Shortly after Trapped in the War on Terror was published in September, Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes interviewed Dr. Ian Lustick, the author and political-science professor. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.


What was the impetus for writing this book?

After 9/11, I felt, like so many Americans, that I wanted to do something to help protect the country. When the FBI asked me to help organize a conference at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, I said yes, and the University of Pennsylvania helped support it. In the context of putting that conference together, I had some conversations with high-level officials that left me concerned. One had to do with my advice that the government suggest to television networks that they not show the destruction of the twin towers so often, because of the danger that Americans would come to have a much higher level of anxiety than was warranted and come to believe that that kind of catastrophic terrorism was much more likely than it really was to happen again, or to affect individual viewers. The response I received was that that was one of the first things recommended to the higher-level political echelons by government professionals. The advice, however, was rejected by political leaders who wanted to maintain a very high level of anxiety in the country. This imperative came from a particular part of the government that was in favor of using a general “War on Terror” to justify the specific war that it wanted to launch in Iraq.

Over the next year I started to see how many other agendas, of many other groups—from the gun-control lobby to the NRA, from Dunkin Donuts to veterinarians—were using the War on Terror as a way to further their own ambitions. I gradually began to see that it was not real threats that were producing spiraling expenditures and a national obsession with the possibility of terrorist attacks. Rather, our entire political system had been hijacked via the War on Terror, and the War on Terror itself was serving the interests of al-Qaeda, by bleeding America and casting Osama and his band of criminal fanatics into the role of a world-class adversary. Designed by the architects of the Iraq War to help them launch the invasion, the War on Terror took on an uncontrollable life of its own, feeding on the political and economic rewards of every interest group, politician, and lobbyist who claimed rewards for contributing to a “war” against an enemy that couldn’t be seen, could never be defeated, and with respect to which any scheme—no matter how expensive or how improbable—couldn’t be ruled out as unnecessary.

You mention the “cabal” that orchestrated the invasion of Iraq and also is promoting the “preventive bombing” of Iran. Who makes up that cabal and what is their agenda?

Perhaps it sounds overly conspiratorial to put it this way, but sometimes small groups of people do have a big impact on history, and this is one of them. The organization called the Project for the New American Century [PNAC] was formed in the mid-’90s. Bill Kristol, who used to teach in the political-science department here and is the editor of The Weekly Standard, was one of the founders of PNAC, and remains its leader. Articles and manifestos that were written by Kristol and others, and the petitions and letters that were submitted to the Clinton administration by PNAC, bore the signatures of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle and Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz—officials who comprised the key group of supremacist hawks who, after 9/11, were able to gain control over American foreign policy.

In the mid-’90s PNAC had argued for a revolution in American foreign policy, to make American foreign policy energetic, heroic, and dedicated to the destruction of “monsters” overseas, especially Saddam Hussein, as one way to change American politics. They argued that only by leading Americans to think of themselves in a way that would put a premium on national greatness—not on social, democratic, and economic well-being—would conservatives be able to rule America. In fact, William Kristol and Robert Kagan argued in a famous Foreign Affairs article in 1996 that without revamping American foreign policy this way, conservatives could not win elections. This group had tried mightily to gain control of the national-security/foreign-policy apparatus as soon as President Bush took office in 2001, but were met with stiff and effective opposition from the uniformed military, from the intelligence community, from old foreign-policy hands close to the first President Bush, and from Secretary of State Colin Powell. In fact, until 9/11 there was very little change in U.S. foreign policy from that followed by the Clinton administration. Ironically, the only way in which it did change is that it had more or less given up the attempt to strike at Osama bin Laden. But after 9/11 the cabal seized the issue of terrorism and exploited it ruthlessly to build support for the series of wars they had long planned to mount—beginning, once Afghanistan was taken care of, in Iraq. When the President adopted the slogan “You’re either with the terrorists or with us” and coupled that slogan with the doctrine of pre-emptive war, he established just the unlimited justification for the unilateral use of American military power that the cabal needed to pursue its fantasy of an “American Century,” marked by conservative rule at home and an expanding neo-imperial American presence abroad.


Some people say we’ve abandoned protecting our infrastructure—the chemical plants and ports and whatnot. Is there a real threat to them, and should that be addressed better than it is now? Or is that part of the hysteria?

Consider this. For a Democratic candidate, the easiest thing in the world is to say what you just said, that instead of fighting the war in Iraq the government should be protecting refineries, ports, subways, cattle herds, the milk supply, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, and power plants. But if a wise policy is defined as that which protects every important thing in the country from any bad thing anyone might think of doing, then no policy can be wise and every official can be made to look foolish. My point is that to be drawn toward that tempting kind of argument is to be drawn into playing the War on Terror game and helping it to become even more in control of our lives than it already is.

We’ve got to turn away from a definition of the problem that gives every interest group the ability to invent the enemy and the dangers that it would profit from most if they existed. Instead we must concentrate our resources on the real enemies we have, and especially on making sure that nuclear-weapons grade materials do not get into the hands of the wrong people. That’s not done through warfare; that’s not done through loud, politically sexy campaigns. It’s done through discreet, professional intelligence and law enforcement, with surgical and mostly clandestine use of military force when necessary. It requires close and trusted cooperation with our allies in Europe and in the Muslim world. The kind of War on Terror rhetoric we’ve been pursuing is exactly what interrupts those important efforts and complicates them.


What’s the single best example of something that could lower the temperature and effectively keep the nation safe from a terrorist attack?

One obvious thing to do is get out of Iraq. That can be done by building the international support and cooperation that would come from admitting, publicly, that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic mistake, that it won’t be repeated by the U.S., and that it should not be used as a precedent for unilateral ambitions by powerful countries. That statement alone would be an enormous contribution to lowering the temperature.

But a crucial part of making that process work will be vigorous U.S. policies to finally bring about a Palestinian-Israeli peace based on two real states. That’s the single most important thing we could do to take away the issues that al-Qaeda and its clones thrive on and set the stage for a reassertion of American wisdom, statesmanship, and effectiveness in the Middle East.


Anything else you want to touch on?

One of the big differences between the U.S. and Europe, one reason why the British and French and other European countries face a more dangerous challenge than we do, and one reason why there’s been more terrorist activity there than here since 9/11, is because their Muslim communities are so different than ours. Ours have had the expectation of integration into the U.S. and the aspiration to become full Americans of the Islamic persuasion. But in Europe there are encapsulated Pakistani Muslim or North African Muslim communities that incubate extremism because they don’t feel that they are real parts of European society. In the United States, our War on Terror has the unfortunate effect of tending to treat the Muslims in our country as part of the enemy and may actually push them into the mold that is producing the problem in Europe. Now, there are other reasons to think this won’t happen so fast, but it is a big danger that we can avoid if we adopt a sensible law-enforcement approach that would treat our loyal and patriotic Muslim citizens as the crucial allies they are in the struggle against violent extremists, rather than as part of the problem.

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Lowering the Temperature

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/06