Assessing the Bush Strategy for Winning the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Absent the 9/11 attacks and the George W. Bush administration’s reaction to them, the War on Terror may not have come into existence in the way that it has. There certainly would have been Islamic radicalism as well as clashes between it and Western governments. Indeed, Osama bin Laden is reportedly responsible for a number of attacks on U.S. government personnel and others during the Clinton administration, including the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000. The Clinton administration, though, did not react by organizing a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Yemen or anywhere else.

The 9/11 attacks, of course, were far more dramatic and shocking than anything else Bin Laden and al-Qaeda had done before — or since. Nobody who lived through them will forget this traumatic experience, the sense it gave rise to that America itself was vulnerable, and the fear that more such attacks on American soil would follow. It was in this fraught atmosphere that President Bush issued his ultimatum to the Taliban to turn Bin Laden over to the United States in order to avoid a U.S. invasion, followed through by launching an invasion a few weeks later after the Taliban refused to comply, and successfully drove the Taliban regime from power by the end of 2001.

With the war in Afghanistan seemingly won, the Bush administration turned its attention toward Saddam Hussein and Iraq later that year. In addition to the necessity of halting Hussein’s purported weapons-of-mass-destruction program, Bush administration officials claimed that there was a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime, then, was seen as a vital element in defeating Bin Laden and winning the War on Terror. It later came to light, of course, that neither fear was justified.

If someone else had been president of the United States instead of George W. Bush at the time of the 9/11 attacks (such as Al Gore, the winner of the popular but not the electoral college vote in 2000), would he also have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? Was it a good idea for the United States to have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq at all, instead of pursuing other policies in response both to 9/11 and to whatever challenge Saddam Hussein posed? These are questions that can be — indeed, have been — debated at length. But they are essentially irrelevant. For George W. Bush was president when 9/11 occurred. And it was his administration that conceptualized the War on Terror and designed a strategy for prosecuting it that included the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

The more relevant question about Bush’s War on Terror policies is this: To what extent have they been successful? Bush’s War on Terror, of course, did not just have one goal, but several. One of the goals that Bush announced was that he wanted to prevent another attack on the American homeland such as occurred on 9/11. At this, he succeeded: there was no similar attack on U.S. soil either during the remainder of his presidency or afterward. This does not mean, of course, that it couldn’t happen again. And al-Qaeda (or its sympathizers) have launched deadly attacks in many countries allied to the United States, including Britain, Spain, Indonesia and others. Still, the fear that arose at the time of 9/11 that it might be just the beginning of a series of attacks inside the United States was not borne out.

Another goal that Bush announced was that U.S. forces would capture or kill Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. At this, he obviously failed. Bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda leaders remain at large. More importantly, al-Qaeda’s many affiliates — if not al-Qaeda itself have, if anything, increased their activity in many countries in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The periodic statements made by Bin Laden and Zawahiri that have been broadcast by Al Jazeera and other media are constant reminders that the United States has failed to capture or kill them.

The two signature policies of Bush’s War on Terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have had mixed results. On the one hand, both invasions succeeded in driving out of power the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein regimes, both of which were highly authoritarian, repressive and hostile toward the United States. On the other hand, the United States has not succeeded in establishing peace and security in either country even after many years of fighting. America now confronts a dilemma in both countries: continue a war effort that has become increasingly unpopular with the American public, without any guarantee — or even much hope — that the situation will improve, or withdraw American forces and risk incurring what many have warned will be negative consequences. This is clearly not the situation that the Bush administration anticipated when it first launched its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

There was yet another highly ambitious U.S. goal which President Bush announced: the democratization of the greater Middle East. In his speech of November 6, 2003, marking the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush stated:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.

Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.

Bush, then, not only sought the democratization of the two countries that the United States had invaded, but of the greater Middle East generally. In this speech, Bush also pointed to progress toward democratization in Morocco, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia. In addition, he called upon Palestinian, Iranian and Egyptian leaders to move forward along this path.

From today’s perspective, it is clear that President Bush did not achieve his ambitious goal of democratizing the greater Middle East. The United States has fostered democracy in Iraq, but it is extremely fragile and has not succeeded in overcoming bitter ethnic and sectarian divisions. There is strong reason to doubt whether Iraqi democracy will survive the withdrawal, or even the reduction, of American armed forces. Afghanistan appears to be a democracy in name only, despite the continued presence of American and NATO forces. Bush’s hopes for progress toward democratization in all the other Middle Eastern countries he mentioned were not fulfilled. Pakistan may have become more democratic, but it certainly does not appear to have become more peaceful or willing to cooperate with the United States vis-à-vis the Taliban.

What was remarkable about Bush’s NED speech, though, was that it was a repudiation of previous American foreign policy toward the Middle East. He essentially blamed American support for dictatorial regimes as causing the “stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export” that allowed al-Qaeda and similar groups to thrive. American support for democratization in the greater Middle East, by contrast, would lead to peace and prosperity there, as it had elsewhere. If given the opportunity to pursue their political and economic ambitions through democratic means, Bush seemed to expect, they would not support authoritarian opposition movements such as al-Qaeda.

This was very different from the logic of American foreign policy toward the Third World from the end of World War II until 1973. Far from seeing democracy there as a bulwark against communism and dictatorship as giving rise to it, the United States on several occasions actually worked to undermine democratic governments or leaders, due to fears that they were sympathetic to Marxism, and instead promoted right-wing authoritarian ones, which Washington saw as more reliable. American efforts contributing to the downfall of Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadeq in Iran, and Allende in Chile are three examples where this policy worked in the short-term, but caused long-term damage to America’s image in, and relations with, these countries as well as others.

The United States, though, did support transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in what the late Samuel Huntington termed the “third wave” of democratization that began in the mid-1970s in southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece), continued in the 1980s (the Philippines, South Korea, Chile), crested with the dramatic collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and continued afterward (including Indonesia in 1998 and Serbia in 2000). President Bush delivered his NED speech right when Georgia was beginning its “Rose Revolution.” Prior to the U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush noted, the United States had been supporting democratic transitions in many parts of the world, but not in the greater Middle East.

While Bush’s desire to see democracy spread throughout the Middle East was criticized by many as ill-advised and impractical, it was noteworthy not only that Bush thought the United States should do this, but that it could do so successfully. He rejected the notion that there were unique religious and cultural barriers to democratization in the Middle East.

So why, then, didn’t his efforts succeed? Some might argue that, despite denials by Bush (and many others) about there not being unique religious and cultural barriers to democratization in the Middle East, there actually are. Islam and democracy, the argument runs, are simply incompatible. This argument, though, is belied by the fact that democracy is being successfully practiced in some predominantly Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Turkey. Varying degrees of progress toward democracy have also been made in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan. Despite repression against it, a strong democratic movement exists in Iran. Finally, many Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim countries — including the United States, the U.K., India and many more — have become active and successful participants in their democratic processes. Thus, other, more satisfactory explanations for the Middle East’s lack of progress toward democratization need to be explored.

Two come readily to mind. First and foremost, the Middle East’s many authoritarian regimes do not want to embark upon democratization since this would probably — indeed, most certainly in many cases — lead to their fall from power. Both pro-American and anti-American authoritarian regimes are agreed on this point. Second, after the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006 were won by Hamas, and Hamas did not change its hard-line position on Israel, the Bush administration de-emphasized its democratization efforts in much of the region. Free elections, it seemed to realize, would not necessarily result in the victory of pro-American parties either in the Occupied Territories or elsewhere in the Arab world at present. Despite its policy differences with the Bush administration, the Obama administration appears to have adopted a similar attitude and has also de-emphasized the goal of democratization in the greater Middle East.

How, though, can the disappointing progress toward democracy in both Iraq and Afghanistan be explained? Unlike other countries in the greater Middle East, the United States — along with several of its allies — has occupied these two countries for several years at enormous cost. While the United States had little real opportunity and did not try particularly hard to promote democracy elsewhere in the region, it has had plenty of opportunity and has tried very hard to do so in these two countries. Why the United States has met with only fragile — and possibly ephemeral — success fostering democracy in Iraq, while it has largely failed to do so in Afghanistan, requires a closer look at the situation in each of these two countries.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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