemy, magnified through their global broadcast…If al-Qaeda had been a largely unknown organization before 9/11, in the days after it became a household name" (Bergen 2011: 91). Even though he is a journalist, Bergen is acutely conscious of the paradox of journalism regarding reporting about terrorism -- in attempting to keep the public informed about the terrorist threats, the media also to some extent engages in wish fulfillment of the terrorists by exposing their ideals and cause to the world. While it would be unthinkable not to report on the event, on the other hand, this highlights a challenge, given that publicity is often what the 'terrorists want' when they act.

This challenge is not limited to the media alone. One reason terrorists are so difficult to fight is that they defy rational expectations. Terrorists will use suicide bombers, something unacceptable in the eyes of Americans, but in the worldview of the organization, to act in such a manner is a badge of honor. Once again, this illustrates the cultural gap between the worldview of Al-Qaeda and that of the Western powers attempting to understand and anticipate their movements. This notion of cultural misunderstanding and the need to understand the worldview of terrorists on their own terms is a critical theme of the book. This underlines the fact why it is essential to recruit persons from Muslim cultures as well as law enforcement personnel who are linguistically and culturally fluent in the languages, religions, and history of the Middle East to be at the frontlines of fighting terror. Terror cannot be viewed as a generic threat: what strikes the reader again and again throughout The Longest War is the highly particular nature of the threat and the fact that Al-Qaeda was simply viewed as 'evil.' Understanding how the mindset of the organization was produced and why militants gave bin Laden their unswerving loyalty is not revealed by such a black-and-white characterization, even though such rhetoric may be emotionally popular in the public discourse. However, it is not really an effective weapon in fighting terror.

Another theme is the need for greater understanding of the practical aspects of how terrorism is waged. For example, a commonly-articulated threat is that terrorists will use the Internet to generate attacks in the future. However, "while it is certainly the case that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have used the Web quite adeptly for propaganda and recruitment, there is no evidence…[continue]

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