In his characteristically powerful new book, Norman Podhoretz could not be more right in describing our great struggle against Islamic extremism as World War IV, portraying the stakes involved, and identifying Iraq as a key early theater in the conflict. My disagreements, which are considerably less consequential than our agreements, lie in the area of democracy promotion—both its significance to the Bush Doctrine and its utility as a strategy for victory.
It is profoundly disappointing that, only six years after 9/11, and three decades after the onslaught of militant Islam in its latest iteration, it should still be necessary to discuss whether we are embroiled in an epic battle for the survival of our way of life. Yet that is where we find ourselves, notwithstanding the endurance—indeed, according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, the resurgence—of an incorrigible enemy.
In several ways, we are better off today than we were six years ago. In the 1990’s, when radical Islam was at war and we were not, the point of the counterterrorism spear (in fact, pretty much its totality) was the criminal-justice system. But prosecutions neutralized only a tiny fraction of the growing enemy: fewer than three dozen convicted over eight years of attacks, and those mostly low-level players. This emboldened the extremists, inviting more attacks. Since President Bush has taken up the challenge and fought the war as a war, we have significantly improved internal security while killing and capturing thousands of jihadists, mainly overseas. It is not an accident that we have not been attacked domestically.
On the other hand, the administration has done a poor job communicating what we are doing and why we must do it—would that it had had Norman Podhoretz on the case full-time. Yes, the President has given several eloquent speeches. Contrary to the case in the first three world wars, however, the nation does not exhibit a vested interest in the outcome. It is as if the burdens of the war have been delegated to the American armed forces and their families while the rest of us blithely go about our lives—an oddity I wish I could better explain after a massive domestic attack and continuous, unabashed promises of a reprise. This national ennui couples dangerously with such revolutionary developments of our age as the rise of international law, the shift in civil-rights emphasis from the common weal to the individual and his privacy, and the suspicion with which we regard executive power.
The result is dangerous vulnerability. The national mood shifts away from war’s sense of urgency, back toward the notion of jihadism as a nuisance to be managed by legal processes and diplomatic engagements. The enemy makes great inroads here at home, where concerns about due process for terrorists generate more angst than does the suffering of terror victims.
Concurrently, al Qaeda is emerging as a stronger network. Immediately after 9/11, with its command-and-control decimated and its hierarchy in flight, the movement become more dependent on widely dispersed cells, which became more autonomous but less capable. Now, however, even as these cells have adapted and become more effective, the network’s leadership has been permitted to reestablish itself in Pakistan and other safe havens. Money (particularly Saudi money) and the Internet have also made the animating ideology more accessible than ever, meaning that cells can emerge without the need of an established jihadist organization to recruit and guide them. And behind it all, Iran grows more capable and menacing—harboring and nurturing al Qaeda, replicating its Hizballah model in Iraq and beyond, and pursuing nuclear weaponry while the West dithers.
This increases the stakes of Iraq—to say nothing of Afghanistan, where NATO’s lack of commitment is a very disturbing development. I have been a supporter of the surge of U.S. forces because it is a necessary step; but it is far from sufficient. Meaningful progress in this war, as Podhoretz has argued, is going to require dealing with Iran. General David Petraeus’s report underscores that unavoidable fact. Some say such talk is war-mongering, but it is actually war-recognition. Iran is at war with us now, just as it and the other components of the jihadist movement were at war with us in the 1990’s. It should not take another 9/11 to come to grips with that reality. That is the cutting edge of the 2008 election: reality, or the return of September 10th America.
I do not question that the rhetoric of democracy promotion has pervaded the President’s articulation of the Bush Doctrine. Nevertheless, the fact that the doctrine has multiple tenets does not mean that each of them is equally important, or that the tenets cohere.
The issue here, moreover, is more complex than “neoconservatives versus realists.” I am a conservative who does not fit in either category. Contrary to the realists, I agree that democracy promotion is in our long-range interest and stability by tyranny is not. But, with due respect to my neoconservative friends, a healthy respect for democracy worthy of the name recognizes that (a) it calls for a cultural transformation that cannot be brought about quickly, (b) it is of dubious value as a counterterrorism tool, and (c) it may be an impossibility in a society committed to maintaining an Islamic identity.
On the last two points, it is noteworthy that jihadist atrocities are commonly planned and carried out inside Western democracies. There are a variety of good reasons to promote democracy abroad, but protection against jihadism is evidently not one of them. Further, the principal root cause of terrorism is Islamic ideology, not a want of the benefits democracy affords; so the premise that democracy would eradicate radicalism is flawed. Finally, we conflate democracy with liberty, but the two are saliently different.
For many Muslims (not just terrorists), rejection of Western democracy is a free choice. In fact, the Islamic conception of freedom, which connotes willful submission to Allah and His law, is critically different from our understanding of the term. We need to understand better the ideology we are dealing with, and to be speaking the same language, before we can realistically assess the prospects of democratization.
In the meantime, as Norman Podhoretz shows, there is a war to be won. We did not start the Marshall Plan in 1943. Assuming for argument’s sake that Muslim countries will eventually democratize (as we understand democracy), that would, at most, suppress this enemy’s resurgence. But first the enemy has to be defeated.