I have never understood the supposed novelty of the Bush Doctrine. The right to preemption is inherent in the functioning of a more or less anarchical society of states. Were the French to face a probable attack from, say, Tunisia, and if they thought they could do something about it in advance, they would. So would any other state not run by cowards or fools.
Nor is it a matter of great novelty that the path to security from Islamic terror lies in some liberalization of the Middle East—the spread, not so much of democracy in the sense of plebiscites or even regular elections, but of limited government, free press, the rule of law, and a regular rotation of leaders who can be evicted from power by something other than illness, death, or coup. What are the alternatives, really? To wall off the Middle East from all contact with the developed world? To turn the rule of turbulent societies over to reliable thugs? To accept Islamic fanatics in their rise to power, with the hope that its exercise would moderate them? The first is impossible, the second and third have been tried and failed, and even in the most appeasement-prone capitals of Old Europe or Asia, you will not find anyone who seriously believes in them. Indeed, only a handful of American academics, intoxicated with theories that deny the importance of religion as a force in the life of humanity, believe that we have the option of sitting pat, and waiting for the forces of political realism to work their inexorable and presumably beneficent will.
In the short term, doctrines do not change the world: action does. The much underrated removal of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan and the killing or arrest of most of its pre-9/11 leadership (and the scattering of the rest) did not remove the fundamental problem, but it did severely weaken an exceptionally dangerous organization. To be sure, the ideology of al Qaeda lives, and numerous cells remain dormant or have sprouted up around the world. But smashing and dispersing the core hierarchy probably prevented more mega-terrorist events; while dealing with loosely networked terrorists is difficult, counteracting a well-organized and coordinated enemy of this kind would be even more difficult.
About the long term we simply do not know. The liberation of Iraq was a good thing in and of itself; the language of freedom that accompanied it has had a salutary effect in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world; and American military prowess, and our demonstrated will to use it, produced good results in Libya. But it is no doubt true that the war increased antipathy to the United States in the Arab world, and in the short run has stimulated the recruitment of terrorists inflamed by the lies of al Jazeera as well as a bitterly anti-American Arab, and in some cases European and Asian, intelligentsia.
Launching a war is like rolling a giant stone down a mountain slope strewn with rocks: we cannot predict where the avalanche will go. Whether Iraq is a success or a failure (and what success and failure mean is open to debate), the consequences will be prodigious, for good or for ill. This is a bold and determined administration; the war was a bold stroke, and boldness has both risks and rewards.
There are three things the administration could do, in ascending order of difficulty and descending order of likelihood, to make its doctrine effective. The first is to speak plainly about the nature of the enemy—Islamic extremism—and to do so in ways that do not misstate its argument, its appeal, or its roots. Administration spokesmen shrink from using the word “Islam,” for fear of being accused of bigotry. Anodyne formulations like “a perversion of a great religion” or “a few extremists” do not capture the power of this movement. There is a great need for a sober, detailed, and educational rhetoric about whom we are fighting. Happy talk to the Muslim world about what nice people Americans are is not only no substitute—it fools only those who utter it.
Second, the administration wrongly steered away from asking the American people to sacrifice anything in this war. Lowering taxes, it hampered its own ability to raise defense budgets. More importantly, it allowed the spirit of patriotism and resolve that flooded the country after 9/11 to dissipate over time. If you do not ask people to lend their money or their children to a fight, they will not think that they are at war. Nor was the administration willing to accept the political pain of a serious effort to undermine the grip of oil on the economy—a grip that indirectly feeds the infrastructure of terror—by imposing taxes that would reduce consumption and stimulate alternative fuels or thriftier uses of those we have. If this is war—and it is—then it demands sacrifice and an appeal for service.
Finally, the administration has suffered from its insularity, its overwhelming emphasis on loyalty to the exclusion of all other virtues, its suspicion of those with whom it could have made common cause, its refusal to admit missteps or failure, its inability to fire the incompetent (as opposed to the merely disgruntled). Huddled now in its bunker, assaulted not only for a botched war abroad but for a bumbling reaction to natural catastrophe at home, it is unlikely to open itself up; but it would be better if it could.
The expansive vision of the Bush administration seems to me broadly right, and I admire unreservedly the courage and determination with which it has pressed the fight. But how I wish that the spine of steel had found its match in an eloquence suitable to the moment; how I would have desired as great a stress on talent as on fidelity; how much better if the commitment to a vision of freedom abroad were matched with an equal and effective commitment to greatness at home; how ironic and sad that competence—the quality upon which this administration prided itself when it came to office—has, for too long, been in such short supply.
ELIOT A. COHEN is Robert E. Osgood professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins and the author of, among other books, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.