The Age of Sacred Terror, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. New York: Random House, 2002. xiii + 446 pages. Gloss. to 449. Notes to p. 472. Index to p. 490. $25.95.
The High Cost of Peace: How Washington's Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, by Yossef Bodansky. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2002. xvii + 569 pages. Appends. to 578. Gloss. to 587. Note on Sources to 596. Bibl. to 619. Index to 652. $27.95.
Reviewed by Duncan Clarke
These two books share some commonalities: a focus on radical Islam, terrorism, the Middle East, and US foreign policy. Both conclude that, ultimately, regional democratization is imperative, however hazardous that may be for the Islamic world and the United States. Beyond this, the books are from different planets. One is an insightful insider account of pre-9/11 (September 11, 2001) US decisionmaking for counterterrorism. The other is a screed.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon were terrorism specialists with Richard Clarke on the Clinton administration's National Security Council (NSC) staff. The Age of Sacred Terror examines the US response to Muslim terrorists from the killing of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 through 9/11. It also traces the evolution of a strain of Islam that places holy war at the center of Islamic life - from ibn Taymiyaa in the 13th century through the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood, to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
The book's real value, and why it deserves to be read, is its informed, credible treatment of US policy and, especially, policy processes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is portrayed as even more bumbling than what was revealed after 9/11. Not only did it withhold vital information from the White House, but Benjamin and Simon assert that the Bureau was less concerned with al-Qaeda than was any other unit of the US government. The FBI was a "surly colossus," a "disorganized jumble of competing . . . power centers" (p. 300). Likewise, terrorism was of tertiary concern to the US military, and the authors find that the Department of Justice (very much unlike the present) did not encourage close pursuit of potential domestic threats because Arab-American complaints induced an unhealthy "political correctness" (p. 306).
Despite this, these Clinton NSC staffers argue that they and their bosses were fully on top of terrorism, certainly by 1993. Both of Clinton's national security advisers, Anthony Lake and Sandy Berger, constantly raised the issue; two presidential decision directives gave the terrorist threat unprecedented salience; Richard Clarke's loud, often abrasive cries of alarm drove the military and complacent officials "batshit" (p. 232); and by 1996 President Clinton himself had "an enduring anxiety" about terrorism that led him to double US spending on the problem. The authors also provide new (to the reviewer) evidence that the pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that was attacked by the United States in 1998 was, indeed, producing chemical weapons. Benjamin and Simon rightly observe that, despite the acute concerns of Clarke (who was retained by the incoming Bush administration) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet, the Bush administration gave little attention to terrorism until 9/11.
As to the query, 'Why do they hate us?', the authors cite most of the usual culprits, but accord primacy to "consummate religious devotion" (p. 39). For al-Qaeda and a growing number of other enemies of the United States throughout the Islamic world, mass killing of Americans, Europeans, and Israelis is a "sacrament," "an act of redemption" (p. 40). While Benjamin and Simon are far more discriminate and discrete than Yossef Bodansky, they skate close to tainting all of Islam. For instance: "Muslims the world over look ... for guidance in religious matters" to an Egyptian clerical establishment that shares "some fundamental presuppositions ... of the radical agenda" (p. …