I believe that the Bush Doctrine’s central assumption—that the United States had to transform the politics of the Middle East as a means of solving the post-9/11 terrorist threat—was misguided, and that the problem was greatly compounded by extremely poor policy execution before and after the Iraq war. For the record, I made up my mind that the war was a bad idea by the fall of 2002, i.e., before the war began, when I was asked to lead part of a Pentagon study on strategy in the war on terrorism, and not in response to events as they unfolded after the war.

There is no question that the 9/11 attacks exposed a very new kind of threat, and that the usual tools of the cold war—containment and deterrence—would not work against suicide terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan war was a fully justified exercise in prevention, where we dismantled terrorist networks that were clearly of danger to us.

The problem was that the Bush administration merged the terrorist/WMD problem with the problem of Iraq and rogue-state proliferators more generally. The latter was and continues to be a very serious issue, but it was never clear that a rogue state—which (unlike stateless terrorists) has a return address—would go to all the trouble of developing nuclear weapons only to give them to a terrorist organization.

The bigger problem lay with the diagnosis of the root causes of the terrorism, and the prescription for fixing it. Radical Islamism is in no way an assertion of traditional Muslim values or religiosity. Olivier Roy has argued persuasively in Globalized Islam that it needs to be seen as an essentially modern phenomenon driven by the deterritorialization of Islam, primarily in Western Europe, and by the forces of globalization and modernization that we otherwise celebrate. In a traditional Muslim society, your identity is fixed by the society into which you are born; only when you live in a non-Muslim environment does it occur to you to ask who you are. The profound alienation that results makes poorly assimilated second- and third-generation Muslims susceptible to a pure, universalistic ideology like that of Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Atta and the other organizers of 9/11, the Madrid and London conspirators, and Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, all fall into this category.

This means that more democracy and more modernization will not solve our near-term terrorism problem, but may well exacerbate it. I believe that both democracy and modernization are good things and should be promoted in the Middle East for their own sake. But we will continue to have a serious terrorist problem in democratic Western Europe, regardless of what happens in Egypt or Lebanon.

Even if one accepted the view that the Middle East needed to be “fixed,” it was hard to understand what made us think that we were capable of fixing it. So much of what neoconservatives have written over the past decades has concerned the unanticipated consequences of overly ambitious social engineering, and how the effort to get at root causes of social problems is a feckless task. If this has been true of efforts to combat crime or poverty in U.S. cities, why should anyone have believed we could get at the root causes of alienation and terrorism in a part of the world that we didn’t understand particularly well, and where our policy instruments were very limited?

The other constraint is very specific to the United States. We have gotten involved in nation-building efforts in many places over the years: Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, occupation of the Philippines and the various Monroe Doctrine interventions, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and South Vietnam, and finally the humanitarian interventions of the post-cold-war era in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and other places. Of these, only Japan, Germany, and South Korea were clear successes, and these were places where U.S. occupation forces came and basically never left.

Americans have a habit of starting such projects enthusiastically and then losing interest after things go bad, usually at about the five-year mark; this is what happened with Reconstruction, in Nicaragua between 1927 and 1932, in South Vietnam, and in many other places. We sign up local allies, make a stab at giving them modern institutions, and then pull the plug. I was fearful that we would repeat this pattern in Iraq prior to the war, and nothing that has happened since then has alleviated that concern.

We need to win militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is extremely important that we resist pressures to reduce numbers of American forces prematurely. But we also need to conceive of the broader war on terrorism as a classic counterinsurgency campaign fought out on a global scale. In that campaign, winning hearts and minds is as important as neutralizing the hard-core terrorists. I strongly believe in the need for an expansive foreign policy that shapes the insides of states and not just their external behavior. But it is American soft power, not hard, that will be the primary instrument for promoting democracy and development around the world, and we need thoroughly to re-think the structure and funding of the instruments we have for doing this.

After the first four years of the Bush Doctrine, the United States has created a new terrorist haven in Iraq and a power vacuum that will destabilize regional politics for some time to come. While allies may seek to restore good relations with Washington at an elite level, at a popular level there has been a seismic shift in the way that much of the world perceives the United States. Our image, fairly or not, is no longer the Statue of Liberty but the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Fixing this problem is a project that will preoccupy us for many years to come.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is Bernard Schwartz professor of international political economy and director of the international development program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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