Francis Fukuyama posed a trenchant question for those neo-conservatives who so ardently supported President George W. Bush's quest to bring democracy to the Middle East in the November 2005 Commentary symposium "Defending and Advancing Freedom":

"So much of what neoconservatives have written over the past decades has concerned the unanticipated consequences of overly ambitious social engineering, and how the effort to get at root causes of social problems is a feckless task. [So] why should anyone have believed we could get at the root causes of alienation and terrorism in a part of the world we didn't understand particularly well, and where our policy instruments were very limited?"

A good question. And it would be an even better question had President Bush awakened one morning, asked himself what he could do to make the world a better place, and hit upon the idea of bringing democracy to the Moslem world by any and all means, including the overthrow of despotic regimes. That, unfortunately, is not exactly how things happened.

Rather the United States was hit by a major terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives and brought the country's major economic center to a near standstill. September 11 cast, and continues to cast, a shadow over the future of America and the free world.

Terror is not the enemy; it is one of the tactics employed by the enemy.

In addition, it revealed with full clarity that the West faced a new enemy. For various reasons, the president defined that enemy as terror and declared a war on terror. What that description of the task ahead gained in dramatic flare, however, it lost in analytical clarity. Terror is not the enemy; it is one of the tactics employed by the enemy.

The real enemy, as the president well knew, is political Islam, and the dream of reestablishing an Islamic imperial empire across the globe that lies at its ideological core. Refuge in dreams of glories past and future exercises great appeal for those for whom the present is little more than an unbroken succession of failure and humiliation.

That includes both those living in Moslem states, which by every measure of progress have fallen dramatically behind their non-Moslem neighbors, despite, in many cases, being endowed with untold riches in natural resources. (The GNP of Israel, for instance, a nation with few natural resources, is greater than all its Arab neighbors combined, despite their far greater populations and natural resources.) And it includes millions of Moslems living in Western Europe as second class citizens in their host countries.

President Bush and his advisors could not have failed to notice that terrorism has become something of an Islamic monopoly in recent years, and that the failed and deformed states of the Middle East have produced most of the world's terrorists. Terrorism, as David Brooks has noted, is what Moslem jihadis do, because terrorizing the West is the one thing that they do well, the one thing that gives them a sense of power.

The anger of millions of young Arab males simmers, and is ever waiting to erupt. And that anger feeds on itself. The more Moslems try to find salve for present failure in dreams of past and future glory, the more unpalatable the present becomes.

Suddenly aware of the new threat, President Bush faced two questions: (1) how to degrade the capabilities of already existent terrorist groups; and (2) how to drain the swamps that have produced a seemingly endless stream of recruits to the banner of radical Islam. The answer given by President Bush to the second question was nothing less than the transformation of failed Middle Eastern states by means of democratization and liberalization.

Obviously transformation of even one society, much less an entire region, is a vast undertaking. Nor could it yield results in the short-run. Indeed as Fukuyama points out, the immediate effect of the disruption of traditional, hierarchical societies could make more attractive highly structured, authoritarian sects that claim to have the divinely-given answers to all of life's challenges.

To these objections, however, it is important to add a number of caveats. First, many of those most critical of the Bush administration's efforts to bring freedom to the Middle East refused to even acknowledge the threat facing the West in the form of politicized Islam. They continue to view the threat as a law enforcement issue of rounding up and prosecuting the bad guys.

No one has offered any alternative to the liberalization and democratization of failed Middle Eastern states.

Second, among those who acknowledge the Islamic nature of the threat, no one has offered any alternative to the liberalization and democratization of failed Middle Eastern states. As Charles Krauthammer said in a November 14 speech at the Foreign Policy Research Institutes annual dinner, "[The enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world] was . . . a radical idea, an arrogant idea, a risky idea. But it was the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that led to 9/11."

President Bush has noted many time the failure of the United States' traditional Middle East realist policy, based on propping up pro-Western despots. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the lynchpins of "realist" strategy, produced virtually all of the 9/11 hijackers, and the leading Islamist ideologues. And Saudi-exported Wahhabism inspires fanatical Islamic groups around the globe.

The Islamists themselves have tacitly acknowledged the threat democratization poses to their dream of a new world-wide caliphate governed by Islamic law. In a famous letter to Osama bin Laden, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most vicious leader of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, declares war "on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this evil ideology." In that same letter, Zarqawi set forth his strategy for preventing democracy in Iraq: trigger a civil war by terrorist attacks on Shiites, which will lead to Shiite retaliation against Sunnis, which will then force all Sunnis to join the battle. Though Zarqawi is thankfully no longer with us, we are pretty much watching that strategy play itself out today in Iraq.

But as Norman Podhoretz asks, "If this murderous collection of diehard Sunni Baathists and vengeful Shiite militias, together with their allies inside the government agreed that democratization had already failed, would they be waging so desperate a campaign to defeat it?"

To be sure, no one in his right mind would declare the effort at establishing a viable democratic society in Iraq a success. The real question, however, is whether that lack of success demonstrates the inherent incompatibility of Moslem societies and democracy, as many have suggested.

That verdict would seem, at the very least, to be greatly premature. Millions of Iraqis risked life and limb to vote not once but three times. A constitution has been drafted and approved.

It is hard to get a grip on precisely who is killing whom, and for what reason, or to know how many Iraqis are participating in the current violence. It seems hard to believe that most Iraqis would prefer the even bloodier civil war into which Iraq would certainly degenerate in the absence of American troops to finding some kind of framework for all ethnic groups in what would inevitably be a Shiite-dominated state.

Unquestionably, mistakes in American planning and execution contributed to the current morass. Precisely what those mistakes were is less clear. For every expert, for instance, who claims that the Iraqi army should not have been disbanded and that de-Baathification went to far, one can find another expert to argue that it should have gone farther, in order to restore Shiite confidence in American intentions shattered by the American abandonment of the Shiites to Saddam's butchers after having encouraged them to rebel in 1991.

Most experts agree that American troops should have removed Muqtada al-Sadr from the scene when an Iraqi magistrate issued an arrest warrant on murder charges. The Shiite death squads of his Mahdi Army constitute one of the most destabilizing forces in Iraq today. And al-Sadr is one of those who would definitely prefer a civil war to political rapprochement, as he believes that the result of that war would be to bring Iraq into the orbit of Iran. It is far from clear, however, that most Iraqi Shiites seek an Iranian-style theocracy or a closer alliance with Iran.

Ultimately, if a liberal state, based on the rule of law, does not come into being in Iraq, it will probably have less to do with American mistakes or hubris, or even with the incompatibility of Moslems and democracy, and more to do, in Krauthammer's words, with 30 years under Saddam's sadistic, cruel and atomizing dictatorship, which left in its wake "a dearth of the kind of trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance."

That failure, however, should give no comfort to critics of the Bush Doctrine -- at least the responsible among them. Their vindication will come at a high price, for, as Krauthammer states the matter, "if democratizing the Arab/Islamic world is unattainable and undoable, then there are no remaining answers as to how to counter the threat of Islamic radicalism."

This article originally appeared in Yated Ne'eman