Battle for our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, by Michael Widlanski, Threshold Editions, Simon and Schuster. 373 pp.
Reviewed by Lela Gilbert
Western reactions to Islamist terror attacks inevitably range from disbelief to horror. Author Michael Widlanski knows a great deal about terrorism, and his response is outrage. He makes this perfectly clear in his explosive new book Battle for our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.
The author, a former New York Times reporter and a former advisor to Israel’s Ministry of Public Security is an expert in counterterrorism and has served for two decades as Professor of Arab Politics and Communication at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is deeply concerned about what he views as the malicious influence of western academics who distort or ignore facts about Israel, Islam, and Islamist terrorism. He cites extensive evidence that news corporations intentionally refrain from calling Arab-Muslim terrorism by name, and at times even cover up for terrorists and the regimes that support them. And he details his ongoing frustration with the ignorance and hubris of intelligence agencies and their leadership.
Widlanski’s concern does not end with the obvious damage wreaked by terror attacks: death, destruction and life-altering injuries. Rather, he explains that “The heart of terror is the mind…our mind versus their mind. …Western elites have hindered the battle against terror. Our ‘best and brightest’—journalists, academics and officials—have minimized the threat or even made light of the sense of danger rather than curbing the danger itself.”
The author is not afraid to name names. He writes of the radical pronouncements of Edward Said, John Esposito, Noam Chomsky and other Arabists in the Academy. He examines the dismal record of print journalists including Thomas Friedman, John Kifner, James Bennet, Robert Fisk, and, in detail, the legacy of the New York Times. Turning to the broadcast media, Widlanski recounts the compromised and biased reporting of CNN’s Peter Arnett, Christiane Amanpour, and Eason Jordan.
The President of the United States does not escape Widlanski’s scathing criticism. He writes of Barack Obama’s ongoing obscurantism with regard terrorism: “Careful not to ‘overreact’ to the terror threat, President Obama is unwilling or unable to utter certain terms: ‘radical Islam,’ ‘Islamic terror’ ‘Arab terror,’ or ‘Islamic extremism.’ In Widlanski’s view, Obama and his advisors act as though Arab-Islamic terror were part of a Harry Potter fantasy novel, where the evil force is ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named.’”
The author saves some of his most powerful salvos for the intelligence community, in particular the C.I.A. He points out that America relies on “experts” who have been politically promoted to leadership roles without any field experience, with no knowledge of Arabic, Farsi or other relevant languages, and with no background in the history or culture of the countries that produce and export terror. Along with being conciliatory and even forgiving of terrorists, these professional spooks have made fatal—literally, deadly—mistakes in their predictions and assumptions.
Widlanski points to Michael Scheuer, the C.I.A. operative assigned to Bin Laden, saying, “For hundreds of pages, this ‘expert’ without any Arabic and without any field work at all in the Arabic-speaking areas of the Middle East, accuses everyone in the policy community of ‘ignorance’ and ‘hubris.’ Then this ‘expert’ claims that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq because it is ‘the second holiest site in Islam.’ This shows great ignorance…’” Widlanski notes that while there may have been good arguments for not invading Iraq, this was not one of them. He continues, with precision, to explain why.
Widlanski also cites Paul Pillar, a principle author of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 2007, which stated that Iran was no longer making nuclear weapons. “Within months of the 2007 NIE,” Widlanski points out, “the report was shaken by tremendous countervailing evidence and the CIA had to recant Pillar’s judgment. Yet the report served its apparent purpose: it blocked any effort to push for stronger sanctions or military action against Iran.”
Pillar, who, like Scheuer and CIA director George Tenet, was never a field agent, demonstrated poor predictive skills for over a decade. Just prior to 9/11, Pillar stated publicly that the United States was not at risk for terror. After the September 11th disaster, he confidently claimed that Iran was not seeking a nuclear weapon. Much of a chapter titled “Counterterror Intelligence: Oxymoronic or Just Moronic?” is devoted to an analysis of Pillar’s ill-starred declarations on terrorism and radical Islam.
Widlanski concludes with “Scenarios and Solutions,” in which he notes, “When the sky indeed fell on us—in New York and Washington—when death came from the trains, the buses, or the sea—in London, Madrid, Mumbai, and Jerusalem—the danger was clear and manifest. Yet our elites often undermined the moral justice of fighting hard against terror. They educated us and our youth that fighting was futile because there was no way we could really win, or that our strenuous efforts were as bad as the means used by the terrorist themselves.”
In his highly readable and carefully documented exposé, Widlanski provides his readers, experts and laypeople alike, with critical information and tactical intellectual weaponry. This becomes increasingly important as the war of ideas intensifies and the “War on Terror” continues to smolder and periodically burst into flame.