The “War on Terror:” (How) Will It End?

  • 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

Having stated in the last article that the “War on Terror” seems certain to continue for years or even decades, it may appear contradictory, premature and even downright naïve to discuss how it might end.  For those who lived through it, though, the Cold War also seemed endless and even unendable. Yet it did come to an end.  This alone raises the possibility that the “War on Terror” could also come to an end.

How might this occur?  One way to examine this question is to assess the extent to which the factors that contributed to the weakening of Marxism-Leninism as a transnational revolutionary movement are, or may become, strong enough to contribute to the weakening of radical Islamism as such a movement.

The demise of the Soviet-led Marxist-Leninist movement that was brought about by a complex set of factors, three of which could also negatively affect the radical Islamist transnational revolutionary movement:  disillusionment, overexpansion and ideological competition.


Like Marxism-Leninism, radical Islamism appeals to many as an opposition ideology that explains their societies’ problems, identifies who is responsible for them and proposes definitive, violent solutions to overcome them.  But also like Marxism-Leninism, radical Islamism has proven to be highly unappealing as a governing ideology wherever it has come to power.  Revolutionary enthusiasm alone cannot solve a country’s ills, though it can certainly compound and increase them.  Nor are non-democratic revolutionary regimes inclined to accept responsibility for the failure of their misguided policies, but to cast blame instead on the machinations of internal and external enemies.  Whatever idealistic goals they may have had initially, their primary aim once in power is to remain there — and they often prove far more ruthless and adept at doing so than the regimes they ousted.  Further, while insistent on “protecting” their fellow citizens from the “corrupting influences” of Western society, the revolutionary leaders usually do not deny themselves the (often conspicuous) fruits of these influences or of corruption generally.  The result is a cynical, disillusioned citizenry that comes to oppose not only the regime, but also its hollow ideology.  While these disillusioned citizens are generally not strong enough to overthrow the revolutionary ruling class, they can be mobilized quickly to support its overthrow, if and when it suddenly (and usually unexpectedly) becomes vulnerable. This occurred throughout Eastern Europe in 1989.

While radical Islamism does indeed have popular appeal in countries where it helps mobilize opposition to authoritarian regimes, there have already been strong signs of disillusionment in societies where radical Islamists have ruled:  Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban.  As discussed earlier, the Taliban became so unpopular during their brief reign from 1996 to 2001 that both Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns alike joined with a relatively small number of American forces to topple them from power. The Iranian Green Movement that arose in mid-2009 in reaction to the widely disbelieved government announcement that President Ahmadinejad had won re-election on the first ballot did not succeed in achieving its aims. However, an astounding two million people reportedly took part in protest demonstrations, proving that the Islamic Republic of Iran faces serious internal opposition.  In Sudan, the radical Islamist regime has proven very unpopular in the non-Muslim South, where an overwhelming majority voted in favor of secession in the January 2011 referendum.  Indeed, Khartoum’s harsh rule has also fostered a secessionist movement in the largely Muslim Darfur region.  For any future radical Islamist regime to avoid the sort of disillusionment that those in Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran and Sudan have faced would require them to rule in a very different manner than these three have.  But movements such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or anywhere else), or the Taliban itself do not exhibit any signs of having learned how to avoid this problem.


Transnational revolutionaries who succeed in coming to power in one country are, practically by definition, not satisfied with this, but seek to spread the “benefit” of their revolution to other countries.  However, as not only the Marxist-Leninists, but also radical Islamist regimes in Iran and Sudan have learned, exporting revolution cannot be done as cheaply and easily as the ideologues who advocate it anticipate.  Indeed, the attempt to export revolution usually leads to one of two negative results:  failure or, worse yet, success — but only at great cost.

Attempting to export revolution usually elicits fierce resistance from the government whose overthrow is being sought, from others who fear they may be the next targets, from one or more of the great powers (especially the United States), and from perhaps others. If those resisting the export of revolution succeed, not only are the resources devoted to this effort by revolutionary regimes wasted on a fruitless effort, but they also represent a loss of resources that could have been devoted to (often quite urgent) domestic needs.  Further, the United States in particular usually goes to considerable effort to economically isolate revolutionary regimes actively seeking to export revolution.  The result of this is a loss of trade with, and investment from, not only America but also its allies (though their cooperation with the United States on this varies greatly).  Although the revolutionary leadership may be willing to pay these costs (and even recognize them as costs), over time the diversion of their own resources abroad as well as limitations on economic interaction with America and the West contribute to the growth of disillusionment with the regime, discussed earlier.

Successfully exporting revolution may at first appear to benefit the revolutionary regime, but it can prove even more costly than failing to do so. Not only does this incur the diversion of domestic resources needed to accomplish this as well as an even more vigorous effort by the United States and its allies to isolate it economically, but if the new regime it helps establish is weak, the cost of defending it can be far greater than the cost of establishing it in the first place.  And if the new regime is not weak and does not need its help, there is absolutely no guarantee that this new regime will remain loyal to its erstwhile revolutionary mentor.

Of course, any new radical Islamist revolutionary regimes that might arise can avoid the costs of overextension simply by refraining from the attempt to export revolution.  But new revolutionary regimes in particular do not usually exercise such self-restraint, as they do not foresee just how costly to them the attempt to export revolution can be.

Ideological Competition

One of the strengths of authoritarian transnational revolutionary movements that succeed in gaining popularity is that they espouse an ideology many consider to be superior to others for explaining their problems, proposing a solution (revolution), and promising a bright future under a particular ideology’s proponents.  But, as noted earlier, disillusionment often sets in after the proponents of a particular revolution seize power and not only fail to deliver the bright future they had promised, but only supply poverty, oppression and hopelessness instead.  It is when this happens that those who become disillusioned with a particular ideology may become attracted to others.

Disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism contributed to those living under it becoming attracted to Western-style democracy in much of Eastern Europe and to just plain nationalism in Russia and some other countries.  Similarly, disillusionment with radical Islamism contributed to the rise of the Iranian Green Movement, which seeks democratization.  Of course, it is not necessary to live under the rule of a particular ideology to become disillusioned with it and attracted to another.  Attacks by radical jihadists on their fellow Muslims in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and many other countries have caused people there to fear radical Islamists and to seek protection from others against them.  Disillusionment with radical Islamism, though, need not result in acquiescence to the continued rule of (often pro-Western) authoritarian regimes as the lesser of two evils.  While the surprisingly powerful outbursts of public opposition that erupted in early 2011 were primarily targeted at regimes (more or less) allied to the United States, they also appear to be democratically inclined “color revolution” movements with much greater popular support than the authoritarian radical Islamist movements in these countries.  While their ultimate fate is still unclear, these popular movements may not only succeed in ousting pro-Western authoritarian rulers, but also in preventing radical Islamist movements from seizing power.  While worst-case analysts in the West fear that radical Islamists will be able to take advantage of democratic openings in the Arab world to seize power, worst-case analysts among the radical Islamists must fear that these popular democratic movements will forestall their hopes for establishing their own brand of authoritarian rule.

Of course, the way the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies came to an end is not the only path by which the “War on Terror” might end.  America and its allies were also engaged in a fierce, ideologically motivated Cold War with Communist China from 1949 until the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s.  This came to an end through alternate means:  rifts among radicals and embourgeoisement.

Rifts among Radicals

The twelfth article in this series looked at how rivalries between revolutionary actors can grow so intense that one or both parties to them turn to the previously reviled “imperialist” powers for support against the other.  The Sino-Soviet split was the most important instance of this during the Cold War era, but there were others.  Despite their common hatred for America, the West and regimes allied to them in the Muslim world, there have also been numerous rifts between radical Islamist actors during the current “War on Terror” era.  Rifts between radicals do not usually lead to immediate rapprochements between revolutionary actors on the one hand and America and the West on the other.  But as rifts among radicals become prolonged, one or both parties can become more interested in — or even desperate for — rapprochement with the United States.  But even if these circumstances arise, America and the West must be willing to respond positively to them for rapprochement to actually occur.

Rifts among radicals, of course, are far more likely to give rise to rapprochement between America and the West on the one hand and radical Islamist governments — rather than radical Islamist opposition movements seeking power — on the other.  Revolutionary governments have far more to protect, as well as to lose, than revolutionary movements do.  At present, of course, there are far more Islamic revolutionary movements seeking power than there are Islamic revolutionary regimes.  The potential for rifts among radicals to lead to rapprochement with America and the West, then, is limited, but not non-existent.  Ironically, while the rise to power of more Islamic revolutionary regimes would be highly unwelcome to America and the West, it would offer greater potential for the inevitable rifts among them to lead to rapprochements with the United States and its allies.


The authoritarian revolutionary leaders who first seize power are usually overweeningly self-confident in their ability to create a revolutionary paradise in their own country as well as spread their glorious revolution to others.  They also tend to be virulently anti-American and deeply hostile to the global economic system (which they see as Western-dominated and, hence, unfair to them).  Very often, though, these leaders’ successors, their children or even the original leaders themselves lose confidence in their ability — or just lose the desire — to build a revolutionary paradise at home and to spread revolution elsewhere.  They become far more concerned with just staying in power (much like the leaders of the regime they overthrew).  As this more pragmatic desire gains in priority, it often (though not always) occurs to the revolutionary leadership (and especially to their children) that remaining in power — as well as personally prospering from doing so — can be achieved much more readily by cooperating with America and the West than opposing them, and by embracing the opportunities the global economic system provides than counterproductively isolating their country from it.

Examples of this during (or shortly after) the Cold War include China and Vietnam, where revolutionary regimes have remained firmly in power but have ended their efforts to export revolution and have embraced the global economy.  Libya under Qadhafi (and his children) has also embarked on this path, and Cuba under Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raul appears to be attempting to do so too.  Of course, revolutionary regimes might attempt to “have their cake and eat it too” — i.e., to have good diplomatic and trade relations with America and the West while continuing to support the opposition to their allies.  It is remarkable, though, how so many revolutionary regimes have over time come to see good economic and political relations with America and the West as being far more in their interest than spreading revolution or economic isolation.  It is highly doubtful that all but the most dogmatic and ascetic among the revolutionary elite in radical Islamist regimes (both present and future) are immune to the natural human greed and selfishness that have fostered embourgeoisement among their counterparts in other revolutionary regimes.


The factors identified here as contributing to ending the Marxist-Leninist challenge to America and the West — disillusionment, overexpansion, ideological competition, rifts among radicals and embourgeoisement — are obviously not yet strong enough to end the radical Islamist challenge in the near future.  To a greater or lesser degree, though, these factors are either already at work on the transnational Islamic revolutionary movement or are likely to become so if it expands.  The radical Islamists will have to be both more patient, resourceful and foresighted than the Marxist-Leninists were, on the one hand, while remaining more faithful to their revolutionary vision than the Marxist-Leninists were, on the other, if they are to successfully avoid the corrosive impact of these five factors.  So far, the radical Islamists have not done so — nor are they likely to.

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:

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • 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.

Scroll to Top