This article is from TOS Vol. 2, No. 1. The full contents of the issue are listed here.
The “Forward Strategy” for Failure
A Strategy for Security?
The attacks of 9/11 exposed the magnitude of the threats we face, and, ever since then, one question has become a depressing fixture of our lives: Are we safe? Scarcely two years ago, many Americans believed that our salvation was imminent, for the means of achieving our security was at hand; no longer would we have to live in dread of further catastrophic attacks. These people were swept up in euphoric hope inspired by the Bush administration’s new strategy in the Middle East. The strategy promised to deliver permanent security for our nation. It promised to eradicate the fundamental source of Islamic terrorism. It promised to make us safe.
The strategy’s premise was simple: “[T]he security of our nation,” President Bush explained, “depends on the advance of liberty in other nations”;1 we bring democracy to the Middle East, and thereby make ourselves safer. To many Americans, this sounded plausible: Western nations, such as ours, are peaceful, since they have no interest in waging war except in self-defense: Their prosperity depends on trade, not on conquest or plunder; the more such nations in the world, the better off we would be. Informally, Bush called this idea the “forward strategy for freedom.”2
By January 2005, an early milestone of this strategy was manifest to all. Seemingly every news outlet showed us the images of smiling Iraqis displaying their ink-stained fingers. They had just voted in the first elections in liberated Iraq. Those images, according to breathless pundits, symbolized a momentous development.
Commentators saw reason to believe Bush’s grandiose prediction of 2003, when he declared: “Iraqi democracy will succeed—and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran—that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”3 At the summit of the Arab League in 2004, according to Reuters, Arab heads of state had “promised to promote democracy, expand popular participation in politics, and reinforce women’s rights and civil society.”4 By the spring of 2005, several Arab regimes had announced plans to hold popular elections.
Even confirmed opponents of Bush applauded the strategy. An editorial in the New York Times in March 2005, for example, declared that the “long-frozen political order seems to be cracking all over the Middle East.” The year so far had been full of “heartening surprises—each one remarkable in itself, and taken together truly astonishing [chief among them being Iraq’s elections and the prospect of Egyptian parliamentary elections]. The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances.”5 Senator Edward Kennedy (of all people) felt obliged to concede, albeit grudgingly, that “What’s taken place in a number of those [Middle Eastern] countries is enormously constructive,” adding that “It’s a reflection the president has been involved.”6
Washington pursued the forward strategy with messianic zeal. Iraq has had not just one, but several popular elections, as well as a referendum on a new constitution written by Iraqi leaders; with U.S. endorsement and prompting, the Palestinians held what international monitors declared were fair elections; and Egypt’s authoritarian regime, under pressure from Washington, allowed the first contested parliamentary elections in more than a decade. Elections were held as well in Lebanon (parliamentary) and Saudi Arabia (municipal). In sum, these developments seemed to indicate a salutary political awakening. The forward march toward “liberty in other nations” seemed irresistible and “the security of our nation,” inevitable.
But has the democracy crusade moved us toward peace and freedom in the Middle East—and greater security at home?
Consider three elections and their implications for the region.
The elections in Iraq were touted as an outstanding success for America, but the new Iraqi government is far from friendly. It is dominated by a Shiite alliance led by the Islamic Daawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The alliance has intimate ties with the first nation to undergo an Islamic revolution, Iran. Both Daawa and SCIRI were previously based in Iran, and SCIRI’s leader has endorsed Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist proxy for Iran.7 Teheran is thought to have a firm grip on the levers of power within Iraq’s government, and it actively arms and funds anti-American insurgents. The fundamental principle of Iraq’s new constitution—as of Iran’s totalitarian regime—is that Islam is inviolable.
Instead of embracing pro-Western leaders, Iraqis have made a vicious Islamic warlord, Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most powerful men in Iraqi politics. Although Sadr has not run for office, his bloc holds thirty seats in Iraq’s assembly, controls two ministries, and wields a decisive swing vote: Iraq’s current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and his predecessor, Ibrahim Jaafari, both owe their jobs to Sadr’s support. Sadr (who is wanted by Iraqi authorities for murder) is vociferously anti-American, favors Iranian-style theocratic rule, and has vowed to fight in defense of Iran.
Sadr has a private militia, the Mahdi Army, through which he has repeatedly attacked American forces. One of the fiercest encounters was in 2004 in Najaf. Confronted by U.S. forces, Sadr’s militiamen entrenched themselves in a holy shrine. But the standoff ended when Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, interceded on Sadr’s behalf. Washington capitulated for fear of upsetting Shiites and let the militia go (officials no longer talk of arresting Sadr for murder). Since that standoff, the Mahdi Army has swollen nearly threefold to an estimated fifteen thousand men and, according to a Pentagon report, it has surpassed Al Qaeda in Iraq as “the most dangerous accelerant” of the sectarian violence.8
Emancipated from Hussein’s tyranny, a large number of Iraqis embraced the opportunity to tyrannize each other by reprising sadistic feuds (both sectarian and ethnic)—and to lash out at their emancipators, the American forces. The insurgency, which has attracted warriors from outside Iraq, is serving as a kind of proving ground where jihadists can hone their skills. According to news reports, Lebanese Hezbollah has been training members of the Mahdi Army in Lebanon, while some Hezbollah operatives have helped with training on the ground in Iraq.9 The new Iraq has become what the old one never was: a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. It is a worse threat to American interests than Saddam Hussein’s regime ever was.
Consider the election results in the Palestinian territories. For years, Bush had asked Palestinians “to elect new leaders, . . . not compromised by terror.”10 And, finally, in the U.S.-endorsed elections of January 2006, the Palestinians did turn their backs on the cronies of Yasser Arafat; they rejected the incumbent leadership of Fatah—and elected the even more militant killers of Hamas: an Islamist group notorious for suicide bombings. Hamas won by a landslide and now rules the Palestinian territories.
Refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, Hamas is committed to annihilating that state and establishing a totalitarian Islamic regime. In the previous year, Hezbollah took part in the U.S.-endorsed elections in Lebanon, formed part of that country’s cabinet for the first time, and won control of two ministries.11 In the summer of 2006, the Iranian-backed Hamas and Hezbollah killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers—and precipitated a month-long war in the region. Since the ceasefire that ended the war, Hezbollah has continued to amass weapons and foment terrorism, emboldened by its popular electoral support.
Consider, as a final example of the trend, the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. The group that scored the most impressive gains was the Muslim Brotherhood—the intellectual origin of the Islamist movement, whose offshoots include Hamas and parts of Al Qaeda. The Brotherhood’s founding credo is “Allah is our goal; the Koran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; Struggle is our way; and death in the path of Allah is our highest aspiration.”12
The Brotherhood’s electoral success was staggering. Although the group is officially banned in Egypt, its candidates won eighty-eight seats—about 20 percent—in Egypt’s assembly, and became the largest opposition bloc the body has ever had.13 This was all the more significant considering the regime’s brutal attempts to protect its grip on power. During one round of voting, the New York Times reports, “police officers in riot gear and others in plainclothes and armed civilians working for the police began blocking polling stations, preventing supporters of the Brotherhood from casting their votes.” Dozens were injured, and several people died from gunshots to the head.14 Some observers reckon that the Brotherhood could have won even more power if it had not limited itself to running 125 candidates (it did so, presumably, to avoid an even tougher government crackdown).
The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Islamist regime in Iran, the Mahdi Army, Al Qaeda—these are all part of an ideological movement: Islamic Totalitarianism. Although differing on some details and in tactics, all of these groups share the movement’s basic goal of enslaving the entire Middle East, and then the rest of the world, under a totalitarian regime ruled by Islamic law. The totalitarians will use any means to achieve their goal—terrorism, if it proves effective; all-out war, if they can win; and politics, if it can bring them power over whole countries.
Bush’s forward strategy has helped usher in a new era in the Middle East: By its promotion of elections, it has paved the road for Islamists to grab political power and to ease into office with the air of legitimacy and without the cost of bombs or bullets. Naturally, totalitarians across the region are encouraged. They exhibit a renewed sense of confidence. The Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah war against Israel last summer is one major symptom of that confidence; another is Iran’s naked belligerence through insurgent proxies in Iraq, and its righteously defiant pursuit of nuclear technology.
The situation in the Middle East is worse for America today than it was in the wake of 9/11. Iraq is a bloody fiasco. The chaos in Iraq makes it a haven for anti-American terrorists. Iran’s influence in Iraq and in the region is growing. Saudi Arabia, along with five other Arab states, announced its intention to pursue nuclear technology. In Lebanon, thousands of people have taken part in massive street demonstrations demanding greater power for Hezbollah in the government. The Hamas regime, though starved of Western aid, remains in power, and Palestinians continue to fire rockets at Israeli towns.
A further effect of the elections in the region has been the invigoration of Islamists in Afghanistan. Legions of undefeated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors in that country have regrouped and renewed their jihad. Flush with money, amassing recruits, and armed with guns, rockets, and explosives, they are fighting to regain power. They have mounted a string of massive suicide bombings and rocket attacks against American and NATO forces; more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during 2005 and 2006 than during the peak of the war.15 With astounding boldness, the Taliban have assassinated clerics and judges deemed friendly to the new government, and fired rockets at schools for using “un-Islamic” books. The Taliban have effectively taken over certain regions of the country.16
Jihadists continue to carry out and plot mass-casualty atrocities against the West. In 2004 they bombed commuter trains during rush hour in Madrid. The next summer, suicide bombers blew themselves up on London’s underground. In August 2006, British police foiled a plot to set off a wave of bombings on trans-Atlantic airliners. British authorities recently disclosed that they were tracking two hundred cells involving more than sixteen hundred individuals who were “actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here and overseas.”17 The question now is not if there will be another catastrophic attack, but only when.
By any objective assessment, the forward strategy is a dismal failure. What went wrong?
Some commentators, particularly so-called “realists” in foreign policy, have condemned the strategy as intrinsically unworkable. In January 2007, Dimitri Simes, publisher of The National Interest, argued: “The debacle that is Iraq reaffirms the lesson that there is no such thing as a good crusade. This was true a thousand years ago when European Christian knights tried to impose their faith and way of life on the Holy Land, . . . and it is equally true today. Divine missions and sensible foreign policy just don’t mix.” Inspiring the Bush administration’s crusade is the (purported) “true calling of spreading liberty throughout the world, even at the barrel of a gun.”18 Bush’s strategy was driven by an ideal—spreading democracy—and that idealism is what made it impractical. This complaint was also voiced early on in the war. About six months before Iraq’s first elections were held, amid continuing insurgent attacks, Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst writing in the New York Times, bluntly summed up this line of thinking: “What we need now is pragmatism, not ideology.”19
The “realist” critique flows from a rejection of “the assumption that state behavior is a fit subject for moral judgment” (as diplomat George Kennan once noted of this outlook).20 The ideology and character of a regime are irrelevant to how we should act toward it; distinguishing between friends and foes is pointless. Practicality (i.e., achieving U.S. security) requires amoral diplomatic deals. That implies that we should talk and make deals with any regime, however monstrous or hostile.
“Realists” urge action divorced from moral principles, but history demonstrates that such a policy is suicidal. Recall that, in compliance with “realism,” Washington backed jihadist forces, despite their perverse ideals, in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan—jihadists who, in keeping with their ideology, later turned their sights on the United States. The same amoralism animated the British in the 1930s. Britain disregarded Hitler’s stated ambition and his vicious ideology (set out in Mein Kampf and broadcast at mass rallies throughout Germany), and agreed to a “land for peace” deal. Given Hitler’s goals, the deal predictably encouraged his belligerence, and so the Nazi war machine proceeded to enslave and exterminate millions of human beings.
The disasters of “Realism” underscore the need for moral ideals in foreign policy, and the “Realist” explanation for the failure of Bush’s strategy is false.
Consider another, increasingly prevalent, explanation for what went wrong—the idea that Bush’s strategy is a good idea that was poorly implemented. Proponents of this view believe that the problem is not Bush’s goal of spreading democracy, which they regard as a noble ideal worth pursuing, but rather the administration’s failure to pursue this goal properly. For example, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute laments that “Instead of securing Iraq’s borders, the Bush administration accepted Syrian and Iranian pledges of non-interference.”21 Max Boot, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a supporter of Bush’s strategy, but acknowledges numerous ways in which the mission was botched, including: “the lack of pre-invasion diplomacy, the lack of post-invasion planning, the lack of ground troops, the lack of intelligence, the lack of coordination and oversight, the lack of armor, the lack of electricity. . . .”22
The concrete means were supposedly inadequate or badly implemented. The strategy could be made to work, if we could shrewdly tinker with troop levels, border security, the training of Iraqi police, and so on, and if we could install a competent secretary of Defense to see to it that the strategy is implemented properly.
But none of these adjustments, nor any others, would have averted the disaster wrought by the forward strategy. The problem does not lie with a shortage of resources or blunders in executing the strategy. The problem lies with the strategy’s basic goal, whose legitimacy critics fail to challenge.
The strategy has failed to make us safer, because making us safer was never its real goal. That goal is mandated by the corrupt moral ideal driving the strategy.
What, then, is the actual goal of the strategy?
A Forward Strategy for . . . What End?
Let us begin by considering what the strategy’s putative goal would have required.
Suppose that on September 12, 2001, Bush’s strategists had asked themselves the following: What steps are necessary to make American lives safe, given the lethal threat of Islamic terrorism?
The rational answer: We must defeat the enemy.
When foreign aggressors are diligently working to slaughter Americans, our government is obligated to use retaliatory force to eliminate the threat permanently. This is what it must do to completely restore the protection of the individual rights of Americans. Defeating the enemy is necessary to bring about a return to normal life—life in which Americans are free to produce and thrive without the perpetual dread of terrorist atrocities.
Making the enemy permanently non-threatening is the objective measure of success in war. Recall, for example, our last indisputably successful war—World War II. By 1945, the air attacks ended, ground combat ended, naval battles ended; the war was over—because the Allied powers defeated Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. The threat was over. People in the West rejoiced and began returning to their normal lives.
The Allied powers achieved victory because they committed themselves to crushing the enemy. They understood that the enemy was Nazism and Japanese imperialism and that the political manifestations of these ideologies had to be stopped. They also understood, in some terms, that merely assassinating Hitler or Japan’s emperor Hirohito would not be enough, because the people of Germany and Japan supported the goals of their regime (after all, Hitler was democratically elected and Hirohito was a venerated ruler). Victory required a punishing military onslaught not only to stop the enemy’s war machine, but also to demoralize its supporters.
The Allies inflicted the pain of war so intensely that the enemy laid down its arms and abandoned its cause—permanently. They flattened German cities, pulverized factories and railroads, devastated the country’s infrastructure. The campaign against Japan likewise sought to break the enemy’s will to fight. On one day of extremely fierce combat, for example, U.S. bombers dropped five-hundred-pound incendiary clusters every fifty feet. “Within thirty minutes,” one historian writes,
a 28-mile-per-hour ground wind sent the flames roaring out of control. Temperatures approached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. . . . [General Curtis LeMay] wished to destroy completely the material and psychological capital of the Japanese people, on the brutal theory that once civilians had tasted what their soldiers had done to others, only then might their murderous armies crack. Advocacy for a savage militarism from the rear, he thought, might dissipate when one’s house was in flames. People would not show up to work to fabricate artillery shells that killed Americans when there was no work to show up to. . . . The planes returned with their undercarriages seared and the smell of human flesh among the crews. Over 80,000 Japanese died outright; 40,918 were injured; 267,171 buildings were destroyed. One million Japanese were homeless.
The fire in Tokyo, the empire’s center, burned for four days; the glow of the inferno could be seen from one hundred and fifty miles away.23
To defeat Japan thoroughly, however, required even more: To cut short the war and save untold thousands of American lives, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs laid waste to vast tracts of land, killed thousands of Japanese—and demonstrated that if Japan continued to threaten America, thousands more Japanese would suffer and die.
That overwhelming and ruthless use of force achieved its intended purpose. It ended the threat to the lives of Americans and returned them to safety—by demonstrating to the Germans and the Japanese that any attempt to implement their vicious ideologies would bring them only destruction. Defeated materially and broken in spirit, these enemies gave up. Since then Nazism and Japanese imperialism have withered as ideological forces.
Today, American self-defense requires the same kind of military action.
We are not in some “new kind of conflict” that must drag on for generations. As in World War II, the enemy we must defeat is an ideological movement: Islamic Totalitarianism. Just as the Nazis sought to dominate Europe and then the world, so the Islamists dream of imposing a global caliphate. To them, Western secularism—and America in particular—constitutes an obstacle to the expansion of Islam’s dominion and must be extirpated by force. The attacks of 9/11 were the culmination, so far, of a long succession of deadly strikes against us. The supposedly “faceless, stateless” terrorists are part of the totalitarian movement. They are motivated to fight and able to kill, because they are inspired and armed by regimes that back the movement and embody its ideal of Islamic domination. Chief among them are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Without Iran’s support, for example, legions of Hamas and Hezbollah jihadists would be untrained, unarmed, unmotivated, impotent.24
Victory today requires destroying regimes that provide logistical and moral support for Islamic Totalitarianism. An overwhelming show of force against Iran—and the promise to repeat it against other hostile regimes—would do much to end support for the Islamist movement, for it would snuff out the movement’s beacon of inspiration. Nearly thirty years after its Islamic revolution, Iran is brazenly chasing nuclear weapons and threatening the world’s most powerful nation. To many Muslims, Iran symbolizes the power of totalitarian Islam to overcome irreligious regimes (such as that of the Shah) and to reshape the geopolitical landscape.
A war against Islamic totalitarians would target not just the leadership of a hostile regime; it must demoralize the movement and its many supporters, so that they, too, abandon their cause as futile. The holy warriors are able to train, buy arms, hide their explosives, plan and carry out their attacks, only because vast numbers of Muslims agree with their goals. These supporters of jihad against the West who cheer when Americans die; who protect, support, and encourage the terrorists lusting to kill us; who are accomplices to mass murder; who urge their children to become “martyrs” in the path of Allah—they must experience a surfeit of the pain that their jihad has visited upon us. We must demonstrate to them that any attempt to perpetuate their cause will bring them personal destruction; they must be made to see that their cause is manifestly unachievable, hopelessly lost.25
This is how the Japanese were forced to renounce their cause. Having been abjectly humiliated, they did not rampage in the streets nor launch an insurgency; by crushing them, we did not create new enemies. An observation by General Douglas MacArthur, the commander in charge of occupied Japan, points to the reason why. At the end of the war, the Japanese
suddenly felt the concentrated shock of total defeat; their whole world crumbled. It was not merely the overthrow of their military might—it was the collapse of a faith, it was the disintegration of everything they had believed in and lived by and fought for. It left a complete vacuum, morally, mentally, and physically.
That collapse, disintegration, and vacuum is what we need to effect among the myriad supporters of Islamic Totalitarianism in the Middle East. (Notice that the vacuum left by Japan’s defeat cleared the way for the country to embrace rational values and build a new, peaceful regime. The Japanese, observes one writer, were “in a mood to question everything to which they had been loyal,” while “everything the Americans did was food for thought.”)26
There are many tactical options in prosecuting such a war, but, whatever the specifics, such a war is necessary to defeat Islamic Totalitarianism and end the threat it presents to American lives.
The forward strategy of freedom, however, called for something completely different. At no point—not even in the wake of 9/11—did Bush declare his willingness to inflict serious damage on our enemies in the Middle East (whom Washington evasively calls “terrorists”). At every opportunity he took pains to assuage the grumbling of the “Arab Street” and the international community by affirming that our quarrel is only with the (allegedly) tiny minority of “radicals,” not with the vast majority of Muslims who (supposedly) reject the jihadists. Instead of aiming to defeat our enemies, the strategy’s fanciful goal was to replace the Taliban and Saddam Hussein with democratic regimes. Explaining his strategy, President Bush stated:
[W]e’re advancing our security at home by advancing the cause of freedom across the world, because, in the long run, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of human freedom. . . . [T]he security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations.27
Pared to its essentials, the strategy’s rationale comes to this. We have just two options: Either we bring elections to them (and somehow become safer)—or they annihilate us.
Imagine that this strategy had guided America in World War II. Suppose that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were told that security would come, not by fighting the enemy until its unconditional surrender, but by deposing Hitler and Hirohito, and then setting up elections for their formerly enslaved people. What do you think would have happened? Would there have been any reason to believe that the Germans would not have elected another Nazi, or the Japanese another imperialist?
Precisely because this approach was not taken, and precisely because the Allied forces waged a vigorously assertive war to destroy the enemy, World War II was won decisively within four years of Pearl Harbor. Yet more than five years after 9/11, against a far weaker enemy, our soldiers still die every day in Iraq. And now the Islamists confidently believe that their ideal is more viable than ever, partly because we have helped them gain political power.
Of course, Bush’s hope was that elections would bring to power pro-democracy, pro-American leaders; that establishing a democracy in Iraq would set off a chain reaction in which the entire Middle East would be transformed politically. Elected new regimes would allegedly have the effect of drying out the metaphorical swamps wherein a “dark vision of hatred and fear” apparently infects Muslims and impels them to slaughter Westerners. The desire for liberty, Bush assured us, was universal (“I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom”28); therefore, if only we could break the chains that oppress the peoples of the Middle East, they would gratefully befriend and emulate the West, rather than loathe and war against it. If we were to topple Saddam Hussein and deliver ballot boxes, Iraqis would be exposed to liberty and (just like any freedom-loving people) seek to realize this innate, though long suppressed, ideal. By implication, an all-out war to defeat the enemy was unnecessary, because U.S.-engineered elections would bring us long-term security.
Was Bush’s hope about who would win, shared by commentators and other politicians, honestly mistaken? Could genuinely pro-Western leaders be elected in the culture of the Middle East? Any objective assessment of the region would dispel that hope.
The region’s culture is and has been dominated by primitive tribalism, by mysticism, by resentment toward any ideas that challenge Islam. Popular reactions to real or imagined slights to the religion express widespread hostility to freedom. In 1989, TheSatanic Verses, a novel by Salman Rushdie that allegedly insults Islam, was met with a brutal response. Few if any Muslims bothered to read the book, judge it firsthand, and reach an independent assessment of it—but they fervidly demanded that Rushdie be executed. Muslim reaction to the publication of Danish cartoons of Mohammed in 2006 again underscored, in blood, the animus to freedom of speech. Muslim rioters, who attacked Western embassies in the Middle East, demanded the beheading of the cartoonists whose drawings were deemed unholy. And observe that censorship is routine not only in highly religious regimes such as Saudi Arabia, but also in ostensibly “moderate” ones such as Egypt, where the public sometimes clamors for it.
This opposition to freedom is not an accidental feature of particular regimes. Its source is a cultural antipathy to the values on which freedom depends. Political freedom in America is the product of the 18th-century Enlightenment, an epoch that venerated the individual and the sovereignty of his rational mind. And freedom can arise only in a culture that recognizes the irreplaceable value of a man’s life and that grasps the life-sustaining value of worldly, scientific learning. But the Arab-Islamic world today rejects the values necessary for freedom to take root (let alone flourish).
The endemic contempt for the individual is apparent in the deep-seated worship of family and clan. The individual is seen as possessing neither sovereignty over his own life nor independent value; he is regarded as merely a subordinate cell in a larger organism, which can and does demand his sacrifice. The group’s members kill to preserve family “honor”; brothers butcher sisters merely suspected of “disgracing” the family name. Yoked to the unchosen bonds of whatever tribe claims him, man must bow to its authority over his life regardless of what he
believes to be true or good. Hence the custom of arranged marriages and the shunning of those who dare find a mate outside the tribe.
Whereas a Muslim who renounces material goods and memorizes the Koran is esteemed for his devotion, an individual who values progress and pursues secular knowledge is resented as disloyal to religious tradition. Accordingly, the modern Islamic world has given rise to only a miniscule number of scientists or innovators, who have produced nothing of significance. Intellectual giants (such as Newton and Einstein), innovators (such as Thomas Edison), and entrepreneurs (such as Bill Gates) are non-existent in the Middle East. Such men cannot develop in a culture that denigrates worldly knowledge, isolates itself from the books of the West, and wallows in self-righteous irrationality. A culture that deems self-assertion—whether in pursuit of scientific enlightenment, untraditional values, or individual happiness—an offense against tradition and the tribe, has no reason to embrace the rights of the individual. Individual rights are precisely the principles defining and protecting man’s freedom to act on his own goals according to his own judgment.
Most Muslims in the Middle East are not the people that Bush would like us to believe they are: They do not have a repressed love of freedom; they are not lovers of prosperity and individual fulfillment; they are not our friends. Vast numbers of them are rabidly anti-American. To believe otherwise is to evade the jubilant Palestinians, Egyptians, and Iraqis celebrating the attacks of 9/11; the street demonstrations across the Islamic world lionizing Osama Bin Laden; the popular glorification of “martyrs” on posters and in videos; the dedicated support for totalitarian organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Lebanese Hezbollah. What so many Muslims harbor is not hopeful aspiration for, but savage hostility toward, rational ideals.
The relevant facts about the region are universally available and incontestable. Given an opportunity to choose their leaders, it is clear whom Muslims in the region would bring to power. Yet the Bush administration wishes to believe that Iraqis crave freedom and prosperity, that they are just like Americans (except for the misfortune of living under a dictator); it wishes to believe in this notion so much that the administration embraces it in flagrant defiance of reality.
Through various elections, however, the voices of the people in the region have been heard. The people have demanded rule by Hamas in the Palestinian territories, rule by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, rule by Hezbollah in Lebanon, rule by SCIRI and Daawa in Iraq. (We are likely to see the pattern continue as well in Jordan, when that country holds elections at Washington’s urging.) Such results have exposed the forward strategy for the sheer fantasy it is and always was.
Bush’s strategy was concocted and advocated dishonestly: It is a product of evasion. The facts are plain, but Bush has refused to accept them. Bush’s plan is not some sophisticated alternative means of achieving victory—a means that somehow sidesteps a self-assertive war; victory was never its purpose. Rather, his plan is a rejection of the very goal of defeating the enemy. If not victory, what is the ultimate goal of the forward strategy?
The Crusade for Democracy
Although Bush’s strategy is called the “forward strategy for freedom,” this designation is a vicious fraud. The strategy has nothing to do with political freedom. An accurate title would have been the “forward strategy for democracy”—for unlimited majority rule—which is what it actually endorsed. There is a profound—and revealing—difference between advocating for freedom and advocating for democracy.
In today’s intellectual chaos, these two terms are regarded as equivalents; in fact, however, they are antithetical. Freedom is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. Political freedom means the absence of physical coercion. Freedom is premised on the idea of individualism: the principle that every man is an independent, sovereign being; that he is not an interchangeable fragment of the tribe; that his life, liberty, and possessions are his by moral right, not by the permission of any group. It is a profound value, because in order to produce food, cultivate land, earn a living, build cars, perform surgery—in order to live—man must think and act on the judgment of his own rational mind. To do that, man must be left alone, left free from the initiation of physical force by the government and by other men.
Since freedom is necessary for man to live, a proper government is one that protects the freedom of individuals. It does that by recognizing and protecting their rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It must seek out and punish those—whether domestic criminals or foreign aggressors—who violate the rights of its citizens. Above all, the government’s own power must be strictly and precisely delimited, so that neither the government nor any mob seeking to wield the state’s power can abrogate the freedom of citizens. This kind of government renders the individual’s freedom untouchable, by putting it off-limits to the mob or would-be power lusters. A man’s life remains his own, and he is left free to pursue it (while reciprocally respecting the freedom of others to do the same). This is the system that the Founding Fathers created in America: It is a republic delimited by the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. It is not a democracy.
The Founders recognized that a democracy—a system that confers unlimited power on the majority—is antithetical to freedom. Democracy rests on the primacy of the group. The system’s supreme principle is that the will—the desire—of the collective is the proper standard regarding political matters; thus, the majority can arrogate to itself the power to exploit and tyrannize others. If your gang is large enough, you can get away with whatever you want. James Madison observed that in a system of unlimited majority rule
there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.29
Democracy is tyranny by the mob.
Accordingly, the constitutional framework of the United States prohibits the majority from voting away the rights of anyone. It is intended to prevent the mob from voting to execute a Socrates, who taught unconventional ideas. It is intended to prevent the majority from democratically electing a dictator such as Hitler or Robert Mugabe, who expropriates and oppresses a minority (e.g., Jews in Germany, white farmers in Zimbabwe) and devastates the lives of all. By delimiting the power that government is permitted to exercise, even if a majority demands that it exercise that power, the U.S. Constitution serves to safeguard the freedom of individuals.
The original American system is the system of political freedom—and it is incompatible with democracy. What Bush’s strategy advocates globally, however, is democracy.
Granted, the political system that Washington wishes to spread in the Middle East differs from the original direct democracy of ancient Athens in form, and it has some of the trappings of American political institutions; but it nevertheless enshrines the will of the majority. In Iraq, it puts the whims of Iraqi mobs first. Iraqis drafting the country’s new constitution were unconcerned with safeguarding the rights of the individual; instead, we bore witness to the ugly spectacle of rival pressure groups, representing ethnic and sectarian factions, wrangling to assert themselves as the voice of the collective will. Recall the protracted and histrionic clashes among those factions while they divvied up ministries in Iraq’s government and selected a prime minister. And Washington’s commitment to this perverse system is unambiguous.
Given the invasion of Iraq, if self-defense were part of the goal of the forward strategy, then one would logically expect that, for the sake of protecting American lives, Washington would at least insist on ensuring that the new regime be non-threatening, so that we do not have to face a resurgent threat. But Bush proclaimed all along that America would never determine the precise character of Iraq’s (or Afghanistan’s) new regime. The Iraqis were left to contrive their own constitution. Whatever the Iraqis chose, whomever they elected—Washington promised to endorse. The decision was entirely theirs. When asked whether the United States would acquiesce to an Iranian-style militant regime in the new Iraq, Bush said yes. Why should America help create a new hostile regime, a worse threat to our security than Saddam Hussein was? Because, Bush explained, “democracy is democracy. . . . If that’s what the people choose, that’s what the people choose.”30
To appreciate just how serious Washington is about putting the will of Iraqi mobs above the rights of Americans, consider how it conducted the war.
From the outset, Washington committed us to a war of liberation. Just as we toppled the Taliban, to liberate the Afghans, so we toppled Saddam Hussein, to liberate the Iraqis. The campaign in Iraq, after all, was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, not Operation American Defense. “Shock and awe”—the supposedly merciless bombing of Baghdad—never materialized. The reason is that Washington’s goal precluded devastating Iraq’s infrastructure and crushing whatever threat the Hussein regime posed to us; its goal was to provide welfare services and hasten the arrival of elections.
Bush had promised that America will “stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq. We will deliver medicine to the sick, and we are now moving into place nearly three million emergency rations to feed the hungry.”31 And, indeed, the fighting had hardly begun when Washington launched the so-called reconstruction. Our military was ordered to commit troops and resources (which were needed to defend our personnel) to the tasks of reopening schools, printing textbooks, renovating hospitals, repairing dams. This was a Peace Corps, not an Army corps, mission. Washington doled out food and medicine and aid to Iraqis, but it tied the hands of our military.
The U.S. military was ordered to tiptoe around Iraq. “We have a very, very deliberate process for targeting,” explained Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for the United States Central Command, at a briefing in 2003. ‘‘It’s unlike any other targeting process in the world. . . . [W]e do everything physically and scientifically possible to be precise in our targeting and also to minimize secondary effects, whether it’s on people or on structures.”32 So our forces refrained from bombing high-priority targets such as power plants, or in some cases even military targets located in historic sites. Troops were coached in all manner of cultural-sensitivity training, lest they offend Muslim sensibilities, and ordered to avoid treading in holy shrines or firing at mosques (where insurgents hide). The welfare of Iraqis was placed above the lives of our soldiers, who were thrust into the line of fire but prevented from using all necessary force to win the war or, tragically, even to defend themselves. (No wonder an insurgency has flourished, emboldened by Washington’s self-crippling policies.) Treating the lives of our military personnel as expendable, Washington wantonly spills their blood for the sake of democracy-building.33
In the run-up to the war, Bush promised that
The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people themselves. . . . [T]hey live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein—but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.34
Their lives did matter greatly to Washington—regardless of the cost to the lives or security of Americans.
The forward strategy dictates that we shower Iraqis with food, medicine, textbooks, billions in aid, a vast reconstruction, so that they can hold elections. We must do this even if it means the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops and a new Iraqi regime that is more hostile than the one it replaced.
This policy, and the calamity it has produced, are too much for (most) Americans to stomach. But such is the zealous commitment of Bush and others to the spread of democracy, that they conceive of Iraq as merely the beginning. Leaving aside whether they now think it is politically feasible, their goal was a far larger campaign.
In his State of the Union address in 2006, Bush proclaimed that America is “committed to an historic long-term goal: To secure the peace of the world, we seek the end of tyranny in our world.”35 To carry out this global crusade for democracy is supposedly to fulfill our nation’s “destiny,” our moral duty as a noble people. On another occasion, Bush asserted that “the advance of freedom is the calling of our time.”36 This mission, he claimed in another speech, was conferred upon us by God: “[H]istory has an author who fills time and eternity with his purpose. . . . We did not ask for this mission, yet there is honor in history’s call.”37
Picture what such an undertaking would entail, in practical terms, given the nightmare that Iraq has become. About 140,000 troops are stuck in the quagmire there today. At the peak of the fighting, as many as 300,000 of our military were involved. According to one estimate, Operation Iraqi Freedom has cost about $318 billion.38 So far in Iraq more than 3,000 Americans have died. About 22,000 have come home missing arms, limping, burned, blinded, deafened, psychologically scarred, brain damaged. Although the casualties of the war may be largely unseen, the carnage is all too real. What the advocates of a wider democracy crusade are calling for is morally obscene: not just one hellish ordeal like Iraq (which is horrendous in itself), but dozens of new campaigns that grind up American troops and flush away our nation’s lifeblood, campaigns that drag on indefinitely as we fulfill the open-ended “calling of our time.”
There is no conceivable reason to believe that a strategy so contemptuous of American lives is at all concerned with our self-defense. When its deceptions and lies are peeled away, what remains is a pernicious strategy that puts nothing above the goal of spreading democracy. Such dedication is mandated by the fundamental premise that serves as the strategy’s justification.
Observe what the dogged advocates of the strategy reject as illegitimate: a self-assertive war to defend America. It is unimaginable to them that America should fight a war against Islamic Totalitarianism with the intensity and righteousness that we did in World War II; that the United States should seek to demoralize the enemy; that we should, as Winston Churchill put it, “create conditions intolerable to the mass of the [enemy] population”;39 that the United States should seek victory, for its own self-defense. All of this is off the table. But sending young American men to die in order to bring Iraqis the vote is deemed virtuous, a noble imperative.
Advocates of the forward strategy are fervently committed to spreading democracy, because they are guided by a moral ideal. The principle shaping their thinking is the idea that pursuing values for your own benefit is evil, but selfless service to others is good. Virtue, on this morality, is self-sacrifice.
This ethical ideal dominates our culture. We are told by secular and religious authorities, left and right, that to be moral is to give up our values selflessly. We are bombarded with a seemingly endless variety of slogans that inculcate this same droning message: Put other people first; renounce your goals for the sake of others; don’t be selfish. As Bush puts it: “Serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself”; “our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.”40
In the religious variant of this moral code, the ideal is personified in Jesus. He suffered the agonies of crucifixion and perished on the cross—for the sake of all mankind. It is the self-abnegation of Jesus that Christian moralists enjoin their followers to emulate, and accordingly, over the centuries, Christian saints have been extolled for their asceticism and self-effacement. Though religion is the main propagator of this moral standard, it has also been propounded in various secularized forms.
The morality of self-sacrifice is today almost universally equated with morality per se. It is the standard of right and wrong that people accept unquestioningly, as if it were a fact of nature. Observe that even non-religious people regard Mother Theresa as a moral hero, because she devoted her life to ministering to the sick and hungry. Conversely, the achievements of a productive businessman like Bill Gates are deemed to have (at best) no moral significance. On this view, whoever pursues profits is plainly looking out for himself; he is being “selfish.” This creed teaches men to damn profit-seeking and, more widely, to suspect any self-assertion toward one’s goals. It teaches that only acting for the sake of others is virtuous.
The injunction to selfless service is addressed to the “haves”—those who have earned a value and have something to give up—because on this moral code they have no right to keep their wealth, to enjoy their freedom, to pursue justice, to protect themselves. Whom must they serve? Whoever has failed or never bothered to achieve a value: the “have-nots.” Their lack of a value, regardless of its cause, is taken as a moral claim on the productive and able. Because America is a “have”—strong, wealthy, prosperous—it has no right to prosecute a war to destroy Islamic Totalitarianism. It must instead renounce the pursuit of justice—which is what the Christian version of this morality counsels the innocent victim to do: “[R]esist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” and “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”41
But the oppressed, impoverished, primitive Iraqis are definitely “have-nots.” They have no food, no electricity, no freedom. It is they, not we, who have a moral claim to our time and money and lives, because they have not earned those values. Deep-pocketed America must therefore jettison the goal of its security and engage in selfless missions to bring succor to these destitute people. This comports perfectly both with Christian precepts and with the dogmas of secular moralists on the left (and the right) who demand that America embark on global “humanitarian” adventures rather than unleash its powerful military and defend itself.
The principle of self-sacrifice implies that the desires of Iraqis, however irrational and destructive, must be accorded moral legitimacy. Instead of prevailing upon them to adopt a new, secular regime that will be non-threatening to America, we must efface that goal and respect the whims of tribal hordes. It is their moral right to pen a constitution enshrining Islam as the supreme law of the land and to elect Islamists to lead their nation. They are the suffering and “needy,” we the prosperous and wealthy; on the ethics of self-sacrifice, the productive must be sacrificed to the unproductive.
But, as we have seen, carrying out the injunctions of this ideal contradicts the needs of U.S. security. It is self-destructive—and that is why it is regarded as noble. As Bush has stated approvingly, we Americans know how to “sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.”42
A sacrifice is the surrender of a value for the sake of a lesser value or a non-value; it entails a net loss. Giving up something trivial for the sake of a big reward at the end, for instance, scrimping and saving today in order to buy a car next year, is not a sacrifice. But giving up your savings to a random stranger is. It is no sacrifice to enlist in the military and risk your life in order to defend your cherished freedom. It is a sacrifice to send American soldiers to Iraq not to defend their own liberty and ours, but to ensure that Iraqis have functioning sewers. The ideal of self-sacrifice constitutes a fundamental rejection of man’s right to exist for his own sake.
The forward strategy is a faithful application of this moral code. America is the innocent victim of Islamist aggression, but on this code such victims have no right to exist or to defend their freedom. To mount a military campaign against the enemy in defense of our lives would be self-interested. Our duty, on this morality, is to renounce our self-interest. Ultimately, the goal of the crusade for democracy is not to destroy the threats arrayed against us; the goal is for America to sacrifice itself.
What, then, are we to make of the Bush administration’s contradictory rhetoric? It claims, seemingly in earnest, to be seeking America’s security. We were told for instance that “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime”;43 and that “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail” in the face of the enemy.44 At the same time, we were deluged with maudlin, though sincere, talk about sacrificing in order to lift the Middle East out of misery, poverty, and suffering. And what are we to make of the claims about the strategy’s chances of making us safer—in defiance of all facts to the contrary?
The rhetoric is not solely or primarily aimed at winning over the American public. The rhetoric serves as rationalization for a profoundly irrational moral ideal.
Our leaders recognize that we face a mortal threat, but they shrink from the kind of action necessary for our self-defense. We can see that in the initial reaction to 9/11. For a brief period after the attacks, the American public and its leaders did feel a genuine and profound outrage—and their (healthy) response was to demand retaliation. The nation was primed to unleash its full military might to annihilate the threat. Symbolizing that righteous indignation was the name chosen for the military campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: Operation Infinite Justice. The prevailing mood conveyed a clear message: America was entitled to defend itself. But this reaction was evanescent.
Even before the reality of the attacks faded, the flush of indignation subsided—as did the willingness to fight for our self-defense. In deference to the feelings of Muslims, Operation Infinite Justice was renamed Operation Enduring Freedom. After drawing a line in the sand separating regimes that are with us from those that are with our enemies, Washington hastened to erase that line by inviting various sponsors of terrorism, including Iran and Syria, to join a coalition against terrorism. The initial confidence that our leaders felt, the sense that they had right on their side, petered out.
They recoiled from that goal of self-defense when they considered it in the light of their deeply held moral premises. Their moral ideal told them that acting to defend America would be “selfish” and thus immoral. They could not endorse or pursue such a course of action. But their ideal further told them that to act selflessly is virtuous: the forward strategy, therefore, is obviously a moral and noble strategy, because its aim is self-sacrificial ministration to the needs of the meek and destitute. This was a policy that the Bush administration could endorse and act on.
The claims about ensuring the well-being of Iraqis reflect the strategy’s fundamental moral impetus. The claims about defending America are necessary for the advocates of the strategy to delude themselves and the American public. They need to make themselves believe that they can pursue a self-sacrificial policy and America’s security—that they can pursue both and need not choose between the two.
In essence, what our leaders want to believe is that their self-destructive policy is actually in our self-interest, that somehow it is a self-sacrifice (hence noble and moral) and yet not a self-sacrifice (hence achieves American security). This is why the administration insists that “Helping the people of Iraq is the morally right thing to do—America does not abandon its friends in the face of adversity. Helping the people of Iraq, however, is also in our own national interest.”45 This delusion involves two intertwined self-deceptions: that the forward strategy will occasion benefits in practice (i.e., security to America); and that a self-assertive war on the model of World War II, though apparently a practical way to make us safe, is ultimately suicidal.
Portraying Iraqis, and others in the Muslim Middle East, as our “friends in the face of adversity” was key to this delusion. They were characterized as latent friends who, when unshackled, would freely express their goodwill and form regimes that would become our allies. Proponents of the strategy had to tell themselves, and the public, that the vast majority of Muslims just want a better life, “moderate” leaders, and peace—not totalitarian rule by Islamists (as in fact so many do). If one pretends that the Iraqis are pining for liberty, it seems that they would welcome our troops with flowers and candy, and that the mission would be a cakewalk. If one evades the truth and insists on the self-deception that we would effectively be lending a hand to allies who share our values, then it seems vaguely plausible that the loss of American lives on this mission is not actually a loss, because major benefits redound back to America: By selflessly liberating Iraqis (and Afghans) we would, incidentally, be attaining the eventual security of our nation.
Bound up with that self-deception was another one. Its purpose is to discredit assertive war (such as we waged in World War II) as counterproductive and therefore impractical. Evading logic and the lessons of history, advocates of the forward strategy wished to believe that a war driven by self-interest (hence ignoble and immoral) would, after all, undermine our self-interest (by making us more, not less, vulnerable). This kind of war, the rhetoric would have us believe, is not an option worth entertaining. The delusion relied, again, on the rosy portrayal of the lovable peoples of the Middle East. The killers are said to be a scattered group lurking in shadows and operating across borders. For targeting the dispersed jihadists, the methods of past wars, such as carpet bombing, are far too coarse and would fail to kill off the scattered enemy. Further, if we were to use such means to flatten the Iraqi city of Fallujah to quell the insurgency, for instance, or to topple Iran’s totalitarian regime, we would thereby ignite the fury of Muslims caught up in the bombing. And that would turn the entire region against us.
Part of the alleged impracticality of a self-assertive war is that it would profoundly and adversely alter the ideological landscape in the region. Bush and other advocates of the forward strategy claim (preposterously) that all human beings are endowed with an “innate” love of liberty, that the multitude of Muslims in the region are “moderates” who passionately long for political freedom, and that if we nourish their longing for freedom, they will cease to hate or threaten us. But, we are told, if America were to deploy overwhelming military force against their hostile regimes and demoralize large numbers of Muslims, we would thereby deliver the masses to the hands of Bin Laden and other Islamic totalitarians. Demoralizing them would somehow overturn their purportedly “innate” desire for freedom and make them long to be enslaved under a sharia regime. By acting on our self-interest, so the rationalization goes, we will create new enemies and undermine our self-interest.
But there is no reason to believe that a devastating war—such as the one we waged against Japan—could fail to achieve its purpose: to destroy the enemy. We need to inflict widespread suffering and death, because the enemy’s supporters and facilitators are many and widespread. We need to demoralize them, because (as noted earlier) people demoralized in this fashion are motivated to doubt the beliefs and leaders that inspired their belligerence, promised them triumph, yet brought them a shattering defeat. Demoralizing Muslims who endorse and perpetuate the jihad would indeed overturn their ideas—their chosen allegiance to the vicious ideology of totalitarian Islam. Seeing that their cause is hopeless, they would be driven to abandon, not to intensify or renew, their fight. Scenarios predicting our doom if we dare assert ourselves are factually groundless and incoherent.
The rhetoric emanating from the Bush administration and its supporters is unavoidably contradictory. Our leaders need to make themselves, and us, believe that the inherently self-destructive forward strategy is the only way to proceed. It is (on their terms) the only moral path, but it must also be made to seem practical, that is, to our advantage.
The forward strategy is like umpteen other policies and doctrines that, in various ways, portray self-sacrifice as beneficial to the victim. The moral injunction to selflessness would hardly have the power that it does, were it not for the (empty) promise of some kind of eventual reward. For example, during certain periods Christianity (and Islam) stressed the everlasting rewards that a believer can hope to attain in Heaven, if he dutifully serves God’s will, effaces his desire for wealth and sexual pleasure, and selflessly ministers to the suffering. Heaven on earth—a workers’ paradise of limitless leisure and fulfillment—was Communism’s promise to the proletariat who renounced personal gain and labored selflessly for the sake of the collective (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”).
The forward strategy belongs in the same category as another contemporary scheme, which commands near-universal support: foreign aid. Both liberal and conservative advocates of foreign aid claim that by (selflessly) doling out billions of dollars in aid, America will somehow find itself better off. When no such gains ever materialize, we are rebuked for having been too stingy—and commanded to give more, much more, to give until it hurts, since doing so is allegedly in our interest. For example, in the wake of the suicide bombings in London two years ago, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that we must give away $50 billion to feed Africans impoverished by their tribal wars and anti-capitalist ideas and to prop up the anti-Western terrorist regime in the Palestinian Territories. Why? Presumably, the suicide bombings were proof that we simply had not given enough, and, as Blair claimed (speaking for Bush and other supporters of aid) more aid would help us triumph over terrorism, someday.46 The forward strategy can be viewed as a perverse continuation of foreign aid: Since money alone was insufficient, we should selflessly bring elections to the world’s oppressed and sink billions in vast reconstruction projects for their sake.
Just as bribes in the form of foreign aid will supposedly make us safer but have not and cannot—so, too, sacrificing U.S. lives to spread democracy in the Middle East, and ultimately across the globe, will supposedly make us safer but has not and cannot. The actual effects are unmistakable.
The forward strategy is an immoral policy, and so its consequences are necessarily self-destructive. You cannot sacrifice your military strength and defend yourself in the face of threats.
The contradiction becomes harder to evade as more Americans die in Iraq and as more Islamist terror plots are uncovered. While the evidence mounts, however, the Bush administration remains undeterred, responding only with further evasions. Despite the unequivocal results of elections in the region that empowered Islamists; despite the overwhelming Muslim celebration of the war initiated by the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah axis against Israel; despite the violent return of the Taliban in Afghanistan; despite the raging civil war in Iraq; despite the wholesale refutation of Bush’s predictions and hopes to date, he claimed in January 2007: “From Afghanistan to Lebanon to the Palestinian Territories, millions of ordinary people are sick of the violence, and want a future of peace and opportunity for their children.” Despite the reality that no Iraqis to speak of have made a choice for freedom, and although an overwhelming number of them remain openly hostile both to America and to freedom, Bush promises to stand with “the Iraqis who have made the choice for freedom.” Iraq’s fledgling democracy has yet to flower, he claimed, because it was being impeded by a lack of security. “So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad.” (Emphasis added.) Bush vowed to deploy a “surge” of some twenty thousand additional U.S. troops in Iraq.47
Although characterized as a change in strategy, this is just a change in means, not ends. Spreading democracy remains the unquestioned, self-delusional end, for which more troops and a push for security are the means. Before the war, Saddam Hussein’s regime was the obstacle that had to be removed so that Iraqis could have democracy. Now, it is the utter chaos of insurgency and civil war that obstructs the realization of an Iraqi democracy. In both cases, American men and women in uniform lay down their own lives for the sake of Iraqis. Amid the inevitable results of a democracy’s mob rule and the predictable sectarian war, the Bush administration looks on with purposefully unseeing eyes and rededicates America to a “surge” of senseless sacrifices. The multiplying evasions enable Bush and other advocates of the strategy to fool themselves, and any remaining Americans who still believe in the strategy.
But no amount of self-delusion can erase the facts.
After five years of war, America now faces a threat that we helped to make stronger. This is precisely the result to which the forward strategy had to lead, given its moral premises and the evasions of its proponents. The strategy entails sacrificing American lives, not merely for the sake of indifferent strangers, but for the sake of our enemy.
We have galvanized the undefeated enemy. The forward strategy has taught jihadists everywhere a profoundly heartening lesson: that America fights so that Muslims can assert their desire for Islamist leadership; that America does not destroy those who threaten the lives of its citizens; that America renounces its self-interest on principle, because we do not believe we have a right to defend ourselves. A “paper tiger” is how Osama Bin Laden characterized America prior to 9/11, and he thereby inspired many Muslims to join the jihad. Nothing that we have done since 9/11 has contradicted the jihadists’ view; the forward strategy and America’s other policies have confirmed it. Note Teheran’s glee at the grotesque spectacle of America’s suicidal policy. To say that Iran in particular feels invulnerable or that jihadists in general are encouraged is to understate matters.
Meanwhile, Bush’s strategy has drained not only the material strength of the United States, but also our will to fight. The nation is in retreat. Sickened and demoralized by the debacle in Iraq, many Americans dismiss the possibility of success. This ethos is typified by the Iraq Study Group, whose purpose was to offer forward-looking remedies for the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the region. In December, the group issued a report specifying seventy-nine recommendations, but these options boil down to a maddeningly limited range: Stick with the failed idealistic strategy (i.e., send more troops to engage in democracy-building); or abandon it (pull out the troops); and, either way, concede the “realist” claim that moral principles are a hindrance to foreign policy (and, of course, appease the hostile regimes in Syria and Iran). Ruled out from consideration is a self-assertive war to defeat the enemy, because tragically many misconstrue the forward strategy as epitomizing, and thus discrediting, that option.
Consequently, the amoralists, seemingly vindicated by the Iraq Study Group, are winning a larger audience. They advise us to check our principles at the door, pull up a seat at the negotiating table, and hash out a deal: “It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies,” James Baker reassures us, referring to the prospect of diplomatic talks with North Korea (Baker is cochairman of the Iraq Study Group). Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, joins the chorus: “We sometimes do better talking to monsters than trying to slay them. . . .”48
But the correct lesson to draw is that we must reject neither idealism nor war, but the particular moral ideal driving the forward strategy. A campaign guided by the ideal of self-sacrifice and renunciation cannot bring us victory. We need a different ideal.
An Unknown Ideal
Our leaders insist that the forward strategy is indispensable to victory. They claim that only this strategy is noble, because it is self-sacrificial, and that only it is practical, because it will somehow protect our lives. We are asked to believe that in slitting our own throats, we will do ourselves no real harm, that this is actually the cure for our affliction. What the strategy’s advocates would like us to believe is that there is no alternative to the ideal of selflessness.
But we are confronted by a choice—and the alternatives are mutually exclusive. The choice is between self-sacrifice—and self-interest. There is no middle ground. There is no way to unite these alternatives. We must choose one or the other. If we are to make our lives safe, we must embrace the ideal of America’s self-interest.
Though largely unknown and misconceived, this moral principle is necessary to the achievement of America’s national security. Let us briefly consider what it stands for and what it would mean in practice.49
If we are to pursue America’s self-interest, we must above all be passionate advocates for rational moral ideals. We need to recognize that embracing the right ideals is indispensable to achieving our long-term, practical goal of national security. Key to upholding our national self-interest is championing the ideal of political freedom—not crusading for democracy.
Freedom, as noted earlier, is a product of certain values and moral premises. Fundamentally, it depends on the moral code of rational egoism. Whereas the morality of self-sacrifice punishes the able and innocent by commanding them to renounce their values, egoism, as defined in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, holds that the highest moral purpose of man’s life is achieving his own happiness. Egoism holds that each individual has an unconditional moral right to his own life, that no man should sacrifice himself, that each must be left free from physical coercion by other men and the government. Politically, this entails a government that recognizes the individual as a sovereign being and upholds his inviolable right to his life and possessions. This is the implicit moral basis of the Founders’ original system of government as the protector of the rights of individuals.
If we take the ideal of freedom seriously, then we must staunchly defend ourselves from foreign aggression. The liberty of Americans cannot endure unless our government takes the military steps necessary to protect our right to live in freedom. As a necessary first step, we should proclaim our commitment to this ideal, and promote it as a universal value for mankind. By demonstrating that we hold our own ideals as objectively right, as standards for all to live up to, we evince confidence in our values. The knowledge that America upholds its own ideals and will defend them to the death is a powerful deterrent in the minds of actual and would-be enemies.
A derivative benefit is that we can encourage the best among men, wherever they may be, to embrace the ideal of political freedom. To free nations, to nations moving toward freedom, and to genuine freedom fighters, we should give our moral endorsement, which is a considerable, if often underappreciated, value. For example, we should endorse the Taiwanese who are resisting the claims of authoritarian China to rule the island state. We should declare that a rights-respecting system of government is morally right and that an authoritarian one is morally wrong.
Although America should be an intellectual advocate for freedom, this precludes devoting material resources to “spread freedom.” It is only proper for our government to provide such resources to help a true ally, and only when doing so is necessary for the protection of the rights of Americans. It is never moral for America to send its troops for the sole purpose of liberating a people and then pile sacrifice upon sacrifice for the sake of nation building. It is never moral to send our troops on selfless missions or to fight wars in which America’s security is not directly at stake. Such wars—and the forward strategy itself—violate the rights of our troops and of all other American citizens by imperiling their freedom and security.
In order to protect the freedom of Americans, we must be able to distinguish friends from foes; we must, in other words, judge other regimes and treat them accordingly. The criterion for evaluating other regimes is the principle that government is properly established to uphold: freedom. A country that does respect the individual rights of its citizens has a valid claim to sovereignty. By befriending such a country, we stand to gain a potential trading partner and ally. Because tyrannies violate, instead of protect, the rights of their citizens, such regimes are illegitimate and have no right to exist whatsoever. Tyrannies are by their nature potential threats to America (and any free nation). History has repeatedly shown that a regime that enslaves its own citizens will not hesitate to plunder and murder beyond its borders. Rather than treating tyrannies as peace partners whom we can tame with the right mix of bribes, we should shun and denounce them loudly—and, when necessary, defend ourselves militarily against their aggression.
Determining which course of action, strategy, or foreign policy actually serves America’s self-interest requires rational deliberation and reference to valid principles. It cannot be achieved by wishful thinking (e.g., by pretending that our self-immolation can lead to our future benefit), nor by whatever our leaders pray will be expedient for the range of the moment (e.g., by “talking with monsters” and appeasing enemies). Instead, the goal of securing the enduring freedom of Americans, which includes security from foreign threats, requires figuring out rationally what constitutes a present threat; what is the most efficient means of permanently eliminating a given threat; which regimes are our allies and which our enemies (among other issues). What is required, in short, is a commitment to the full awareness of the relevant facts. That necessitates following the facts wherever they lead—and not being led by the corrupt delusions that the morality of self-sacrifice entails.
Today, the facts tell us that Islamic Totalitarianism is waging war on America. This movement commands wide support and is nourished principally by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The moral ideal of rational egoism counsels an unequivocal response: Defend the lives of Americans. That goal requires, as argued earlier, an overwhelming military campaign to destroy the enemy, leaving it permanently non-threatening. We need to wage as ruthless, unrelenting, and righteous a war as we waged sixty years ago against Germany and Japan. Only that kind of war can make us safe and enshrine our freedom. It is the only moral response, and therefore the only practical one.50
As to what America should do once it has defeated this enemy, again, the guiding moral principle should be that of our national self-interest.
It might be in our interest to install a free political system in a Middle Eastern country that we have defeated—if we have good reason to believe that we can create a permanently non-threatening regime and do so without sacrificing U.S. wealth or lives. And if we were to choose such a course, the precise character of the new regime would have to be decided by America. For instance, in contrast to Bush’s selfless approach to the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan, in post-war Japan the United States did not give the Japanese people a free hand to draw up whatever constitution they wished, nor to bring to power whomever they liked. We set the terms and guided the creation of the new state, and in part because this is how Japan was reborn, it became an important friend to America. (Observe that the Japanese were receptive to new political ideals only after they were thoroughly defeated in war; Iraqis were never defeated and, on the contrary, were encouraged to believe that their tribalism and devotion to Islam were legitimate foundations for a new government.)
But we have no moral duty to embroil ourselves in selfless nation-building. In a war of retaliation against a present threat, we are morally entitled to crush an enemy regime because we are innocent victims defending our unconditional right to be free. Our government’s obligation is to protect the lives of Americans, not the welfare of people in the Middle East. The responsibility for the suffering or death of people in a defeated regime belongs to those who initiated force against us. If it proves to be in our national self-interest to withdraw immediately after victory, leaving the defeated inhabitants to sift through the rubble and rebuild on their own, then we should do exactly that. In doing so, we must instill in them the definite knowledge that, whatever new regime they adopt, it too will face devastation if it threatens America.
If Islamic totalitarians and their many followers know without a doubt that the consequence of threatening us is their own demise, the world will be a peaceful place for Americans. And that, ultimately, is the end for which our government and its policies are the means: to defend our freedom so that we can live and prosper.
The struggle to defend our freedom depends fundamentally on an ideological battle. The clash is one that our leaders persist in evading and obscuring, but which cannot be escaped. At issue is the moral principle that shapes America’s foreign policy. The conflict comes down to this: Do Americans have a duty to sacrifice themselves for strangers—or do we have a moral right to exist and pursue our individual happiness? This is the battle that we must fight and win in America if we are to triumph over Islamic Totalitarianism.
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Acknowledgment: The authors would like to thank Dr. Onkar Ghate, senior fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, for his invaluable editorial assistance with this project.
1 President Addresses American Legion, Discusses Global War on Terror, February 24, 2006, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/02/20060224.html.
2 The administration has referred to it both as a “forward strategy of freedom” and as a “forward strategy for freedom.” For instance, President Bush, State of the Union address, January 20, 2004; and, President Addresses American Legion, February 24, 2006.
3 President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East, November 6, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/11/20031106-2.html.
4 Reuters, “Most Arab Leaders Survive to See Another Summit,” New York Times, March 27, 2006.
5 “Mideast Climate Change,” New York Times, March 1, 2005.
6 Tyler Marshall, “Changes in Mideast Blunt Bush’s Critics,” Los Angeles Times (published in Boston Globe), March 7, 2005, http://www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2005/03/
7 Ari Z. Weisbard, “Militants at the Crossroads,” The Nation (web edition), April 24, 2003, http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20030512&s=weisbard.
8 Jeffrey Bartholet, “How Al-Sadr May Control U.S. Fate in Iraq,” Newsweek, December 4, 2006; “Pentagon: Militia More Dangerous Than al Qaeda in Iraq,” CNN, December 19, 2006.
9 Michael R. Gordon and Dexter Filkins, “Hezbollah Said to Help Shiite Army in Iraq,” New York Times, November 28, 2006.
10 President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership, June 24, 2002, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020624-3.html.
11 Ramsay Short, “Key Job for ‘Terrorist’ Hizbollah in Lebanon’s New Cabinet,” Daily Telegraph, July 20, 2005.
12 Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 209.
13 Joshua Muravchik, “Jihad or Ballot-Box?” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2005.
14 Michael Slackman, “Egyptians Rue Election Day Gone Awry,” New York Times, December 9, 2005.
15 See the statistics compiled by icasualties.org using data from CENTCOM and the U.S. Department of Defense.
16 Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Threat Is Said to Grow in Afghan South,” New York Times, May 3, 2006; Carlotta Gall, “Attacks in Afghanistan Grow More Frequent and Lethal,” New York Times, September 27, 2006; Carlotta Gall and Abdul Waheed Wafa, “Taliban Truce in District of Afghanistan Sets Off Debate,” New York Times, December 2, 2006.
17 Associated Press, “U.K. Tracking 30 Terror Plots, 1,600 Suspects,” MSNBC.com, November 10, 2006, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15646571/.
18 Dimitri Simes, “No More Middle East Crusades,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2007.
19 Anthony Cordesman, “Al Qaeda’s Small Victories Add Up,” New York Times, June 3, 2004.
20 Lawrence Kaplan, “Springtime for Realism,” The New Republic, June 21, 2004.
21 Michael Rubin, “Right War, Botched Occupation,” USA Today, November 27, 2006.
22 Max Boot, “Defending and Advancing Freedom: A Symposium,” Commentary, vol. 120, no. 4, November 2005, p. 24.
23 Victor Davis Hanson, The Soul of Battle (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 2.
24 On the motivation of totalitarian Islam, see Elan Journo, “Jihad on America,” The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 3, Fall 2006.
25 For a detailed consideration of what’s required to defeat the enemy, see John David Lewis, “‘No Substitute for Victory’: The Defeat of Islamic Totalitarianism,” The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 4, Winter 2006–2007; see also Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein, “‘Just War Theory’ vs. U.S. Self-Defense,” The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 2006.
26 MacArthur and the writer, Theodore Cohen, are quoted in Joshua Muravchik, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny, revised paperback ed. (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1992), pp. 101–102.
27 President Addresses American Legion, February 24, 2006.
28 President Bush, State of the Union address, January 20, 2004.
29 Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, edited by Clinton Rossiter (New York: Mentor, 1999), p. 49.
30 Associated Press, “Bush Doesn’t See Longtime U.S. Presence in Iraq,” FoxNews.com, October 19, 2004.
31 President Discusses the Future of Iraq, February 26, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030226-11.html.
32 Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “American Planners Stick With the Scalpel Instead of the Bludgeon,” New York Times, March 27, 2003.
33 For more on the self-destructive rules of engagement governing U.S. forces, see Brook and Epstein, “Just War Theory.”
34 President Discusses the Future of Iraq, February 26, 2003.
35 State of the Union address, January 31, 2006.
36 President Bush, Address to the Nation on U.S. Policy in Iraq, January 10, 2007.
37 President Bush Speaks to United Nations, November 10, 2001.
38 Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, (CRS Report for Congress [RL33110], Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress), updated September 22, 2006, p. 11.
39 Churchill quoted in Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 261.
40 President Bush, Swearing-In Ceremony, January 20, 2005; Inaugural Address, January 20, 2001.
41 The Holy Bible, King James Version, (New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, 2000), The Gospel according to St. Matthew.
42 President Bush, State of the Union, January 28, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-19.html.
43 President Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.
44 George Bush, Presidential Address to the Nation, October 7, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011007-8.html.
45 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, National Security Council, November 2005; http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/iraq_strategy_nov2005.html.
46 See, for example, “Blair Says Hope Can Fight Terror,” BBC News online, July 8, 2005.
47 President Bush, Address to the Nation on U.S. Policy in Iraq, January 10, 2007. Quotations as recorded in the transcript of the New York Times, January 11, 2007.
48 Nicholas Kristof, “Talking With the Monsters,” New York Times, October 10, 2006. Baker’s comment is quoted in this article.
49 We here offer a non-exhaustive discussion of the subject; for a detailed treatment of it, see Peter Schwartz’s book The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America. See also Brook and Epstein, “Just War Theory.”
50 On the practicality of such a campaign, see Lewis, “No Substitute for Victory.”