There are two types of Americans: those who love and revere Scott Horton as an unappreciated hero of the anti-war movement, and those who have never heard of him. Before I get into the book, I want to talk a little bit about the author himself, because this book is basically a very brief and introductory overview to his life’s work.
If Scott Alexander changed your perception of what constitutes a “public intellectual,” then this other Scott should change your perception of what constitutes a “foreign policy expert.” Among libertarians his name gets tossed around as someone who could/should be Secretary of State, or maybe Secretary of Defense, under a libertarian presidency. Of course, the odds of him receiving such an appointment under any regime other than a particularly hardcore libertarian one are approximately zero. Not because of his beliefs as such, but because he has zero credentials that the mainstream would respect as “qualifications.” He has no college degree from any prestigious institution – or any institution at all. I’m not even sure if he graduated high school. He never served in the military, or held any job in the intelligence community, state department, diplomatic corps, or anything like that. As far as I know, the only non-activist job he ever held down for any significant period of time was that of a cab driver, where he gleefully admits to being the crazy cabbie who wanted to talk to his passengers about conspiracy theories, and handed out Ron Paul literature (not like the professionally published books Paul would later write after becoming relatively famous, but like, printed out transcripts from the Congressional archives, manually assembled and stapled together). If you ever meet Scott, you’ll likely find him wearing a hoodie, sporting unkempt hair and a scraggly beard. And you’ll need to set aside 20 minutes or so to enjoy his latest rant on the evils of the American military/police state.
But unlike 99% of the other libertarian/conspiracy theorist rants you’ll hear, his are backed (and obviously so) by a wealth of very detailed and specific knowledge. He knows just about everything there is to know about every major war the US has fought in the last 30 years, and also the minor ones that they don’t like to talk about. He knows the major players in each region and each conflict, the groups, the tribes, the sects, as well as the names of top leadership. He can list for you all the various participants in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and describe their different goals, values, religious interpretations, etc. right off the top of his head. If it sounds like I’m being a little too effusive in praise here, it’s because he himself is quite humble. When asked how he came to know all this, he always insists that there’s nothing special about him – that he’s not some super-genius and he’s never had any privileged access. He just reads, a lot. An analogy I’ve heard him use is that he is interested in foreign policy in the same way that many men are interested in sports. If you’re at a party, there’s probably someone in attendance who can tell you everything there is to know about the Boston Red Sox, detailed bios of all the players, team history, recent transactions, etc. They didn’t get this knowledge by majoring in Red Sox studies at Harvard, or by actually working in baseball, or even by sitting down and deliberately deciding to become a Boston Red Sox expert. They just watch Sportscenter every day and read a couple articles every day and it just happens. Scott does that too, but instead of sports, he reads about the American military’s latest overseas exploits. A little every day, and it adds up.
Alas, I come not to praise Scott but to review him. “Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism” is Horton’s second book (not counting an anthology published in his name of interview transcripts featuring Ron Paul), following “Fool’s Errand,” which was a very detailed study of the war in Afghanistan and how it has gone horribly and tragically wrong. This time, the goal is much more ambitious – to cover the entire width and breadth of the “war on terror,” in about as many pages. One might think this would prevent the author from going into sufficient detail, but I think this limiting factor actually is to the reader’s benefit. Fool’s Errand was almost too detailed, too dense. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details – and while Horton may throw around the names of various Arabic groups and individuals like they’re players on a sports team, readers unfamiliar with the culture may glaze over and easily get confused among everyone less famous than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This still sometimes happens in this book – particularly in the middle chapters on Iraq and Syria, which probably see the most full detail of any.
Those “middle chapters” cover different individual “wars” that are part of the greater war on terror. They include Afghanistan, Iraq War 2 (the Iraq war started by George W Bush and somewhat scaled down by Obama), Somalia, Escalations in Afghanistan, the drone war in Pakistan, the Arab Spring uprisings, Libya, Mali, Syria, Iraq War 3 (the return to Iraq to fight and root out ISIS), and Yemen. Afghanistan is mostly glossed over quickly (because he has a full book on that for those interested) and the various African countries get light coverage. The most detail in the middle chapters is spent on Iraq and Syria, because those two theaters are both the most interesting, as well as the most farcically absurd.
This book does a better job than anything else I’ve ever read of really hammering home the insanity of our foreign policy as it concerns Iraq and Syria. Perhaps you once heard someone say that we were funding and fighting alongside Al Qaeda in Syria. This is not an exaggeration – it is literally true. Perhaps you saw an amusing headline that said something like “In Syria, Pentagon-funded militias combat CIA-funded militias.” This is also literally true. Why would this be the case? How did we get into such a ridiculous situation?
As Scott explains, there are two large powers in the region, roughly corresponding with the Islamic sects of the Sunni and the Shia. Around the world, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, but that’s mainly because nearly all Muslims outside the Middle East are Sunni. Within the Middle East itself, the Shia are numerous enough to matter/pose a threat. The “Sunni power” is led by Saudi Arabia, our supposed greatest Arab ally. Saudi Arabia also just so happens to be an area that produces the most radical forms of Islam, including the Wahhabism practiced by Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. Meanwhile, the “Shia (or Shi’ite) power” is led by Iran, whom you may remember from a 1970s revolution and hostage scandal. While the actual nation-states of Saudi Arabia and Iran may not be in open warfare with each other, rest assured that the militia groups they fund do not hesitate to do battle against one another – even during a time when there are plenty of Jewish and Crusader (American) targets in the region.
OK, so there’s a large power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the Islamic Middle East – but what does this have to do with Iraq and Syria? Well Iraq and Syria are interesting cases who were sort of neutral parties to all of this (until the US got involved and messed everything up). Iraq under Saddam Hussein was essentially a secular dictatorship, as was Syria under Assad. Neither of these were nice guys, to be sure, but neither was presiding over anything as extreme as what Saudi Arabia condones in terms of fundamentalism, nor were they much of a threat/bother to the Isrealis as Iran always seems to be. In Iraq, the majority of the population are Shia, and would be inclined to support Iran, if they weren’t led by a dictator who hated Iran and used strongman tactics to prevent it. Saddam supported the Sunni minority, and used his dreadful reputation to keep the Shia, Kurds, and other minorities in line. Syria was similar, although they are even more diverse with even more relevant sects. But unlike Saddam, Assad was quite friendly to Iran – in fact, Syria was Iran’s only relevant ally in this region.
So what happens when the US military rolls into town, removes Saddam Hussein from the equation, and enforces “free and fair elections” at the barrel of a gun? Well, the Shia majority in Iraq elects a Shia-dominated government who is very much inclined to be friendly towards Iran. The Sunni-minority isn’t so thrilled about this, and so they do what people in the region do when not so thrilled, start joining various militias to violently resist this supposed tyranny. And the US military, compelled to defend the officially-sanctioned Democratic government, works alongside the Shia government fighting the Sunni militias. This annoys both of our greatest allies, the terror-exporting Saudi Arabia, and the Isrealis, who seem to mostly play the role of the kid who stands on the sidelines and loudly encourages all the tough kids to fight each other. The US government itself of course, also hates Iran, doesn’t trust them, and suddenly says to itself “Gee, maybe it’s not such a great thing that we’ve dramatically increased Iran’s power in this region.” But what to do about it? You’ve spent the last decade loudly insisting that it was the job of America to “export Democracy.” And the elections were fair. In Iraq, this is what Democracy looks like. It would be pretty embarrassing to overturn the results and install another secular strongman (particularly once the Arab Spring kicked off, which mostly consisted of various other nearby peoples overthrowing their own secular strongmen and replacing them with, you guessed it, Democratic Elections which, you guessed it, mostly elected fundamentalist Muslim governments). Now all of a sudden, we need to find a way to reduce Iran’s regional power without starting a costly ground war with possibly the strongest nation in the region, as well as without completely reversing course in Iraq.
Syria, come on down, you’re the next contestant on Regime Change Is Always Right! Since Syria was allied with Iran, the thought was that if we could depose Assad, we could assist in ensuring a Sunni government came to power, which would appease Saudi Arabia (who were annoyed at us for making things worse for them) and Israel (who see Iran as a bigger threat than Saudi). See, in Iraq, we supported the Shia against the Sunni, which turned out to be bad. So now we need to weaken the Shia by supporting the Sunni against them in Syria. Everybody following along? Scott describes situations where literally the exact same people in a Sunni militia would, one week, be fighting against US troops in Iraq, and then the next week, cross the border into Syria where they would receive weapons and support from US troops. We were funding and fighting both sides of this war, at the same time. And to the extent we supported the Sunni in Syria, yes, that meant we were literally allied with and providing direct material support to Al Qaeda-linked groups (Scott makes quick work of the myth of the “moderate rebels”), the very people who actually attacked us on 9/11.
These middle sections do an excellent job of making it clear exactly how we got ourselves into a situation that’s almost too stupid to believe. But the book’s best contributions are actually at the beginning and the end. The book opens with a brief summary of the author’s overall thesis – that this whole “war on terror” is exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted. That the entire point of his domestic campaign against the US was to sucker us into unending war on the battlefield of his choosing. That he meant to “bleed us dry” the same way the Mujahadeen did against the Soviets – in the mountains of Afghanistan against fiercely determined Pashtun tribesmen. This theory is well supported and well argued.
But the absolute best section, and the most critical, is the very final chapter, titled “A Choking Life.” In this final section, the author totals up the costs of this completely foolish endeavor. And it’s sobering. This chapter hits hard. Hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, including the children dying of starvation and malnourishment due to various economic sanctions and blockades, thousands tortured or disappeared, multiple countries in shambles, the return of chattel slavery in Libya, increasing fundamentalism in the middle east, and a tarnished and shattered image of American Democracy in basically all corners of the world. But in classic Scott Horton fashion – he’s not done there. He also attacks the right from the right and says, go ahead, put all that aside for a second. Assume those are all evil Muslims who hate America and deserve no sympathy. What was the cost to us? Over 7,000 dead US troops by official count, at least as many suicides (veterans have a significantly higher suicide rate than the base population), widespread brain cancer potentially emanating from burn pits (possibly including Beau Biden), nearly 7 trillion dollars spent (once again, that’s the official number, the real number is certainly higher, and would not include say crowding out of private investment, interest on the debt, things like that), multiple acts of domestic terror committed in retaliation (almost every post-9/11 terrorist event has been carried out by individuals who directly cite the US wars in the middle east as the primary motivation for their actions), the domestic spying programs instituted by the NSA and others, the complete erosion of trust and faith in the national security apparatus, and on and on and on. And for what? What exactly is the benefit that is to be balanced against these costs? Nothing. It accomplished nothing. Nearly every place we’ve involved ourselves is worse off than before we got there. As Trump pointed out, we didn’t confiscate any free oil out of all of this (Horton dismisses the “wars for oil” argument as being way too simplistic), we haven’t received payments from any of these countries for providing them necessary protection, etc. It’s just all gone.
If you find yourself intrigued, or in agreement, with the brief outline I provide above, I strongly suggest at least buying this book, even if you don’t intend to read it right away. It’s a critical reference that you can flip back to if needed. This information needs to be preserved. We need to be able to prove that somebody was saying this. We can’t let them get away with recording history to make it seem like this was all a noble and worthy endeavor. In terms of readability, the book is dense at times, but does include some of Horton’s signature sardonic wit. Sprinkled throughout is some dry/sarcastic humor (when addressing the notion that we could have made these wars pay for themselves by confiscating oil, Horton calmly and systematically disproves this, then concludes “But even if all that could work out, it would still be evil, because killing people for money is wrong,”). He also devotes paragraphs to calling out, by name, various journalists, pundits, and think-tankers who deliberately lied us into these wars and constantly reported false propaganda, which certainly brough a smile to my face.
Scott Horton is a national treasure, and this book is essentially his magnum opus. It is a summary of the last several decades of his life’s work. Every intelligent American needs to be familiar with this information, and I can think of no one better to learn it from.