For the last five years the standard critique of Bush administration foreign policy has run as follows: The president did a great job of rallying the nation after 9/11 and of toppling the Taliban. But then he blundered by invading Iraq and trying to spread democracy at gunpoint. He should have concentrated on working with other countries to track down terrorists.
The reality—or so it seems to me—is nearly the opposite. Bush has done a good job of capturing or killing “evil-doers,” but he hasn't done enough to addresses the root causes of their actions.
The success of our counter-terrorism efforts should be apparent from the fact that there have been no attacks on American soil since the World Trade Center fell. You can attribute this to the enemy’s weakness or to sheer dumb luck, but Bush deserves at least some credit for aggressive efforts to smash Al Qaeda. He even worked well with allies. The CIA, for instance, set up a counter-terrorism center in 2002 with its French counterpart in Paris.
Of course, more could and should be done to protect us. But no defense will ever be foolproof. Long-term security requires changing the conditions that give rise to Islamist terrorism.
And what are those conditions? Not poverty. Many terrorists come from privileged backgrounds. They have been radicalized by a global network of extremists that preys on restless young Muslims who lack peaceful outlets for their energy. Some of these conditions exist even in Western Europe, with its legions of unassimilated immigrants. But the larger problem is in the Middle East, where Islamo-fascism was born and where its center of gravity still lies.
For all the buzz about “stateless terrorism,” Al Qaeda and its ilk know how important a base of operations remains. In the past, Al Qaeda sought sanctuary in Sudan and Afghanistan. Today, these terrorists get vital support in Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and parts of Iraq. In many of these cases, the government’s role is ambiguous. It may not have the power to repress Islamist groups even if it wanted to. State failure is almost as big a problem as state sponsorship. The witches’ brew of repression, stagnation and governmental incompetence found in many Middle Eastern countries leaves the mosque as the only place where dissent can be aired and social services delivered.
This is the dysfunctional status quo that Bush set out to change after 9/11 by spreading freedom in the Middle East. He made rapid strides in toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but he never committed enough resources—especially not enough troops—to build durable democratic institutions in their wake. As a result, the Taliban is resurgent and Iraq is sinking into civil war.
Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush applied political, not military, pressure for liberalization. This had a salutary effect. In Egypt, for instance, Hosni Mubarak offered to hold freer elections. But as the U.S. has gotten more bogged down in Iraq, our influence has waned. Mubarak now brazenly defies Bush by jailing liberal opposition leader Ayman Nour.
Bush’s response has been oddly passive. He has not docked Mubarak a penny of the $1.8 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. Nor has he fined Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, who has gotten $4.5 billion from the U.S. and its allies since 2001, for failing to restore civilian rule or to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda from operating on his soil.
To his credit, Bush has finally increased funding for democracy promotion in Iran, but he still has not made the overthrow of the mullahs a priority. Much-ballyhooed programs such as the Greater Middle East Initiative seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Even if the president remains personally committed to his freedom agenda, the bulk of the U.S. government is not. Realpolitikers think that’s just as well. They argue that more freedom will bring more extremists to power. That is a real short-term danger (except in Iran, where extremists already reign). But there is no reason to think that, if more Muslim voters are regularly allowed a say in their choice of leaders, they will opt for jihad over jobs. The Islamist parties that took over in Kabul and Tehran proved unpopular. But there was no avenue for peaceful regime change. In other words, too little democracy, not too much.
The U.S. finally began to address this problem after 9/11. If we don’t do more to turn Bush’s soaring rhetoric into reality, however, we risk greater atrocities in the future.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.