Fighting the real fight

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Don’t expect to hear this from the White House any time soon, but the global war on terrorism conceived in the wake of 9/11 has effectively ended. As President Bush travels from one military post to the next giving pep talks to soldiers, he manfully sustains the pretense that V-T Day is just around the corner. Yet events have shredded the strategy that his administration was counting on to produce its victory over terrorism.

War requires adherence to principles. Once a conflict becomes an exercise in improvisation, it ceases to be meaningful. It becomes the antithesis of war -- killing without political purpose or moral justification.

The Bush administration is no longer engaged in a principled effort to address the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism. In lieu of principles, the administration now engages in crisis management, reacting to problems as they pop up. Last week, it was Turkey’s threat to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. This week, it’s Pervez Musharraf, key ally and beneficiary of $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, imposing naked military rule on Pakistan. Next week, who knows what surprises await?


This much we can say with certainty: Bush is as much in the dark as you are.

It wasn’t always this way. During the heady run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the president was boldly promising that the United States, drawing on its “unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence,” would not only “defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants” but also “extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.”

Stripped of its hyperbole, this meant that the Bush administration intended to nudge, cajole, bribe or bludgeon regimes across the Islamic world into embracing modernity so that they would no longer breed, harbor or otherwise support terrorists. Condoleezza Rice put it this way: Because the United States “has always been, and will always be, not a status quo power but a revolutionary power,” the Bush administration was going to engineer a democratic revolution, thereby creating what Rice called a “new Middle East.”

This revolution has demonstrably failed. In such places as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it never got off the ground. In the West Bank and Gaza, free and fair elections delivered power into the hands of Hamas. In Lebanon, the people voted in droves for Hezbollah. In each case, the United States refused to accept the outcome, opening itself to charges of hypocrisy.

In Afghanistan, the promotion of democracy has yielded record opium crops and a resurgence of the Taliban. Then there is Iraq. The “liberation” that deposed a dictator gave rise to civil war, created a vacuum that Al Qaeda was quick to fill and has benefited no one apart from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Policymakers such as Rice, who once disdained mere stability, are now frantically trying to prevent the greater Middle East from sliding into chaos. As the clock runs down on the Bush era, the administration preoccupies itself with damage control.

Given that Bush’s version of global war has proved such a costly flop, what ought to replace it? Answering that question requires a new set of principles to guide U.S. policy. Here are five:


* Rather than squandering American power, husband it. As Iraq has shown, U.S. military strength is finite. The nation’s economic reserves and diplomatic clout also are limited. They badly need replenishment.

* Align ends with means. Although Bush’s penchant for Wilsonian rhetoric may warm the cockles of neoconservative hearts, it raises expectations that cannot be met. Promise only the achievable.

* Let Islam be Islam. The United States possesses neither the capacity nor the wisdom required to liberate the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, who just might entertain their own ideas about what genuine freedom entails. Islam will eventually accommodate itself to the modern world, but Muslims will have to work out the terms.

* Reinvent containment. The process of negotiating that accommodation will produce unwelcome fallout: anger, alienation, scapegoating and violence. In collaboration with its allies, the United States must insulate itself against Islamic radicalism. The imperative is not to wage global war, whether real or metaphorical, but to erect effective defenses, as the West did during the Cold War.

* Exemplify the ideals we profess. Rather than telling others how to live, Americans should devote themselves to repairing their own institutions. Our enfeebled democracy just might offer the place to start.

The essence of these principles can be expressed in a single word: realism, which implies seeing ourselves as we really are and the world as it actually is.