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Glenn Greenwald misses target, hits good guys

[ by Charles Cameron — I pretty much follow the people I follow because I learn from them, and that builds trust and friendship ]

Exum nails it.

I mean, I can well imagine there are some phony “experts” on terrorism out there, but Glenn Greenwald hasn’t done his homework and misfires. Let me explain.


I don’t know about you, but I sometimes think the words that someone ends a book with are kinda significant. They’re the ones that give you the impression the author wants to leave you with. That’s partly why I go on and on at such length about the final hundred pages of Abu Musab al-Suri‘s Treatise being devoted to an exposition of apocalyptic hadith with strategic application.

So when Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes an entire book arguing that al-Qaida’s strategy is to defeat the US by draining its economy – fair enough, given that bin Laden himself said he was continuing a policy of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy” – it should come as no surprise when Gartenstein-Ross closes his book with the following words:

When we are facing a crushing national debt, the interest payments for which are projected to eclipse our current defense budget by 2019, we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat and to intervene in every conflict.

The course to maintaining American power in the twenty-first century begins with conserving our resources. And this must be as true of our counterterrorism and military efforts as it is of any other segment of the federal budget.

Likewise, when someone writes a 30-page analysis of the FBI’s infiltration of the Patriot movement, as JM Berger did in his report on PATCON for the New America Foundation, it’s hard to imagine that he’s solely concerned with Islamic terror. Indeed, Berger was researching the “Aryan Republican Army” at least as far back as 2006, when he posted Richard Guthrie’s Suicide: New Details Of ‘Aryan’ Bank Robber And OKBOMB Suspect’s Death In Prison; more recently, he published a piece about the Turner Diaries and today’s Patriot movement in the Daily Beast in June of this year.


It’s curious, then, and sad, that these are the two people that Glenn Greenwald specifically picks out by name and photograph to attack in his final, ill-informed piece for Salon, The sham “terrorism expert” industry, writing:

Gartenstein-Ross’ entire lucrative career as a “terrorism expert” desperately depends on the perpetuation of the Islamic Terror threat.

of the fellow who wrote:

we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat

and similarly:

he spends his time doing things like shrieking about the Towering Menace of Anwar al-Awlaki and generally hopping on whatever Muslim-Terrorism-is-a-Grave-Danger train that comes along.

about the fellow who has been tracking many forms of US native terror – including all those mentioned in his piece, A Nation of Spies and Snitches in Foreign Policy in May of this year:

And it isn’t just about Muslims, or even terrorism. In recent months, informants and undercover agents have played a key role in criminal cases involving anarchists in Ohio associated with the Occupy movement and right-wing extremists in Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan


Greenwald has gotten this same sort of thing wrong at least once before, when he pilloried Will McCants. Greenwald had written:

I had a somewhat lengthy debate on Twitter last night about the Awlaki assassination with several people often identified as “Terrorism experts” — such as Will McCants and Aaron Zelin — and they and others (such as Andrew Exum and Robert Farley) objected rather vigorously when I said I found the entire concept of “Terrorism expert” to be invalid, as it is a honorific typically assigned due to ideology and interests served rather than actual expertise.


Exum neatly skewered him that time, too, albeit at greater length, writing:

Second, let me consider the case of my friend Will McCants, who Greenwald very much picked on in his Twitter feed along with Aaron Zelin (who I do not know well but who seems really smart in his own right). Greenwald is correct that the decade after the September 11th attacks created all kinds of incentives for self-proclaimed terrorism “experts” to rise to the fore, hawking their “expertise” and opinions on both the consulting market as well as in the mainstream media. Too often, this expertise has been ignorant or barely concealed Islamophobia. Ironically, though, one of the scholars who has done the most to condemn what he calls “CT hucksters” is Will McCants. Will is one of the more rigorously credentialed scholars studying violent Islamist extremist groups as well as being one of the most careful. Will fell into a study of terrorism after doing a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. He had no initial academic training in strategic studies or military affairs as far as I know, but his Arabic and understanding of the intellectual currents of political Islam made him ideal to work on al-Qaeda as a case study. And just like I started a dissertation on Hizballah with a background in Middle Eastern Studies and boned up on the theories related to small wars and insurgencies as I went along, so too did Will with respect to terrorism as a phenomenon. At the end of the day, Will is best described as an Arabist, perhaps, but if he is not a bona fide terrorism expert as well — again, no scare quotes necessary this time — I don’t know who is.

History may not repeat, but Greenwald seems to.

The equivalent skewering this time around can be found in Foreign Affairs — in Dan Trombly‘s What’s Glenn Greenwald’s Problem?


[ Saving grace note: I don’t think it quite admits me to the clique, but I’ve exchanged emails or tweets with all four of the people Greenwald mentioned with less than due diligence, and consider each of them “virtual acquaintances” and in some cases “friends” ]

18 Responses to “Glenn Greenwald misses target, hits good guys”

  1. zen Says:

    Greenwald’s piece was self-discrediting rubbish larded liberally with projection.
    Well done, Charles 

  2. Omar Says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Glenn. This conversation reminds me a little bit of the ‘Very Serious People’ syndrome affecting economic policy debate in the US right now. Media pundits give us stern warnings about the “crushing debt” and the need to immediately address it because people like Mankiw, Hubbard and Niall Ferguson says it’s important. Why is it important? Because they all went to Harvard and Yale, and as we all know, it’s really, really hard to get into these schools. Forget the fact that they have been consistently wrong about every prediction they have made. We must take their warnings very seriously. And when these Very Serious People say occasionally non-crazy stuff like agreeing to have some tax increase, we are supposed to applaud them for their “bravery.”

    What does it even mean to be a terrorism expert? I, too, have read a lot about terrorism. I come from a country that harboured terrorists. I speak Dari, Pashtu, Urdu and Arabic. Does that make me a terrorist expert? 

    You cited Andrew Exum’s tweet. As we all know, Andrew was one of the most rigorous defenders of COIN strategy. In fact, he planned it alongside the Kagans and McChrystal. So far, the war in Afghanistan has been an absolute disaster. The government is the most corrupt government in the world and has no credibility. Forces have no control over the borders, and the local population have strong religious and political objections to the US being there. Now, even the Afghan police and soldiers are killing the troops.

    In other words, what can go wrong did go wrong.

    The problem, of course, is that there is no repercussions for being wrong. All of the COIN advocates still have their jobs and will still be given cushy jobs. All of these so-called experts will continue to be working in positions where they have influence and will be providing analysis that will continue to harm this country.

    What we need is less “experts” and more humility. 

  3. Omar Says:

    And what the hell is the ‘Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’? Some type of out-of-shape Justice League?

  4. John Says:

    I’m a professional historian, Arabist, PhD, with a dozen plus languages, tenured, stack of books to my name, the lot, and I’ve been working on American Islam for a couple decades now. Berger’s research is first rate, both his book and his articles. He knows more about the history of militant Islam in America than any other researcher out there, academician or otherwise. This oughtn’t be surprising. He’s the first person to gain access to most of the sources. That took a hell of a lot of time and effort, and we in the field are grateful that he shares.

    It’s hard to believe that Greenwald actually read beyond the title of Berger’s Jihad Joe. The book hardly ever touches on matters of policy. Nor is it characterized by the pathologies found in some other books on the topic. I’ve used it with students a couple times now, and I’ve only ever had positive comments from Muslim students, including international students from very traditional backgrounds. That’s pretty damn remarkable, given the passions that surround this topic. I can also attest that the book is respected both by guys at our local FBI office and by a local Arab Afghan (retired). You can’t say that about many books.

    Greenwald’s just being silly.

  5. Madhu Says:

    You have a point Omar, but there is a difference between serious scholars of a social phenomenon and DC policy advocates posing as scholars. The latter is my biggest pet peeve. It’s amazing how many policy advocates-as-scholars the Washington community seems to attract.
    If Mr. Greenwald is trying to highlight the latter, then I would agree. If he is lumping the two categories together, then we have a problem.
    The sad thing is that his partisan writing adds to the very phenomenon he is critiquing, IMO.
    PS: Anyone else having trouble logging into SWJ lately? It might be a sign for me to move on from these parts for the time being….

  6. Madhu Says:

    PS: I tend to agree with Omar about Dr. Exum which will be very unpopular around here. I do think Dr. Exum is sincere and a professional, but he really wasn’t a COIN scholar. He was a particular policy advocate. But the others in Greenwald’s post seem to be genuinely interested in the topic as scholars.
    At any rate, no one is going to change anyone’s mind. And while we argue about the peripheral, the world turns….
    Back to Pundita blog….

  7. Madhu Says:

    Er, sorry, not suggesting zenpundit is peripheral, I just meant Pundita has posted some interesting things.

  8. Madhu Says:

    One final thing: to be a policy advocate is to get big things wrong. There is no way around it, everyone gets things wrong, it’s not just the Mankiws and the Fergusons, it’s the Krugmans and the Reid’s, too.
    So, how does one pursue accountability in public discourse while understanding the phenomenon of risk, error, and decision making that always encounters the knowledge problem?
    Now that would be something to look into….
    I hope I haven’t been to harsh on Dr. Exum. I think he is a reflection of the larger system and its inherent problems, both good and bad. I have no animus toward the good doctor and wish all well.

  9. Madhu Says:

    Yeah, you know I can’t shut up. I made the mistake of going to the twitter feed and reading this from Greewald:
    “You said this last time. I don’t think the problem is a few Fox News cartoons. The problem is the field itself, the concept.”
    The field and the concept are two different things. There may be problems with the field but why is it wrong to study violent behavior as a concept? Says the pathologist, dryly….
    Why are you all paying attention to this goofball? He’s one of those guys that is so in his own political worldview he can’t see anything differently, I’m betting.
    By the way, there are nonWestern scholars of the topic. Just saying….

  10. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi John,
    “…silly” is the appropriate word. Some of these pundits take themselves too seriously, and this is yet another example. More often than not, these folks a mile wide in the branding department, and thimble deep in actual knowledge.
    And Madhu, those “policy advocates-as-scholars” undergird most of the neocon movement. I am a classical liberal/conservative, politically, but the neocon movement leaves me cold: democracy at the tip of a bayonet (utopian nonsense). As for SWJ, that “scenario” piece recently where the Tea Party “occupied” a city by force being passed off as a serious cause me to remove from my RSS feed. They deleted my two sentence comment at the site, so I’m definitely “moving on.” 

  11. Madhu Says:

    Seriously? They deleted a comment from you? But I can’t imagine you would have left an impolite comment. You are the politest commenter I know. You never lose your temper, unlike me.
    Well, you know, they are only human. An editorial lapse and the follow-up did mention that threats. That can rattle a person.
    The neocon movement leaves me cold, too. Working with patients including vets makes it hard for me to take the political discussion as some intellectual excercise. The vast majority are well adjusted and do well, but it is hard to see those that are hurt badly.
    (Please don’t mind me. It’s been a rough few days in the hospital for reasons I really don’t want to go into. I’m going to be a bit difficult for a while, I think….)

  12. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Yep. In a fit of passion, I referred to said article as “crap” and wondered aloud what happened to the normal editorial process—specifically if, in this case, there was any editorial oversight. The comments on that piece are an education, and the writers of the piece wrote it as you mentioned above: “policy advocates-as-scholars”—follow the money…
    Hope things improve soon, and be well. 

  13. seydlitz89 Says:


    You forgot to mention that Greenwald’s post was a defense of Stephan Walt’s post that was trashed by Gartenstein-Ross.  Walt’s argument actually makes a lot of sense.  

    Btw, how would you define “terror”/”terrorism” . . . We had a thread on exactly that back in February . . .


  14. zen Says:

    Attacking arguments is always fair game – Walt’s, Gartensten-Ross’, mine, anybody’s – and had Greenwald limited himself to that or pursuing the legitimate question or whether terrorism itself is a proper focus of study, no one would be piling on him now. But instead, Greenwald buffooned it up ad hominem in a hysterical jeremiad while not actually knowing what he was talking about and pimping an ideological castle in the air of his own in much the manner he was accusing other ppl of doing.
    Not a stellar performance IMHO

  15. Charles Cameron Says:

    Lots of people to respond to here —
    Hi Seydlitz:
    Yes, I am happy to acknowledge that there was more to GG’s post than just his attack on Daveed G-R and JM Berger: I was responding to the part on which I have an opinion formed by several years of experience with the particular people involved.
    That has to be the main thrust of my reply to you too — I try to avoid writing where I’m not reasonably well-informed, and in the case of both Daveed G-R’s and JM Berger’s work, I am.  I have been following maybe 10 or 15 people closely on these topics, and Daveed and JM are simply two of the best — I have also discarded many along the way who write in the same general area, and don’t provide such informed and nuanced reading.
    Perhaps I can put it this way:  Glenn’s point about there being people who have crowded into the field loosely labeled “terrorism” is certainly apt, but he clearly hasn’t done his homework concerning the two people he attacked.  As to the label “terrorism” itself — I think it’s one of those things that Wittgenstein describes, like “games”, as having a “family resemblance rather than a clear definition.
    But what’s at issue here isn’t GG’s overall thesis — it’s his targeting of two of the voices of moderation and scholarship as though they were party-line hacks of some kind.  They aren’t — and if GG had read them closely enough to know, he’d know they aren’t.
    On the topic of Andrew Exum and COIN — I’ll demur.  I don’t “do” military theory except as it touches religious interests of mine — which the COIN manual does, briefly, in 3.46-51, but which Brig. SK Malik devoted his entire Qur’anic Concept of War to. However, I know that others hereabouts know far more about COIN, its history, development and present status than I, and hope they’ll respond to you.  
    On COIN, see above.  I like Exum for his willingness to entertain multiple viewpoints, and to point me to interesting materials. As to non-western students of terror, let me post something specific when I have a moment to check my shelves. Rohan Gunaratna and MJ Akbar spring immediately to mind.
    Thanks for your input.
    Scott, Zen, all — my warm regards.

  16. Omar Says:

    It’s fairly obvious that we’re not going to agree, so I’ll leave it at that. But there is a story regarding Imam Malik, an Islamic scholar of jurisprudence. He was asked 20 basic questions about Islam from a woman and he only answered 8 of them, and saying ‘I don’t know’ to the other 12. Someone asked why he was unable to answer easy questions, and he said he wanted to instill a sense of humility in himself and remind himself that he didn’t have the answers he thinks he has.

    Unfortunately, the current “scholarship” pertaining to Islam, Islamic ‘terrorism’, national security, etc. is completely void of that. Even when they have been proven wrong. Over and over again.  

  17. Charles Cameron Says:

    I love the story of Imam Malik, Omar — my own upbringing was strongly monastic in tone, and as I said, I try to avoid speaking to matters on which I have no more than an opinionated acquaintance.  I hope we can keep talking…
    I’d be very interested to know whom you might be thinking of, when you write that “current ‘scholarship’ pertaining to Islam, Islamic ‘terrorism’, national security, etc. is completely void of that” — tell me a couple of the pundits masquerading as scholars that you find objectionable, and we’ll be able to see if I concur, eh?  And let me tell you some of the people I read and trust, and you can let me know if there are better sources.
    I read Brynjar Lia, for instance, on Abu Musab al-Suri’s Call — Bruce Lincoln on Mohamed Atta’s final instructions to the 9/11 pilots — Muhammad Haniff Hassan’s refutation of Imam Samudra’s justification for the Bali bombing, David Cook and JP Filiu on Sunni eschatology, Abbas Amanat on the Iranian equivalent, and as I said, Brig. Malik on Zia-ul-Haq-era theory of warfare.  
    Are these the sorts of people you are disagreeing with — or is it the politicized think-tank brigade of talking heads?
    For Ibn Arabi I read Henry Corbin and William Chittick, and for Rumi AJ Arberry and Annemarie Schimmel. I confess to a deep love of the Sufi poets.
    Daveed G-R, by the way, would be among the first to agree with you, both on the importance of humility and in his distrust of hastily-summoned analysts with no particular previous connection with their subject areas.  He, after all, is the one who wrote:

    A key question about the massive expansion of the intelligence community that occurred after 9/11 is whether we are truly better off because of it. Is our raw intelligence better? Has our analysis improved? Is it having a significant operational impact? These subjects must be explored with diligence and humility in the age of austerity that we’re entering.

    As I say, I very miuch hope we can keep talking — I have a keen enough interest to know I have much to learn!

  18. Madhu Says:

    @ Charles – Yes, I like that too. As to my comment about “peripheral”, I was thinking how parochial Mr. (Dr?, I don’t really know this guy) Greenwald’s comments seem to be. Lots of people study this stuff outside of Western contexts and DC culture.

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