Now that Donald Rumsfeld has stepped down as Secretary of Defense, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Bush Administration plans a dramatic restructuring of American foreign policy in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and the course of American foreign policy. These elections are being viewed as a rejection of Bush’s foreign policy since the war in Iraq, and even since 9/11.
Adding to this view is the nomination of Bush 41-era CIA director Robert Gates to Rumsfeld’s old post, and Bush putting James Baker in charge of coming up with a new plan for Iraq. Neither one are associated with the “neoconservative” movement and both are associated with the old doctrine of realpolitik that dominated the George H. Bush foreign policy establishment. It would seem that based on recent developments, the “neocon” vision is being replaced by old-school realpolitik.
The problem with that is that it’s that realpolitik that got us into this mess in the first place. In order to understand why, it’s necessary to understand what truly drives the Islamist movement we’re fighting across the Middle East.
If one reads the seminal work of Islamist thought, Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, one gets a good understanding of what the Islamist movement is all about. Islamism is a specific reaction to the Arab world’s failures to embrace modernity — Islamism is a rejection of modernity as manifested by the capitalist, individualist West and an embrace of the “authentic” Islam of the Salafists.
That radical Islam feeds not off of poverty, as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mohammad Atta, and the majority of suicide bombers illustrate. Instead, radical Islam seems to be more a part of middle-class Arab life. The average Islamist terrorist is relatively well-educated, relatively well-off, and seemingly well-adjusted. (Indeed, this profile is similar to the profiles of many members of cults like Heaven’s Gate.)
What drives Islamism is the divide between the ruled and the rulers in the Arab and Muslim world. It isn’t about some kind of Marxist class struggle, it’s an innately political struggle. Even in Western countries, the wellsprings of radicalism come from areas that are not necessarily poor, but nevertheless disconnected from the rest of the body politic. What unites the slums of Baghdad with the suburbs of Paris and the streets of London is that sense of political disconnect. That is what fuels the fire of radical Islam.
Imagine being a young, middle-class man in Cairo. Unemployment is high, so it’s hard to find gainful employment. You have almost no control over your political circumstances, as your government is an autocracy. You see the United States providing billions of dollars in aid to that autocracy while simultaneously talking about “democracy.” Misogyny is something you’ve known your whole life, but the fact that there are so many young males in your country makes finding a wife difficult.
The only place where you can speak freely, the only place that the state dare not control what you say and what you think is the mosque. The only voices of opposition come from the voices of the radical clerics. The only way to be empowered, they tell you, is through the glory of jihad. Your government encourages your culture of victimhood, because so long as you’re railing against Israel and the United States, your anger isn’t reflected back at your own government.
Given no political opportunities and such a climate, isn’t it natural that you’d believe the Muslim Brotherhood when they say “Islam is the solution?”
That’s what realpolitik produces. Encouraging the furtherance of autocracy in the name of “stability” only adds fuel to the fire. The only way to win this war over the long term is to end that disconnect between the rulers and the ruled in the Arab world. So long as it exists, Islamism will find fertile ground, and it will spread.
Democratization is difficult. It’s messy. It’s very nature is a process of one leap forward followed by two steps back. What we’re seeing in Iraq is what happens when decades, even centuries of suppressed bad blood comes raging to the surface. In some ways, what’s going on in Iraq was probably inevitable — but it doesn’t mean that the democratic process is doomed any more than the Civil War spelled the end of the United States as a political union. Sometimes a civil war is the only way that issues get solved, and that’s especially so in a developing nation like Iraq.
If the United States abandons democracy in the Middle East, we will not stop terror, but at best merely delay it. Supporting autocratic regimes in the hopes that they’ll stem the flood of terrorism is a fool’s hope — it’s autocratic regimes like Syria and Iran that are deliberately exacerbating terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere.
Realpolitik may have worked when our strategy was containment of the Soviet Union — a rational actor that could be constrained by rational means. However, when one is dealing with an ideology that is not bound by conventional notions of deterrence, such a strategy will fail.
Democratization is crucial to our victory in the global war on terrorism. Failing to understand what motivates our enemy will only make this already long and bloody conflict longer and more brutal. Sacrificing our long-term goal of democracy for the benefit of an illusory short-term peace will ensure that the terrible events of September 11, 2001 were nothing more than prologue.