Commentary Magazine

From Our November 2007 Symposium: James Q. Wilson

I think we are and should be in a war against Islamofascist terrorism; whether we call it World War IV is, to me, immaterial. It is a war, and perhaps one of the longest and most difficult we will have ever fought.


The Bush Doctrine that defines this war may outlive the 2008 presidential elections, depending on public opinion. If the public believes, as I think it does, that we cannot fight this war on the defensive and that we must take the struggle, where appropriate and where it can make a difference, to rogue or failed nations that support terrorism, then the next President, whichever party he or she belongs to, will, perhaps after making politically suitable but largely rhetorical bows toward “the need for change,” will continue the fight.

Whether this will be done effectively is another matter. As Norman Podhoretz points out in his book, scarcely any President for the last 30 years has responded to the long list of terrorist attacks to which this country has been subjected with anything more than a few cruise missiles fired into empty buildings. But the next terrorist attack (and I believe another one is very likely) will generate a demand for action that will be impossible to resist except among the agitated ranks led by George Soros and Michael Moore.

Apart from whether we will fight, the key issue is how we will know whether we have won. We have made dramatic gains in Afghanistan and Iraq, though much more needs to be done. And happily the American military has adopted a better strategy for doing it, one that we learned from the Marine Corps in Vietnam but that the Army managed to forget until General David Petraeus and his colleagues produced a masterful Army-Marines counterinsurgency field manual that is now being applied in Iraq.



Ideally, democracy is our goal because, with perhaps only a few exceptions, democracies do not invade one another and they leave their people free to improve their lives. But democracy comes slowly and painfully even to countries well suited to receive it.

Of the two dozen or so predominantly Muslim nations in the world, only six can reasonably be called democratic, and acquiring that status required a long time and the overcoming of many reverses. According to Freedom House, Indonesia, Mali, and Senegal are free, and Afghanistan, Morocco, and Turkey are “partly free.” These accomplishments took many years. Indonesia, although it became independent in 1949, was not a competitive democracy until 2003, and in the interim had to endure decades of one-party elections. Mali had an endless series of coups between its independence in 1960 and the establishment not long ago of a civilian government that has held generally free and honest elections. Senegal became independent at about the same time and managed to avoid military coups, but it also had to endure two decades of one-party rule. Today, however, it has a multiparty competition for votes.

Among the partly free Muslim countries, Afghanistan is well known to us since we brought the first hint of political freedom to that country. It is still struggling to end corruption, win the allegiance of independent tribal leaders to a central government, and empower local communities. Morocco has a powerful hereditary king, but the incumbent has helped create a popularly elected legislature and sponsored a reconciliation commission that has publicly criticized past civil-rights abuses and set forth recommendations for preventing them in the future. Turkey has been a secular state since the early 1920’s, but several decades passed before it held genuinely competitive elections. The Turkish army has periodically intervened to protect the country’s secular status, but today a moderate Muslim party is in power and has elected a Muslim president, albeit one who has promised to keep church and state separate.

Obviously the United States cannot be in Iraq for the 40 or 50 years it has taken other Muslim nations, several of which lack Iraq’s ardent Sunni-Shiite rivalry, to become reasonably or wholly democratic. How long, then, do we stay? My answer: until Iraq has displayed the ability to maintain order with a police force that respects fundamental rights and an army that is committed to civilian rule. No doubt we will leave before Iraq enjoys democratic rule of the kind practiced in Canada, Great Britain, or the United States; but we must remain there until a reasonable observer can say that the nation is on a course leading to popular government.

As Max Boot has pointed out in the September COMMENTARY (“How Not to Get Out of Iraq”), no one has devised a “Plan B” that has any reasonable chance of success. It is logistically impossible to leave immediately; the country cannot be divided into religiously coherent states; and Americans must remain in significant numbers to keep Iraqi security forces intact and improving just as NATO forces have been kept in Bosnia for over a decade. We cannot “guard the borders” without running concentration camps for seized infiltrators. Although we may be tempted to back a decent authoritarian (Boot calls this “Saddam Lite”), there is no one available who might play that role and has sufficient force to compel obedience.

The last thing we should do is to announce, as many members of Congress have done, “goals” that the current Iraqi government must meet in order to keep us there. When Congress recently instructed the Government Accountability Office to inform us whether Iraq had formed a constitutional-review committee, enacted a law on de-Baathification, or decided to create a High Electoral Commission, it was not “measuring progress,” it was looking for excuses for us to leave.

In a co-authored September 10 essay in the Wall Street Journal, Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman made the central issue quite clear. The choice we face in Iraq is not between the current government and a perfect one, but “between a young, imperfect, struggling democracy . . . and the fanatical, al-Qaeda suicide bombers and Iranian-sponsored terrorists who are trying to destroy it.” Though there are good reasons to worry that elections will from time to time bring to power undemocratic regimes, there is no reason to believe that Muslims are incapable of democratic government.

In refuting this notion, Podhoretz quotes Bernard Lewis: to think that the Islamic people are incapable of civilized government “shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future.” And, I would add, a profound ignorance of what has happened in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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