The war that George W. Bush launched against terrorism in the immediate aftermath of September 11 has thus far gone exceedingly well. Those of us who fretted that in turning first to Afghanistan we risked playing into the hands of our adversaries were proven quite fortunately wrong. We underestimated the scope of the military revolution that first became evident with our use of smart munitions in the Gulf War. We failed to understand just what havoc can be wreaked with such munitions in a terrain offering little in the way of natural cover. We misjudged Afghan animus against the Taliban and against Osama bin Laden's foreign legion. Our forces may not have captured or killed the elusive mass murderer and his chief henchmen, but it is clear that, in time, they will. The leading figures within al Qaeda can run, but they cannot hide.
Some months from now, when we have replenished our stocks of smart munitions, we will have to think seriously about where to turn next. Our president has wisely kept his options open, and has repeatedly indicated that Afghanistan is just the beginning. We can only hope he is as resolute as he appears to be. The timid and pusillanimous -- in the capitals of Europe, on the faculties of our universities, in the editorial offices of our leading newspapers, in Congress, in our Department of State, and even within our armed forces -- will counsel caution. They will urge us to opt for stability. It made sense, they will now say, to eliminate al Qaeda's redoubt in the Hindu Kush: In this one case, they will now acknowledge, we had little choice. But we should go no further. We should not target Hezbollah, Hamas, and Saddam Hussein; that might give rise to instability. Instead, we should, with renewed vigor, pursue the "peace process" in the Middle East. The defeat of al Qaeda has strengthened our hand, they will say. Now is the time to strike for peace. Now is the time to give peace a chance.
It should by now be perfectly clear that no agreement made with the likes of Yasser Arafat will ever hold up.
It seems highly unlikely that President Bush will fall for such nonsense. Even if anyone of intelligence had any serious doubts before the second intifada, it should by now be perfectly clear that no agreement made with the likes of Yasser Arafat will ever hold up. It is time that we acknowledge that the Middle East strategy we have followed over the last 30 years is bankrupt; that the so-called peace process is, in fact, an instrument of continuing conflict; that it has produced, and can produce, only war. The PLO is committed to the destruction of Israel, not to a lasting and mutually beneficial peace. One can, perhaps, sometimes reach a temporary accommodation with terrorists like Arafat; one cannot negotiate a lasting cessation of war.
The first rule of strategic thinking is this: that one should never wring one's hands over the disasters that happen, but should instead look upon each as an opportunity. The elder Bush had such an opportunity. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait made it possible for us to reconfigure the entire Middle East. We could have executed Saddam; we could have eliminated his tyrannical Baathist regime. We could have done in Iraq something like what we did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War: We could have transformed the country, liberating its people and channeling their energies in the direction of commerce. Instead, we opted for stability. Our Turkish allies warned us that Iraq might fall apart; they feared that the Kurds in that country's North would opt for independence, and provide support for the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey itself. Our allies in Saudi Arabia feared that the establishment of a genuine democracy in Iraq would render untenable the continued rule of the House of Saud. We worried that the Shiites in the Iraqi South would look to Iran for guidance.
We were not stupid in thinking we might be better off with the devil we knew. We were not foolish in opting for stability. But we were wrong. Not for the first time, we underestimated our foe. Saddam Hussein not only survived his defeat, he prospered. He breathed defiance, and persuaded the gullible that our failure to dislodge him was a sign of cowardice and weakness on our part. He made a mockery of our attempts to deprive him of weapons of mass destruction; he did everything in his power to stir up the Muslim world against us. He brazenly mounted an attempt to assassinate the elder Bush — and he did so with impunity. He appears as well to have provided al Qaeda with crucial support. Mohamed Atta didn't go to Prague to sample the cuisine.
Instead of opting for stability, we could try the opposite.
The failure of our strategy in the Middle East is a misfortune, but it can also provide us with an extraordinary opportunity -- if we have the courage to seize it. Instead of opting for stability, we could try the opposite. We could give revolution a chance. We could give our full backing to the brave men and women who established the Iraqi National Congress; we could train and arm their soldiers, giving them the species of support we afforded the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Anticipating the possibility that they might fail on the field, we could systematically build up our ground forces in Kuwait and elsewhere in the vicinity of Iraq, and we could then do whatever it might take to remove Saddam Hussein from power, to topple the Baathist kleptocracy, and to drag Iraq (and, with it, the entire Arab world) into the 21st century. This would be expensive. It would require that we be prepared to commit our infantry and tanks to the struggle in Mesopotamia. Such an endeavor would no doubt upset our fair-weather friends in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Gulf. But there is no question that we have the wherewithal to oust Saddam Hussein — and there is no question that the bulk of the Iraqi population would welcome us with open arms. The Kurds in the North, the Shiites in the South, and many of the Sunnis in between have suffered grievously at the hands of the butcher of Baghdad.
His overthrow would not, however, be enough. To make such an intervention worth the trouble, we would have to act in such a manner as to ensure that postwar Iraq remained intact, and emerged as a liberal democracy responsive to the genuine needs of its various populations. If we made a serious stab at nation-building in Afghanistan, we would almost certainly fail -- much as we have repeatedly failed in Haiti. But Iraq is not Afghanistan. It is not poor; it is not backward; it is not populated by fierce tribes who revel in war. It is, in fact, a relatively secular, tolerably cosmopolitan place -- and it is rich. Its agriculture has enormous potential, and it has very large reserves of oil. The population is largely literate. There is much that can be done.
If Iraq did emerge as a secular, pluralist democracy, modeled on Turkey and closely allied with the United States, its reappearance in this guise would, over time, up-end the entire Middle East. The theocracy in Iran (which has been at least as deeply involved in fostering terrorism as Baathist Syria and Iraq) is profoundly unpopular, and could long not survive the presence of a prosperous, commercial democracy in a nearby Arab country. The Baathist tyranny in Syria is hated by the bulk of the population and, with a bit of pressure from us, would quite soon collapse. All of this would encourage the democratic propensities long evident in Jordan and Egypt; in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco; and even in the territories governed by the Palestinian Authority. Who knows? The Iraqi example might even bring some sense to the Gulf. Once it's clear which way history is moving, very few human beings want to be left behind.
If we really want security, we will have to finish the job we began in 1991, with the Gulf War.
Or perhaps this is overly optimistic. Perhaps the obstacles to a genuine transformation of the Middle East really are as insuperable as they seem to be in Haiti, in Afghanistan, and in sub-Saharan Africa. But before dismissing the revolutionary option, we should consider the alternative -- which we have already, and repeatedly, tried: accommodation of and collusion with Muslim despotism in its various Middle Eastern forms, all for the sake of a "stability" we never seem to achieve. This bankrupt policy brought us September 11. If we opt for it again, we can be confident that we will be attacked again -- and with even greater force -- for our vulnerability to terrorist assault has now been exposed to the larger world. If we really want security, we will have to finish the job we began in 1991, with the Gulf War. Our parents and grandparents learned something about the disastrous consequences of leaving such jobs unfinished in December, 1941, when Hitler's Germany followed up on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by declaring war on the United States. The question we face now is whether we learned all that we needed to learn in September, 2001. Many in the United States and Europe evidently did not -- but George W. Bush has been splendid so far, and my guess is that this president is disinclined to repeat his father's mistakes.
Paul A. Rahe is the Jay P. Walker Professor of History at the University of Tulsa & author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution
This article originally appeared on National Review Online.