Normally, I like a hanging judge, and I am certainly a big fan of Michael Mukasey, the esteemed former federal judge and attorney general. He is one of the most reasonable, learned, and authoritative voices around on most matters relating to the law — and especially on the war on terror with which he has been closely connected ever since he sentenced the “blind sheikh” to life in prison in 1996. Yet I can’t help but conclude that his review of Peter Bergen’s The Longest War in the Wall Street Journal metes out a harsher verdict than the book deserves.
Having read the book myself — and having interviewed Bergen about it for an upcoming episode of C-SPAN’s Afterwords — I agree with many of Mukasey’s specific criticisms. I, too, disagree with Bergen when he makes withering criticisms of Guantanamo and the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques on the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. I, too, disagree with Bergen when he criticizes “renditions” of terrorists and when he claims (in words not quoted by Mukasey) that “by any rational standard” Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “did not pose a real threat to the United States.” The last is a particularly puzzling statement considering that Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbors twice, schemed to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and had already sparked one war with the United States and numerous lesser military actions.
But by focusing on these dubious assertions, Mukasey gives the impression that Bergen’s book is an anti-Bush screed along the lines of Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side. It isn’t. It’s actually a fairly balanced account of the past decade’s fight against al-Qaeda.
In the first place, many of the criticisms Bergen offers are on the money — for instance, about the failure of the Bush administration to send more troops to trap Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora and about the failure to prepare for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq war. Both assertions should, by now, be fairly uncontroversial even in conservative circles. For that matter, I think Bergen is convincing in arguing that no tangible links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda have been uncovered and that mainstream Islam has rejected al-Qaeda — both assertions that Mukasey questions.
In the second place, Bergen also offers praise for Bush that Mukasey doesn’t quote. He writes, for example, “There is little doubt that some of the measures the Bush administration and Congress took after 9/11 made Americans safer.” Among the positives he cites are the Patriot Act and other enhanced security measures.
Bergen also endorses Bush’s decision to attack al-Qaeda with the full weight of the U.S. military — not just with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This led the Economist to criticize Bergen’s book for dismissing “the view of some Europeans that al-Qaeda is essentially a law and order problem—more or less arguing, with odd logic, that since it declared war on America, then America must be at war.”
Unlike Michael Scheuer, the eccentric former CIA analyst whose new book about Osama bin Laden is also reviewed by Mukasey, Bergen does not think that Bush fell into a trap by sending troops into Afghanistan. Although bin Laden has talked about how he was luring America into a guerrilla war, Bergen concludes that this is largely an ex post facto justification and that the invasion of Afghanistan actually did significant damage to al-Qaeda. Moreover, unlike many of those who backed the initial decision to intervene, he strongly supports the current war effort in Afghanistan. Indeed Bergen and I teamed up at an Intelligence Squared US debate not long ago to argue that Afghanistan isn’t a lost cause.
In short, I think Mukasey is being harder on Bergen than the facts of the case warrant. But judge for yourself — read the book and watch my interview with Bergen in which I press him on some of the very points that Mukasey raises.