As the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks approaches, the Bush Administration’s “global war on terror” is not going well. Key Al Qaeda leaders are still at large. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. Hezbollah guerrillas have fought Israel to a standstill in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s backers in Iran are five years closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. And America’s plans to transform Iraq into a democratic model for the region are on the verge of collapse. In the face of so many reverses, the administration has taken to calling its campaign against terror “the long war.” But if current patterns persist, it may soon come to be called “the lost war.” Perhaps it is time to put aside our hopes for the region and speak honestly about what we have learned over the last five years.
Iraq isn’t likely to remain a democracy. At least, not once we leave. The current wisdom on why democracy won’t work focuses on borders drawn by British occupiers nearly a century ago. Largely for their own convenience, the British kluged together three polyglot provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire into an imaginary country called Iraq. Because the borders did not conform with the loyalties of people living within them, a series of dictators has been required to hold the place together. The Bush Administration’s notion of “liberating” Iraqis isn’t compatible with their desire to finally be free of each other, so many Iraqis have come to regard America as just the latest oppressor.
We aren’t going to understand the region. It’s a safe bet that if you show up in a region not knowing the language or the history of the place, you’re probably not going to understand what’s going on around you. That is part of the reason why U.S. policy in Iraq has been a litany of errors. Unfortunately, the problem of misunderstanding goes much deeper, because the Arab world managed to miss a few events en route to the modern age — namely the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. As a result, many Arabs have a worldview that strikes westerners as primitive and superstitious. We can learn to speak the language, but we can’t learn to think like them.
Islamic terror may not look “asymmetric” for long. Once you grasp the gulf in values between America and the Middle East, it becomes clear how the Bush Administration has managed to avert new attacks on the U.S. homeland even as it made continuous mistakes in Iraq. The simple truth is that Islamic radicals don’t understand America any better than we understand the Middle East. We both operate at a distinct disadvantage on the other side’s turf. But failing to comprehend the subtleties of enemy motivation and culture, the two sides are constantly tempted to resort to indiscriminate violence. The more successful extremists are at harming our society, the more inclined we will be to respond in kind. Asymmetric aggression thus spawns an all-too-symmetric response.
We empowered the extremists. Every generation spawns its share of disaffected radicals. What makes Islamic extremists so dangerous today isn’t their beliefs or our ignorance, but access to modern technologies. Since their own societies missed the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, virtually every one of the technologies the extremists are exploiting — from the internet where they attract recruits to the cellphones they use to direct suicide bombings — originated in the West. We created the tools with which they threaten our civilization, and then gave them the petrodollars to afford them. Perhaps we need to rethink our rosy views about economic globalization.
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