Politics & Policy

A Dangerous Delusion

We go to war to defend our interests, not to encourage democracy.

Right after 9/11, Pres. George W. Bush made a succinct demand of the Taliban: Hand over Osama bin Laden and his cohorts or face horrific consequences. The demand, the president emphasized, was non-negotiable. The Taliban refused, insisting that the U.S. produce evidence against al-Qaeda. Because Islamists — not just terrorists but all Islamists — believe the United States is the enemy of Islam, the Taliban also floated the possibility of rendering bin Laden to a third country. No deal, Bush replied. As promised, the consequences were swift and severe. Yet, two weeks into the first bombing raids, the president offered the Taliban a “second chance.” Mullah Omar declined to take it. The invasion proceeded and the rest is history.

It’s now a long, confused history. The distance we’ve traveled from the clarity of the first days is manifest in the Right’s ongoing intramural skirmish over the eminent George Will’s latest column.

#ad#Will has called for a steep reduction of our 60,000-strong military force (out of a total of about 100,000 coalition troops) in Afghanistan. That country, he argues, is an incorrigible mess where we’re engaged more in social work than in combat. Instead, Will would have our forces retreat to offshore bases from which, “using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units,” American efforts could be concentrated on Afghanistan’s “porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” This suggestion comes just as other conservatives are backing a Pentagon proposal to add about 40,000 troops. They seek a counterinsurgency surge for Afghanistan, similar to the one they claim worked so well in Iraq three years ago.

There’s no question that the surge in Iraq resulted in the rout of al-Qaeda. For that reason, it has to be counted as a net success. It would have been a strategic disaster to retreat while al-Qaeda was present and fortifying itself.

But then there was the rest of the surge rationale: the claim that we needed to secure the Iraqi population so a stable government, one that would be a reliable ally against terror, could emerge. The same argument now is being made about Afghanistan. Have you taken a look at Iraq lately? We went there to topple Saddam; we stayed to build an Islamic “democracy,” and the result is an Iranian satellite. The new Iraq is a sharia state that wants us gone, has denied us basing rights for future military operations, has pressured a weak American president into releasing Iran-backed terrorists, has rolled out the red carpet for Hezbollah, allows Iranian spies to operate freely (causing the recent ouster of the intelligence minister, who was an American ally), tolerates the persecution of religious minorities, and whose soon-to-take-power ruling coalition vows “not to establish relations with the Zionist entity” — a vow that would simply continue longstanding Iraqi policy, as Diana West points out. If that’s success, what does failure look like?

Democracy-project naysayers (I’ve long been one) reluctantly supported the surge in Iraq because our nation could not allow al-Qaeda a victory there. By contrast, as Rich Lowry mentions in passing at The Corner, “al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan.” Rich’s observation came in the course of chiding Will’s advocacy of “counterterrorist strikes from a distance.” But if al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan, why do we still need 60,000 troops there, let alone 40,000 more? We don’t invade other hostile countries where al-Qaeda is actually present (see, e.g., Iran, Kenya, Yemen, Somalia), and the likelihood of al-Qaeda’s return is not enough to keep us in other countries where we’re not wanted (e.g., Iraq). That is, we’re already banking on our capacity to conduct counterterrorist strikes from a distance.

The reason for going to war in Afghanistan was that al-Qaeda was there. The Bush administration was content to live with the Taliban ruling Afghanistan. They are a tyrannical lot, but Islam doctrinally and culturally lends itself to tyranny. The Taliban’s brutalization of the Afghan people was not our military concern. That was a problem for the State Department to take up with our “allies” — like Pakistan, which created the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia, which helped Pakistan sustain it. Our military issue with the Taliban was bin Laden. Had the Taliban agreed to our terms, there would have been no invasion of Afghanistan.

#page#Notwithstanding al-Qaeda’s departure, the idea now seems to be that we should substantially escalate our military involvement in Afghanistan to replicate the experiment that supposedly worked so well in Iraq. It’s the age of Obama, so our commanders are talking not about combat but about a stimulus package to fight the “culture of poverty.” As military officials described it to the New York Times, “the overriding goal of American and NATO forces would not be so much to kill Taliban insurgents as to make ordinary Afghans feel secure, and thus isolate the insurgents. That means using force less and focusing on economic development and good governance.” This is consistent with the delusional belief that terrorism is caused by poverty, corruption, resentment, Guantanamo Bay, enhanced interrogation tactics, Israel — in short, anything other than an ideology rooted in Islamic scripture. But before we all laugh George Will out of the room, we might remember that the Taliban was not our reason for invading. We would not have gone to war to save Afghanistan from the Taliban — which is to say, to save Afghanistan from itself.


At Contentions, Pete Wehner offers a withering critique of Will’s column. Pete reminds us that, not so long ago, Will predicted that the Muslim world would be overrun by “a ripple effect, a happy domino effect . . . of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies.” But now, in a dizzying turnabout, Will ridicules the very premise of the democracy project: the conceit — to quote Will quoting Tony Blair — that “ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit.” Typical of Pete, it is a very effective smack-down. And it would be a show-stopper — except that the pertinent issue is not Will’s inconstancy. The question is: Was Will wrong then or is Will wrong now?

And that’s where Pete and the rest of the surge-minded lose me. George Will is not being faithless about the war. To the extent there was national agreement about its objectives, the war was about routing al-Qaeda, driving it out of its safe haven, and killing or capturing its main players. Those objectives have been substantially accomplished, and, while we’ve failed to round up bin Laden, Zawahiri, and some others, they are not in Afghanistan.

#ad#What Will is being faithless about is the democratic vision. Democracy enthusiasts have always conflated the war and the dream, but the two are and will always be separate. The American people overwhelmingly supported, and still support, a vigorous war — not an experiment, but a war — against the enemies who threaten us: Islamist terrorists and the regimes that abet them. Americans do not support, have no patience for, and would never go to war over the thankless enterprise of transforming the Islamic world.

Mind you, I’m no dove. I daresay I’m as much or more of a hawk than the nation-building side of the house. I’ve bit my tongue for a long time, and it kills me to write this, because I’ve never bought the nonsense about how you can support the troops but not support the mission. And if someone can convince me we need 40,000 or 400,000 or 4 million more troops in Afghanistan to destroy enemies who would otherwise attack the United States, count me in. But I think Rich, Pete, and others I admire — Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, and Jen Rubin, for example — go too far in their condemnation of Will. Americans have a right to wonder what on earth we’re doing. The war against Islamist terror is global and, even in the region where we are fighting, has always involved more than Iraq and Afghanistan. There are hostile regimes (particularly in Iran) that we have left in place, unscathed, and growing stronger. For all the brave “you’re with us or you’re against us” talk after 9/11, we never walked that walk. Americans would have supported such a war, which was — and is — patently in the national interest. There is no political will for it now because, without first defeating the enemy, we tried to reprise the Marshall Plan in a place where it won’t work.

On that score, one of the more baffling things I’ve read recently was from Powerline’s John Hinderaker, whom I also admire. John was questioning former vice president Dick Cheney’s apparent admission (in a Fox News interview) that he had favored attacking Iran, which President Bush declined to do. John counters that “at the time, it seemed to me that we had our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military conflict with Iran was not a serious possibility.” But we had military conflict with Iran whether we wanted it or not — they were orchestrating terror attacks and killing Americans. And what we had our hands full with in Iraq and Afghanistan was nation-building. Quite apart from the inherent futility of trying to democratize fundamentalist Muslim countries, our efforts in those two places were doomed if we failed to address Iran’s promotion of terrorism and its intolerable nuclear threat. What has happened to Iraq has happened because we lacked the will to deal with Iran. We left unaccomplished the mission that was vital to our national interests while laboring exhaustively to create Islamic democracies that are either hostile or useless to us. And now, while we are still idling on Iran, the plan is to double-down against the Taliban?

There has been a fascinating point of alignment since 9/11 between the anti-war Left and the democracy hawks. Both sides have failed to identify the enemy: Islamists. The hard Left resists because it doesn’t see Islamism as an enemy at all. The Islamists, like the Left, regard the United States as the problem in the world.

#page#Democracy hawks are another matter. Their boundless faith in democracy blinds them to the severity of the Islamist challenge. For them, dwelling on Islam is counterproductive: If Islam is understood as a huge liability, Americans will rebel against the prohibitive costs, in lives and money, of democracy-building. So the democracy-hawk approach is either not to mention Islam at all or to absurdly portray it as a “moderating” influence that will help build stable democracies. They shame doubters into silence by decrying “Islamophobia” and “cultural condescension” — mortal sins these days. On some level, the democracy hawks may grasp that the threat here involves more than terrorism. But they’ve convinced themselves that if we could just get rid of the terrorists, the rest of the Muslims who abhor us would be brought around by democracy’s light.

It’s a fantasy, and we’re betting our lives on it. So let me try to spell out the folly of the democracy project’s fundamental assumptions.


We like to think Islamism represents only a fringe of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. But that’s because we confound Islamists and terrorists. The terrorists — those who commit and materially support violent attacks — are a fringe (bigger than we’d like to think, but still a tiny minority). By contrast, Islamists may be a majority, and, if they’re not, they constitute a very substantial minority.

#ad#Islamism is not terrorism. To be sure, Islamism includes terrorism in its arsenal. Still, there is major disagreement among Islamists about when violence should be used and how effective it is. In any event, we must fight the tendency to meld these concepts. Terrorism is a tactic that divides Muslims. Islamism is a belief system that unites tens of millions of Muslims. Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, estimates what he calls the “radicalized” portion of the umma at about 15 percent. I think he’s low-balling it, but even if he’s right, that would be about 200 million people.

So what is Islamism? It is the belief that Islam is not merely a religious creed but a comprehensive guide to human existence, conformity to which is obligatory, that governs all matters political, social, cultural, and religious, from cradle to grave (and, of course, beyond). The neologism “Islamist” was minted over three-quarters of a century ago by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. To this day, the credo of the Brotherhood is “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” The Brotherhood claims, preposterously, to have renounced terrorism. It maintains, more credibly, that it is the Muslim Nation, as in a mass movement representing what Muslims, broadly, believe.

The Brotherhood’s Islam is called Salafism. Developed in the 19th century, Salafism calls for a return to the unalloyed Islam of the 7th-century founders. It is to be “unalloyed” in the sense that it should be stripped of modernizing influences — particularly Western influences. This is to be achieved by implementing sharia, the divine law designed to govern all aspects of life.

Implementing sharia is the aim of jihad. Because our government does not want to be seen as Islamophobic, we are discouraged from noting the palpable nexus between Islamic scripture and Islamist terror. Thus we’re conditioned to think of jihad, a creature of Islamic scripture, as a form of madness — as if terrorists blew up buildings for no better reason than to blow up buildings. But jihad is a central tenet of Islam. It is the obligation to struggle in the path of Allah — to impose God’s law everywhere on earth. Jihad can be savage, but it is not irrational.

Jihad is correctly understood as a military duty, but it need not be violent. That does not mean, as Islam’s Western apologists claim, that jihad is some wishy-washy internal struggle to become a better person. To the contrary, just as war is politics by other means, violent force is one of several jihadist tactics by which the Muslim Nation seeks to install sharia. If non-Muslims are willing to accommodate sharia in their political, legal, and financial systems, combat is not required. Surrenders are happily accepted.

#page#But jihad undeniably includes the duty to drive infidel armies out of Muslim countries by force — even infidels who see themselves as benign, progressive, good Samaritans rather than occupiers. In 2004, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the “nonviolent” Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to fight the Americans in Iraq. He was zealously supported by the faculty at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most authoritative voice of Islamic jurisprudence in the Arab world. A few months later, Alberto Fernandez, then the State Department’s top spokesman in the region, gushed that Qaradawi was an “intelligent and thoughtful voice from the region . . . an important figure that deserves our attention.” It was an idiotic thing to say, but it was said in recognition of the grim reality that Qaradawi is not a fringe figure. His influence is vast. Understand this: It is not just terrorists but millions of Muslims who believe Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan should be killed even if they believe they are risking their lives so that Muslims can have a better life.

Why should Islamism matter to us? Because, besides being the ideology that catalyzes jihadist terrorism and threatens our freedoms in sundry other ways, Islamism rejects the premises of Western democracy. Islamists believe that sharia is the perfect, non-negotiable blueprint for law and life, prescribed by Allah Himself. Therefore, Islamists reject the notion of free people at liberty to govern themselves, to legislate in contradiction to God’s law. They reject freedom of conscience: Islam must be the state religion, and apostasy from Islam is a capital crime. They deny the principle of equality under the law between men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims. They abjure any semblance of Western sexual liberty: gay sex, adultery, and fornication are brutally punished. They countenance slavery. They encourage polygamy. I could go on, but you get the idea.

#ad#This is all horrifying to us, but that is because we are a different civilization. Tony Blair was wrong, as Will has realized in more recent times. Individual liberty and democracy are not “universal values of the human spirit.” And our democracy-building enthusiasts are wrong, and unintentionally insulting to Muslims, when they intimate that the Islamic world will fall in love with our values once they taste a little freedom.

President Bush decried the “cultural condescension” of us democracy doubters. But the shoe of arrogance is on the other foot. Those of us who’ve studied Islam have never doubted its “aptitude for democracy” (to borrow Will’s phrase). The issue has never been one of aptitude; it is about principled beliefs. Fundamentalist strains of Islam, including Salafism, have been developed by extraordinary minds. It is not that these Muslims fail to comprehend our principles; they reject them. They have an entirely different conception of the good life. They believe freedom is not individual liberty but individual submission to Allah’s law. Their very conception of freedom is the opposite of ours. When we talk to them about “freedom,” we are ships passing in the night.

That doesn’t make the Islamists backward. They are convinced that Western liberalism and the Judeo-Christian veneration of reason in faith are corrupting influences that rationalize deviations from Allah’s law and His natural order. They believe, instead, in a pre-ordered, totalitarian system in which the individual surrenders his freedom for the good of the umma — and in which sowing discord (i.e., engaging in what we think of as free speech) is a grave sin, on the order of apostasy. They are wrong in this. Our civilization is superior to theirs, which is why we have flourished and they have faltered. But being wrong doesn’t make them crazy. They don’t want what we’re selling, and they have their reasons.


Most of our uninformed national conversation about Islam since 9/11 has been about the degree of Muslim support for terrorism. If you’re going to embark on a quest to remake the Middle East, that’s the wrong question. We should be asking: What is the degree of Muslim support for Islamism? The answer to that question is: immense.

#page#Islamism is the official creed of Saudi Arabia, which, as noted above, is risibly portrayed as a U.S. ally against terrorism. The Saudis have lavishly supported and collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s, enabling the Brothers to spread Islamism globally, including in America and Europe. Islamism, moreover, is the dominant ideology in the Arab world and in much of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. It is strengthening in northern and eastern Africa. Despite decades of suppression, it is resurgent in Turkey. Even in Indonesia, where Islamism is not preponderant, it is a growing force.

The fact that Islamists disagree with their terrorist factions on tactics obscures the reality that they heartily agree with the terrorists’ contempt for the West. Most of the places that are sources of Islamist terror do not want Western democracy. They want sharia.

We can’t change that about them, and it cheapens us when we try. The State Department’s new “democratic” constitutions for Afghanistan and Iraq are a disgrace: establishing Islam as the state religion and elevating sharia as fundamental law. That is not exporting our values; it is appeasing Islamism. It is putting on display our lack of will to fight for our principles, which only emboldens our enemies. Recall, for example, the spectacle of the Christian prosecuted for apostasy a couple of years back by the post-Taliban, U.S.-backed Afghan government. He had to be whisked out of the country because it’s not safe for an ex-Muslim religious convert in the new Afghanistan. It’s not safe for non-Muslims, period. We’re not building a democratic culture.

#ad#Further, even if we could clear the hurdle that Islamists don’t want Western democracy, there remains the problem that a Muslim country’s becoming a democracy would not make us safer from Islamist terrorists. It is illogical and counter-historical to suppose otherwise. The 9/11 attacks were extensively planned, over long periods of time, in, among other places, Berlin, Madrid, San Diego, Florida, Oklahoma, and Connecticut. Clearly, thriving democracy in those places provided no security. The doctrine that democracy is preferable because democracies don’t make war on one another applies only if your threat matrix consists of hostile nation-states. A transnational terror network with no territory to defend and no normal economic system lacks the incentives a democracy has to avoid war. And, far from discouraging terrorists, democratic liberties work to their advantage.

We can’t stop Muslim countries from being Islamist. That is their choice. It should be no concern of ours who rules them as long as they do not threaten American interests. When they inevitably do threaten us, or allow their territories to be launch pads for terrorists, we should smash them. But the price of defending our nation cannot be spending years — at a cost of precious lives and hundreds of billions of dollars — in a vain attempt to give people who despise us a way of life they don’t want.

Meanwhile, we must accept that Islamism is our enemy and has targeted our constitutional system for destruction by slow strangulation via sharia. Instead of worrying about democracy in Afghanistan, we need to worry about democracy in America. The surge we need is at home: to roll back Islamism’s infiltration of our schools, our financial system, our law, and our government. In addition to not being universal, the “values of the human spirit” are not immortal. If we don’t defend them in the West, they will die.

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