Posted: September 13, 2011
For a decade, the central proposition in America's foreign relations has been that it is possible to transform one or another Islamic nation and indeed the Arab Middle East or the entire Islamic world. We have apportioned a crippling share of our resources and attention to this project. We have tried force, diplomacy, aid, propaganda, confession, persuasion, apology, personality, and hope. And as one approach fails it is supplanted by or combined with another, the recipe depending upon who happens to be in the White House.
The initial reaction of the George W. Bush Administration and the majority of the American people—to strike hard at the audacious enemy who had attacked our warships, citizens abroad, embassies, diplomats, allies, and chief and capital cities—was admirable and correct. No nation that supported or sheltered this enemy (save Saudi Arabia) would be allowed to deploy the fictions of international law to shield itself from just retribution or timely preemption.
Though our military response could have been faster and more powerful and the aims of the campaign more carefully determined, the real problem surfaced immediately after the conventional victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first simply drifting, we then decided to reform and redesign these famously intractable nations, forgetting that we had conquered them in one dimension only. In this we followed the central proposition, influenced by an almost evangelical view of our role in history. Hostile as it was to the nation-building efforts of its immediate predecessor, the Bush Administration thought its decision was not a particularly sharp turnabout, given the Reagan presidency's success in not merely containing but in collapsing the Soviet Union. It was, however, based on a highly inexact analogy.
Then President Barack Obama, albeit with different emphases, arrogantly grasped the baton and accelerated, deploying similar levels of force in the region, opening yet another front, in Libya, and making good on what had been President Bush's half-hearted attempts to destabilize the entire Middle East in service of an idealism of astoundingly imprecise and uncertain ends. Seldom if ever in American diplomatic history have less than perfect allies been tossed from such a wildly veering sled in favor of obvious enemies.
In Egypt we have traded our second-most powerful and second-most reliable Arab ally (after Saudi Arabia and Jordan, respectively) for what is likely to be the Muslim Brotherhood linked to Iran and the terrorist infrastructure. Having tamed the lunatic Gaddhafi, we started and have fought—after binding, trussing, and blindfolding ourselves—a civil war to replace him with we know not what. Our diplomacy leans more and more heavily against Israel and less against Hamas, as National Security Council senior director Samantha Power suggests invading the former for building apartments, and we make overtures to the latter despite its conspicuous embrace of terrorism, the thing we are supposed to be fighting.
The notion for the sake of which these past ten years have seen our conventional military powers and the economy laid waste is that the transformation of the political culture of the Middle East and the vast Islamic world beyond it, sufficiently to render them harmless to us and kinder to themselves, is possible. Independently of President Bush's lack of deep-enough thought in this regard, and President Obama's rather embarrassing belief that he has the power to change (I would wager not much more than does Lady Gaga) the hearts of millions, the central proposition—transformation, nation-building, enlightenment—rests upon negligent and superficial interpretations of history.
Chicken and Egg
By definition, empires succeed for a time in pacifying and transforming other nations and peoples. The cost, extent, and duration of such pacification vary, but time after time the paradigm is engraved upon the historical memories of both subdued and subduer. A large imperial gallery presents many case studies of the transformative effects of dominant powers upon alien populations, but perhaps most relevant to the present are the European inroads upon the 19th-century Middle East, and the American occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War. These are pertinent chiefly in that integral to both were efforts to change the political ethos and forms of government in the subject countries and regions so as simultaneously to elevate and de-fang them.
What was the scale of the military effort required to dominate the region so completely after the large French and British contingents of the Napoleonic Wars had withdrawn at the very beginning of the 19th century? According to the late Albert Hourani, one of the leading historians of the region and period, the only European military presence within the periphery of the Ottoman Empire until the latter part of the century consisted of 1,500 British and 500 Austrian troops in 1840, and 6,000 French in 1860. Even if it misses an intervention or two, this information strongly suggests that the culture we now ambitiously (if weakly) engage has or has had within its genes both malleability and quiescence.
Both to vanquish and keep order in much of the world, the British often made do with tiny military contingents. This resembled Spain's ability not only to conquer the greater part of the Western Hemisphere with just a handful of men under Cortez and Pizarro, but to hold and reinvent with so little force a large part of the earth's surface, while speeding to senescence the vast empires there in place. And certainly the chief exhibit of the nation-builders (apart from citing Bernard Lewis probably far beyond his intent) is that of Japan and Germany—vicious, threatening, military societies that enthusiastically adopted quasi-American constitutionalism almost instantaneously, and, most important, lastingly. All this, burned into modern history like a brand, would suggest that the strategy of "clear, hold, and build" is feasible even on a grand scale, and that the answer to the rise of violent Islamism is force where required, followed by magnanimity, persuasion, and setting a good example. Would that it were so.
In presenting as a model for Iraq and Afghanistan the successful integration of Germany and Japan into the Western democratic system of alliances, the proponents of nation-building overlook a number of crucial facts. Somewhat like the question of chicken and egg, the problem is that suppression of insurgency has been defined as requiring good governance and economic development, while good governance and economic development require suppression of insurgency. Doctrinally accepting these premises, America's only answer to the riddle is to attempt both at the same time and pray for synergy. Only rarely is such a prayer answered, because the leverage and (less precisely) force multiplication of synergy are available equally to both sides in the struggle. That is, to the extent that one half of the equation empowers the other, diminishing or eliminating it diminishes or eliminates the other.
As I have noted before in these pages, where the German and Japanese examples as paradigms for Iraq and Afghanistan are specifically derailed is that although we began to rebuild Germany and Japan after they were defeated, we defeated them first. It would have been inconceivable to attempt to transform them during hostilities. On the day of Germany's surrender, General Eisenhower had 3 million Americans under his command—61 divisions, battle hardened. Other Western forces pushed the total to 4.5 million in 93 divisions. And then there were the Russians, who poured 2.5 million troops into the Berlin sector alone. Almost 10 million soldiers had converged upon a demoralized German population of 70 million that had suffered 4 million dead and 10 million wounded, captured, and missing. No sympathizers existed across friendly borders. The cities had been razed. Germany had been broken, but even after this was clear, more than 700,000 occupation troops remained, with millions close by. The situation in Japan was much the same: a country with a disciplined, homogenous population, no allies, sealed borders, its cities half burnt, more than three million dead, a million wounded or missing, its revered emperor having capitulated, and nearly half a million troops in occupation. And whereas both Germany and Japan had been democracies in varying degree, Iraq and Afghanistan have been ruled by autocrats since the beginning of history.
To succeed, a paradigm of "invade, reconstruct, and transform," requires the decisive defeat, disarmament, and political isolation of the enemy; the demoralization of its population; the destruction of its political ethos; and the presence, at the end of hostilities, of overwhelming force. In Iraq and Afghanistan none of these conditions was fulfilled, the opposite impression flowing mainly from our contacts predominantly with an expressive, Western-educated elite, and from our failure to understand that despite the universal human desire for freedom, equity, safety, honor, and prosperity, the operational definitions of each of these objectives can vary so much as to render the quality of universality meaningless.
Then and Now
As it spanned the centuries, European colonial history benefited from luck and conditions for the most part inaccessible today. The Europeans often found themselves accidentally at the fulcrum of power in divided, decadent polities. They surprised a good proportion of the subject nations by their very existence and then by their technology, which was often so far advanced as to be confounded with magic. They were organized, disciplined, and surging with the confidence of newly ascendant nations, their populations bursting outward like solar emanations. In short, they were white hot while the rest of the world was at rest.
This is hardly the case now. The Middle East has for centuries observed and struggled with the West, used and (however lamely) assimilated its technology, and dreamed of revanche. It has for more than half a century controlled a large share of the world's most valuable energy resources; it has been organized into nation states for just as long; it has thrown off European suzerainty and repulsed superior militaries from the Atlantic to India; and it has learned the lessons of guerrilla warfare and insurgency from T.E. Lawrence, Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, and Ho Chi Minh. Not least, it has watched the power of the West decline relative to that of the rest of the world as the West slows in the growth of its economies, populations, and militaries, and as its mores by many objective measures, and certainly in the eyes of Islam, slide ever more into corruption and dissolution.
These are the factors that America has blithely ignored in its belief that it can serve as the model to which the Islamic world will mold itself willingly or with our measured compulsion. But none of these is as influential and resistant as the culture of Islam, which is the rock upon which our central proposition can only shatter.
The West has needed almost 2,000 years to make religion and governance mutually anodyne, and in so doing is most careful to refrain from judging religious principles that do not conflict with public law. This restraint has been deeply impressed after centuries of pointless theological warfare and schism. We shy, however, not only from criticism but from truthful assessment, accepting or even making absurd claims such as that Islam is a "religion of peace," or that jihad is solely a term of personal development. In light of the fact that in the name of Islam Muslims are at war in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Sinkiang, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Yemen, the Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Algeria, and, in terrorist mode, throughout the rest of the world; and given the many times that the most casual observers have seen excited mobs, AK-47s raised, screaming "Jihad!" such claims are indicative not only of failed judgment but of a predilection for suicide.
Although the Crusades were a reaction (and overreaction) to Islamic conquests almost to the gates of Paris, the secular West bears no resemblance to those times. Though most Muslims are peaceful, good people, the template is there to press itself upon dormant populations when opportune, starting with extremists and working its way to the normative as circumstances allow. Islam has changed little since its beginnings, as any proud Muslim will affirm in praise of the constancy, purity, absoluteness, and eternal qualities of his religion. It is perhaps the first thing that a perspicacious observer of the Middle East will note—the Manichaeism, lack of gray, and the absolute certainty that fuel passion overflowing into martyrdom.
The catalog of recent outrages and atrocities associated with Islam far outweighs that associated with contemporary Christianity, Judaism, or secularism. Christians, Jews, and the non-religious who are responsible for atrocities are almost always deranged loners with a conspicuous lack of support and association, much less endorsement, which in the case of Islamic terrorism flows from the mosque, the street, the airwaves, and even the schools. Today, as I write this, the newspapers report that al-Shabaab is slaughtering refugees fleeing the Somali famine, and blocking the delivery of food to 2.5 million starving people. The Taliban has just deliberately bombed a maternity ward. These are religious movements.
No government, command authorities, or—except in the rarest of criminal cases treated as such (if not always as vigorously as they should be)—soldier of the West now seeks to inflict harm upon innocents. In their warfare, however, tribal societies based upon clan, honor, and revenge freely take the lives of women and children lest sons grow up to avenge their fathers. In most of the Middle East this approach coexists undisturbed with Islam, and Islam's most radical manifestations have incorporated it, as the Islamists make clear in repeatedly associating their atrocities with religious doctrine. And in regard to the severe oppression of women, physical and otherwise; popular and religious endorsement of terrorism; honor killings; casual beheadings; death sentences by fatwa for theological variance; and the division of mankind into the "world of Islam" and "the world of war"; only the protected and cowardly elites of the West see no correlation with the culture of Islam.
Reaching Critical Mass
To cite the arguments above is not to indict either Islam as a whole or all Muslims. This is one pole of a false dichotomy proffered by radical Islamists and unthinking Westerners alike, the other being to hold harmless all of Islam and all Muslims. I once attended a graduation ceremony at which the benighted speaker claimed that the number of people in the Islamic world who wanted to do us harm wouldn't fill the gymnasium in which his words were echoing. (The number of people inTribeca who want to do us harm is larger than that.) The argument veers unproductively from "virtually none" to "virtually all." So how can you tell? As inexact and mercurial as they may be, the polls give an indication of how Middle Eastern populations break on some of these questions.
The region is variegated and divided, and over time views change in response to changing conditions. If the armies, guerrillas, or terrorists one supports are winning, support grows, just as it decreases with difficulty, frustration, and failure. Immediately after September 11 the Middle East saw widespread celebrations. Even in 2002 with the bloom slightly off the rose after the United States had (temporarily) routed the Taliban, adding the element of consequence to the holding of opinion, support among Muslims for suicide-bombing was 74% in "moderate" Lebanon, 43% in our ally Jordan, 33% in our soon-to-be ally Pakistan, and 47% in far-away Nigeria.
As late as 2007, when it had become clear that the U.S. was prepared to punish Islamic terrorism throughout the world, support among Muslims for attacks on civilians was 43% in touristic, Gallicized Morocco, and 33% in our financial beneficiary, Egypt. In 2009, 68% of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories supported suicide-bombing, and this year approval of Islamism runs from 47% in Pakistan through approximately one third of the populations of the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Egypt. It is reasonable to assume that following upon success and immunity to retaliation support would climb substantially. The numbers betray divisions throughout Muslim populations, with the majorities rejecting violence, but as in most cases of political suasion and mobilization, an extreme core of the size represented by the figures cited is more than sufficient to be a controlling critical mass.
In gambling to exploit and capitalize upon the divisions nonetheless, the makers of our policy ignore or are ignorant of the decisive weight of religious immutability, doctrine, and tradition, of its inextricable integration with political life, and of the ancient patterns of action, perception, and habits of mind in the societies where they hope to exercise not merely a power of deterrence but of transformation.
True Shock and Awe
It is this central proposition that has made the longest war in our history a war without result, what T.E. Lawrence called "eating soup with a knife," and this that leads to the continued destabilization of the Middle East. Its bankruptcy is well illustrated by the stunning belief on the part of its advocates that the only alternative is surrender. Alternatives have been stated in these pages and elsewhere not only since September 11 but before, and their elements can be simply restated.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God limits his own omnipotence in that, like nature (His creation), He follows the rules He has decreed. In Islamic theology, God is entirely omnipotent, bound and bounded by nothing, inconsistent as He wishes, able to create wholly new universes in a split second and at His whim. This requires absolute faith and absolute surrender, which in turn and over the centuries has created, particularly among the Arabs, an extraordinary fatalism and patience, as whatever happens is Allah's will. Though the patience thus engendered creates the ability to run out almost any clock on the impatient West, the fatalism that is its twin creates extraordinary passivity in the wake of a hard blow.
Centuries of European domination owed less to any quality of the West than to this quality in (and the division of) the Arabs particularly. Centuries of contact and influence, however, have to some extent jolted the Arabs out of this frame of mind, or at least shown them the way. But though they are torn, fatalism is more natural, deeply seated, and closer to the eternal verities with which Islam is primarily concerned.
True shock and awe following upon September 11, when the world was with us, could have pitched the Middle East (and beyond, including the Islamists) into something resembling its torpor under European domination or its shock after the Arab-Iraeli War of 1967. That is to say, pacified for a time, with attacks on the West subsiding. And if the West could have resisted the arrogance of the victor and been magnanimous, who knows for how long such a period would have been extended? Instead, we exhibit the generosity of the soon-to-be defeated, otherwise known as concession and surrender.
Comporting with the idea that if you're going to have a war it's a good idea to win it, and with the Powell Doctrine, General Eric Shinseki's recommendations, the lessons of military history, the American way of war, and simple common sense, an effective response to September 11 would have required an effort of greater scale than that of the Gulf War—i.e., all in. With a full and fully prepared "punch through," we could have reached Baghdad in three days, and instead of staying there for a decade or more put compliant officials or generals in power (which is more or less what we're doing now) and wheeled left to Damascus, smashing the Syrian army against the Israeli anvil and putting another compliant regime in place before returning to the complex of modern military bases at the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. There, our backs to the sea, which we control, and our troops hermetically sealed by the desert and safe from insurgency, we could have occupied the center of gravity in the heart of the Middle East, able to sprint with overwhelming force within a few days to either Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh.
Having suffered very few casualties, our forces would have been rested, well-trained, ready for deployment in other parts of the world, and able to dictate to (variously and where applicable) the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudis that they eradicate their terrorists, stay within their borders, abandon weapons of mass destruction, break alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, keep the oil price down, and generally behave themselves. These regimes live for power, do anything for survival, and have secret police who can flush out terrorists with ruthless efficiency. Such strategy, had we adopted it, would have been demanding and imperious, yes, but not as demanding and imperious as ten years of war across much of the Middle East. Our own economy and alliances need not have been disrupted, our polity not so severely divided, and far fewer people would have suffered.
War, Not Widgets
But rather than this approach, which is not, as the record will show, hindsight, the businessmen and business-schooled officials of the Bush Administration chose to run the war according to the business principle of doing the most with as little as possible. Thus, although war demands surplus, reserves, and overkill, for it is never as predictable as selling widgets, it was deliberately and gratuitously a war of penury, and like most such wars it has lasted long and will bring a frayed and unsatisfactory end.
To compound this enormous misstep, a Republican administration that hated nation-building adopted it with the zeal of the converted because it didn't know what else to do. The Obama Administration has now embraced this central, crippling proposition even more incoherently, preaching it more strongly and extending it promiscuously while starving it of seriousness and support. It looks at a complicated, violent, tribal, and often medieval society that has barely achieved a precarious equilibrium, and encourages its dissolution to serve Western ideals of comity and individual liberty unlikely to take root in such stony ground. Our lack of reflection and knowledge robbed us of the ability to nip this tragedy in the bud. And yet it has been just a prologue to far greater danger and heartbreak to come, for the next evolution is China, a different case entirely in which the imperative is not friendliness but balance and deterrence. And in regard to this our preparations, capacities, and strategic conceptions are less competent and promising than even those with which we founder in the Arab and Muslim worlds.