President George W. Bush’s highly anticipated prime-time speech to mark the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America was supposed to be nonpartisan and conciliatory. It offered him an opportunity to present mature thoughts on one of the most momentous events in this country’s history, to correct several manifest flaws in his conceptual approach to the “War on Terror,” and to chart a coherent strategy without which it cannot be conducted successfully.
Instead, he presented a host of clichés, platitudes, and assertions as ideological as his first State of the Union Address in 2002 and as misguided as his most recent one last February.
“Since the horror of 9/11, we have learned a great deal about the enemy,” the President said in the opening paragraph. “We have learned that they form a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of Islam—a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent.”
The notion of “a perverted vision of Islam,” as I have argued repeatedly in these pages, is a fundamental error, the mother of all others in Mr. Bush’s understanding of September 11 and its implications. The enemy is not merely “a global network of extremists” but an inherently aggressive, demographically vibrant, and ideologically rigid movement that is based on an eminently orthodox interpretation of Islamic scripture and uninterrupted historical practice. It is a movement of global proportions and world-historical significance.
The movement has different guises—practical political or millenarian, Sunni Wahabist or Shiite Mahdist—and often mutually antagonistic protagonists: Saudi royal kleptocrats and their sworn Al Qae-da enemies; Iranian “Twelver” imamists and their Hezbollah clients; Pakistani generals and Afghan guerrillas; Bosnian veterans and Hamas bombers; Chechen child killers and suavely articulate Muslim spokesmen in the West. Together, they contribute to the contemporary upsurge of Islam as an ideology and as a blueprint for political action, a multifaceted and decentralized phenomenon that cannot be compared in dynamism, energy, and potential consequences with any other creed or ideology in today’s world. It demands a bold and sustained Western response that has failed to materialize so far, largely because of our own leaders’ continuing insistence on the false dichotomy between the core teaching of Islam and its allegedly “perverted vision.”
Mr. Bush was right to say that “the war is not over, and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious,” but his definition of victory is based on wishful thinking. His assertion that “we are fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom, and tolerance, and personal dignity” assumes that, deep inside, some 500 million of the region’s Muslim denizens long to live under a Western-style liberal regime and that they would reject their own “totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent” if given a chance.
This same assertion, made by the President on many previous occasions, is not only false but illogical. Mr. Bush’s insistence on effecting the democratic transformation of the Middle East is unattainable in the form he imagines it—and, in the form it is likely to take, it will be inimical to the American interest.
In practical terms, our Middle East policies, together with the continuing presence of American forces in Iraq, make the United States the object of hatred throughout the region, more so than at any other time in history. The result is an insoluble paradox: Whatever America wishes to accomplish there, local Muslims will want more of the opposite. Whatever political force and its candidate the United States endorses or supports, the “street” will reject him in favor of his more radical opponent—as Mahmoud Abbas discovered at the Palestinian Authority general election earlier this year.
In principle, even if exporting democracy could be developed into a workable scenario, the end result would be detrimental to U.S. security. Instead of a degenerate House of Saud, Bin Laden and his followers would come to power in Riyadh. Iraq would be ruled by Shiite visionaries even more radical than those who are already in power. Mubaraq would be killed, and the Muslim Brotherhood would turn Egypt into an Islamic Republic. In Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait, and the Emirates, the survival of nominally pro-Western regimes would be undermined. Mr. Bush’s push for the Middle East to embrace democracy would benefit those who would never thank him for making their rise to power possible.
The President apparently is unaware that exporting institutions is not possible outside of the framework of ideas and culture that sustains them. Those ideas, in the case of the West, are rooted in the Hellenic city-state, the Gospel, and the heresy of the Enlightenment; the notion of liberty, of individual responsibility resulting from the existence of individual free will, of collective creativity embodied in the rendering of Bach’s cantatas and the launching of space shuttles. Those core ideas are anathema to Islam. Traditionally Christian societies have been able to develop democratic institutions, while traditionally Muslim ones have not, because Christians have a different concept of governmental authority—one that accepts the legitimacy of two realms, Caesar’s and the Church’s. In Islam, any attempt at making such a distinction is an act of rebellion against Allah’s supremacy, an act of disbelief punishable by death. It is noteworthy that the term democracy did not have an equivalent in any Muslim language until a few decades ago. Its fundamental principle, equality, remains absent from the Muslim vocabulary.
Five years into his “War on Terror,” Mr. Bush refuses to abandon his pseudoreality. “With our help, the people of the Middle East are now stepping forward to claim their freedom,” he declared.
From Kabul to Baghdad to Beirut, there are brave men and women risking their lives each day for the same freedoms that we enjoy. And they have one question for us: Do we have the confidence to do in the Middle East what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished in Europe and Asia? By standing with democratic leaders and reformers, by giving voice to the hopes of decent men and women, we are offering a path away from radicalism. And we are enlisting the most powerful force for peace and moderation in the Middle East: the desire of millions to be free.
In its spirit, form, and truthfulness, this quotation is worthy of the standard Soviet claim, repeated ad nauseam until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that the “socialist community of nations” was based on a willing partnership of working men and women who strive to build a classless society and defend it against assorted imperialist predators abroad and reactionary traitors at home. Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, the nearest definition of freedom that most of those Middle Eastern millions desire would entail the absence of American soldiers and non-Islamic institutions from their lives—just as millions of Poles, Czechs, and others desired nothing more earnestly before 1989 than to be rid of Soviet soldiers and communist institutions.
An infuriating part of Mr. Bush’s address came when he declared that
[W]e look to the day when moms and dads throughout the Middle East see a future of hope and opportunity for their children, and when that good day comes the clouds of war will part, the appeal of radicalism will decline, and we will leave our children with a better and safer world.
Such kitschy utopianism is not only devoid of taste but dangerous. Feeling warm and fuzzy about alien “moms and dads” who overwhelmingly detest us translates directly into our suicidal immigration policies, which granted 100,000 green cards to Muslims in 2005 alone.
Mr. Bush’s speech touched on Afghanistan only en passant, as an illustration of the successful offensive strategy he adopted after September 11; but his bland claim that “we helped drive the Taliban from power” rings increasingly hollow at a time when Kabul is the only place in that country in which the U.S.-sponsored president Karzai can hope to survive from one day to the next and the Taliban-inspired resistance is more active today than at any time in the past five years.
The discrepancy brings to mind Mr. Bush’s enthusiastic greeting of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan a year ago as “a major step forward” for the country’s democratic process. What he has not mentioned in any of his public utterances since is that the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) is now completely dominated by warlords, opium magnates, veteran jihadists, and former Taliban officials. Some of the fruits were on display last March, when a death sentence was passed on an Afghan convert from Islam to Christianity—which was perfectly legal, because, under the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan forged a constitution that upholds Islam as the basis of all laws.
A major section of Mr. Bush’s speech amounted to yet another attempt to present the hopeless quagmire in Iraq as an integral part of the War on Terror. Once again, we are on the offensive, with a clear plan for victory, etc. “The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power,” he said for the umpteenth time, and “now the challenge is to help the Iraqi people build a democracy that fulfills the dreams of the nearly 12 million Iraqis who came out to vote in free elections last December.” He did not mention that those elections brought to power Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a committed Islamic activist who had spent years in Khomeini’s Iran as an exile from Saddam’s secularist regime. The day after Mr. Bush’s speech, Premier Al-Maliki was cordially greeted by Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Tehran, who declared that “Iran and Iraq, as two brotherly neighbors, will stand by each other, and unwanted guests will leave the region.”
Perhaps Mr. Bush does have “a clear plan to ensure that a democratic Iraq succeeds” and becomes “a strong ally in the war on terror,” as he assured the nation in his speech, but, thus far, that plan’s main beneficiaries have been people who see him as an “unwanted guest” and whose vision of “democracy” is some light years away from the notions of “tolerance and personal dignity” that he claims is the preferred ideal of most Middle Easterners.
That “America will stay in the fight” is extremely depressing, in view of Mr. Bush’s flawed view of the enemy and the goal of that fight. All other errors notwithstanding, the most serious one remains his characterization of “a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent” as “a perverted version of Islam”—or, as he put it some months previously in his State of the Union Address, “the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death.”
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, I had hoped that Mr. Bush was not serious. In a “Memo to the President” (December 2001), I wrote that,
While political considerations may temporarily oblige you to say that “Islam is a religion of peace,” you must understand that Islam as such—not some allegedly aberrant form of it—is the main identifiable threat to America’s global security in the coming century, and, in the longer term, to the survival of our civilization.
Two months later, after Mr. Bush’s first State of the Union Address, which contained the foolhardy claim that the “real” Islam is America’s ally in the War on Terror, I again noted that the President may have been disingenuous, not seriously deluded. By now, however, it is futile to pretend that Mr. Bush is being deviously diplomatic or clever. He is simply wrong.
Yes, we are in a war, but it can never be “won” in the sense of eliminating the phenomenon of terrorism altogether. It can be successfully pursued to the point where the Western world can be made significantly safer by adopting strategies—defensive strategies—that would reduce the danger of terrorism to as near zero as possible. This would require leaving the Muslim world to its own devices and preventing it from having a toehold in America. That will come, as I suggest in Defeating Jihad, “not by conquering Mecca for America but by disengaging America from Mecca and by excluding Mecca from America; not by eliminating the risk but by managing it wisely, resolutely, and permanently.” That is the realist formula for victory, of which most Americans would approve and which would best serve the American interest.
That victory will not happen under this president or under any of his likely successors. Until it does come, may Heaven help us all.