What’s Glenn Greenwald’s Problem?

The outgoing Salon blogger can't seem to have an honest discussion without accusing his debate partners of malicious motives.


On Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald, the former Salon blogger now headed to the Guardian, and an avid tweeter to boot, fired off a 5,000-word salvo with the final post at his longtime Internet hangout.

Railing against the "sham industry" of "terrorism experts," Greenwald viciously attacked figures such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross  and J.M. Berger — analysts, he said, who had "built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does." (Full disclosure: I previously interned for and co-authored work with Gartenstein-Ross.) The day’s outrages meriting the special attention — complete with mugshots — were Gartenstein-Ross’s tweets criticizing Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt and J.M. Berger’s criticism of Middle East historian Juan Cole.

Greenwald levels several charges. He asserts that Gartenstein-Ross and Berger, like all "terrorism experts," protect their "lucrative" careers by slavishly hyping an establishment agenda that blows terrorism out of proportion, to ensure the War on Terror never arrives "at a final destination," and that their arguments must never threaten their "vested interests." He dismisses their defenders, who pushed back firmly over Twitter, for their "incestuous" cliquishness, demonstrated by their willingness to "pimp" each other’s books or share dinner and drinks. Their work, says Greenwald, is "shrieking" in defense of a "personal cash train," meaning that each assessment must be motivated to ensure their "bread is buttered."

But Greenwald goes further than an ad hominem attack — he rejects "terrorism" as a useful term altogether, arguing, along with scholar Remi Brulin, that the term terrorism is primarily "propaganda" for "justifying one’s own state violence"– especially of the American and Israeli variety — rather than a possible subject of expertise.

But terrorism, as an activity of non-state groups, was originally a value-neutral or even positive term, and even today is not just a propaganda construct. Terrorism, as a term for non-state political violence, originates from the self-description of Russian radicals such as Sergey Nechayev in the late 19th century. More recently, jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri’s Global Islamic Resistance Call describes the "individual terrorism jihad" as a key pillar of jihadist theory. Infamous white supremacist screed The Turner Diaries features the positive and self-appropriated use of "terrorism" and "terror" as well. Even al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden once embraced the label, telling Al Jazeera, "[I]f killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."

Still, buried in Greenwald’s screed is an important point. As a field of study for anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, terrorism deals with a social phenomenon that is inherently subjective — one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. It invites debate. But what Greenwald misses is that the best terrorism analysts — a category to which Gartenstein-Ross and Berger certainly belong — spend as much time arguing with each other as with anyone else. Gartenstein-Ross’s thesis that al Qaeda is waging an effective strategy of attrition faces pushback from other terrorism analysts such as Peter Bergen and even Greenwald’s derisively named "Patron Saint" of terrorism studies, Will McCants.

That so many terms and concepts are debatable hardly confirms Greenwald’s case that terrorism experts are engaged in an ongoing sinister or craven effort to legitimize Western violence. It also recalls debates common to identifying any political "-ism" in social science, from fascism to liberalism to realism. No doubt terrorism is a problematic subject of inquiry, but it is still a subject of inquiry (many so-called terrorism experts in fact identify themselves as, say, political scientists or historians that specialize in terrorism, rather than disciples of "terrorism studies" per se), and those who study it extensively may offer insights others do not grasp.

Most bizarre, Greenwald assigns ill motives where honest disagreement might suffice: Gartenstein-Ross’s views on terrorism could not come from honest opinion because of his professional affiliations. Greenwald asserts it is anti-intellectual to put questioning motive off limits. Fair enough. So too is it to wantonly assert that an analyst’s motive is profit-based or deliberately misleading without any proof whatsoever (and the fact that Berger in particular is in the middle of a job hunt suggests he hasn’t struck it rich quite yet). In any case, questioning motives cuts both ways: Many foreign-policy realists, including those Greenwald cites — Zbiginew Brzezinski and Stephen Walt — think the War on Terror is a distraction from proper great-power politics, and have their own incentives to refocus foreign policy away from al Qaeda. Does Brzezinski’s Democratic affiliation taint his views? Does Walt simply want to see his realist clique returned to power, or sell more of his books? Hardly.

Obviously, with such a low evidentiary standard for proving an argument’s bad faith, not simply substantive dialogue but even honest disagreement is impossible. Greenwald cites the "close ranks" of terrorism and national security analysts (he uses the terms interchangeably) as proof of incestuous intriguing, but if one declares an entire field or industry to be mercenary frauds, then of course the entire industry is going to respond negatively. Does Berger, who has extensively researched white supremacist and far-right terrorism and has become a significant voice in discussion of the recent attack against Wisconsin Sikhs, really depend upon perpetuating the War on Terror and ignoring white terrorism? When Gartenstein-Ross decries U.S. overreaction and counterterrorism profligacy as the key pillar of al Qaeda’s strategy, who’s lining his purse?

These bad-faith accusations are also supremely unhelpful because Berger and Gartenstein-Ross, along with many others within the fractious and argumentative online national security community, often advance criticism of national security policies that many critics of the war on terror — including Greenwald — might welcome. Via the logic of guilt by association, critics of targeted killing, opponents of torture, foes of threat inflation, are lumped in with policymakers and other analysts with whom they have vehement disagreements, and dismissed out of hand. While many commentators and non-specialists in terrorism saw invading Iraq as worthwhile, many terrorism analysts feared that occupying an Arab country of 25 million would be a boon to al Qaeda, and many today now question intervention in places like Libya and Syria by raising the threat of blowback.

Terrorism analysts would be the first to admit their field, despite what Greenwald characterizes as its "relentlessly incestuous" nature, is rife with disagreement on basic questions, such as what constitutes terrorism, what the role of al Qaeda affiliates is, whether the War on Terror is succeeding or failing, and whether drones strikes are effective. Berger and Gartenstein-Ross made strong arguments in what we can only assume is in good faith, but nobody, least of all terrorism analysts, accept their judgments as unimpeachable. But any counterattack that targets an argument’s motives rather than its merits is unlikely to go far, and overbroad attacks on terrorism analysts as a class are unlikely to persuade them or change their behavior.

It is one thing, of course, to note that national security and terrorism are multifaceted, subjective, and controversial issues, and to disagree with arguments on the basis of merits and evidence. It is another entirely to assert that those who approach them differently must be engaging in avaricious mendacity. A degree of mutual respect and willingness to accept disagreement in good faith makes debate and dialogue possible, and makes humility and open-mindedness virtues rather than weaknesses. For those hoping that it’s still possible to change someone’s mind in the age of Twitter, it remains essential.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola