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Twelve years after the September 11 attacks, threats of American involvement in Syria’s civil war have refocused attention on the region at the heart of our foreign policy: the Greater Middle East. By “Greater Middle East” I mean not only the Arab-Muslim heartland of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, but the broader region stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south (with the exception, of course, of Israel). Many of the countries in the region are not Arab – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – but all are predominantly Muslim, and all are infected to one extent or another with the ideology of Islamism, built around the view that Muslims constitute a pan-national political entity and not merely a religious confession.

For the past five years, U.S. foreign policy has been made by senior elected officials and political appointees who, in the words of the Boston Globe, “built careers on [an] anti-war posture.” And yet, our policy in the Greater Middle East remains impervious to new strategic initiatives that seek to fundamentally alter the “neoconservative” course set by the Bush Administration. And while that much-used term is often abused or misunderstood, the policy it describes has taken on a life of its own. It’s still the neocons’ world, and everyone else is living in it. And the jury is still out on how it will end.

But this much is already clear: the old status quo is gone and cannot be reconstructed. The biggest loser in the post-September 11 world has been established order of a region previously dominated by Muslim and Arab strongmen who (while they might be seen as religious zealots by Western standards) sought to ground their rule on secular concepts like nationalism, who ran stable, tightly controlled police states and engaged in traditional power politics, and who successfully projected the internal tensions of their repressed societies outwards. The forces of popular change have come to the region, and for good or ill, they will not be denied. The harder question is what replaces the old order.

Digging To The Roots

Writ small, the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy by Al Qaeda – a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, Germany, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Pakistan, and consisting largely of Saudi Wahabbist Muslim fanatics – to attack civilian targets in the United States. Some observers argued from the beginning that we should focus on the conspirators and their organization, and forego broader ambitions.

The Bush Administration never treated the attacks simply as a criminal conspiracy to be isolated and punished, instead preferring to treat Al Qaeda as a symptom of a wider problem, and to seek out a solution that required digging deeper into the region’s pathologies in the effort to root out the entire problem once and for all. That approach recognized the reality that the organization of jihadist extremist groups was fungible; Al Qaeda was simply one manifestation of a larger movement. Al Qaeda’s own recent behavior illustrates this reality: holding a coordinated conference call with other extremist and terrorist groups that one intelligence professional described as akin to the “Legion of Doom”; current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling publicly for more locally organized terror attacks like the Boston Marathon Bombing; radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki giving Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan the ideological encouragement to conduct a lone jihadist attack on an American military base.

The nearly unanimous decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made without real discussion of what our broader goals were, but the war in Iraq nearly a year and a half later forced the question into the open. Even with the publication of memoirs by most of the major players, we have never really had a full, candid accounting of the grand-strategic thinking of President Bush and his team between September 2001 and March 2003. Bush, in his own memoir, summarized his principles in four points:

First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us here at home again. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

That fourth point was the source of the high-flying rhetoric about liberty and democracy and its connection to security in his Second Inaugural Address in 2005:

We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

…So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen…

What was missing from all this was an explanation of how we planned to get to that end – precisely who the enemy was and is, and what our strategic philosophy would be in deciding when to use force, when to declare the mission accomplished, when to coexist with dictators who cooperated against the jihadists, and when to support insurrections that were aligned with them. Both Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, in their memoirs, stressed the importance of stepping back and doing strategic thinking even in the bustle of war, but despite their respect for Bush, both memoirs have a little edge of regret that more such thinking wasn’t done from the top in a public way that would have given clearer direction to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The ultimate historic judgment of the Iraq War must be bound up with the eventual success or failure of the grand strategy it represented.

But just because the strategy wasn’t explicitly stated as such doesn’t mean a course wasn’t set. When the Bush Administration’s actions are considered in light of the thinking of conservative commentators and the justifications offered then and now, it seems clear that the Administration came, rather early, to the conclusion that the problem was the fundamental structure of the Greater Middle East (at a minimum its political structure). Because the solution to such a problem is not merely to launch missiles or drop bombs, but to change the governments of the region – a much more ambitious goal – it inherently required kick-starting the process by choosing a country to make an example. The obvious choice, for a variety of reasons, was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with which we already had continuous hostilities dating back a decade; the U.S. Congress had already, in 1998, declared a change in Iraq’s regime to be official U.S. policy. Regardless of the specific arguments made for the invasion of Iraq at the time, the ultimate historic judgment of the Iraq War must be bound up with the eventual success or failure of the grand strategy it represented, just as the ultimate worth of the sacrifices made in Korea and Vietnam are now subsumed in the larger context of the success of the Cold War.

Oval Office from above

The Nail Beckons The Hammer

President Bush’s “freedom agenda” came to be identified with the neoconservatives, an anti-communist movement dating back to the 1960s, in large part because when the planes hit the towers, the prominent ‘neocon’ thinkers in and out of government were the ones most ready with an off-the-shelf explanation for how you deal with such a problem, and their template resembled what ended up being put in practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. An accurate history of neoconservatism is too broad a subject for this essay, but it was merely one of several strands of thought on the Right that came to similar conclusions about the Cold War by the time of the Reagan era: that the struggle with Soviet Communism was an ideological one, an important component of which was demonstrating to its captive peoples and those on the fence that our system was superior in delivering a good way of life; that they should be encouraged to undermine and ultimately reject their home governments; and that we would not abandon them no matter how long that struggle took. This broad-based view that the Cold War could be won by rooting out the origins of the conflict had won out over the narrower model of containment that focused on dealing with specific provocations as they arose.

The virtue of the neoconservative model was that it had been proven as part of a long-term ideological struggle that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams by the early 1990s; we had won the Cold War without fighting a full-scale war with the Soviets, ushering in a massive global expansion of democracy and trade. Even Putin’s Russia, troublesome as it is, looks more or less like a success story compared to the Brezhnev era – and it looked better in 2002 than it does today. But the parallels were not perfect or entirely encouraging: the Cold War had taken 45 years to win, it had involved a huge, costly military and economic strategy that could not easily be adapted to an adversary that consisted of a loose confederation of non-state-actors and states allied only by convenience, and – perhaps most alarmingly of all – a key ally in the Cold War was the religious faith of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim subjects oppressed by the atheistic Soviet empire, whereas the battle against Islamism would require convincing millions of Muslims to re-evaluate political doctrines that many of them believed were taught by their faith.

Moreover, the history of the neoconservative model in and before the Cold War offers its own cautions. Ideological competition presupposes populations that have sufficient freedom of action to do something about their governments, or (in the case of Japan between 1850 and 1900) a government that itself sees the benefits of change. Churchill dedicated extensive resources to fomenting rebellion against the Nazis during World War II – he famously directed the Special Operations Executive to “set Europe ablaze” – but the resistance movements in places like Poland and Greece were brutally suppressed; as historian John Keegan concluded from a review of the SOE’s operations, most had little impact on the stability of the Nazi occupation. Only external Allied military force was able to crush Hitler. Only the Union Army, rather than slave rebellions, defeated the Confederacy. The French Revolutionaries were rarely able to subvert their monarchical adversaries and had to meet them on a conventional field of battle. Since the dawn of the West, the history of civilizational clashes is long on the use of military force to defend and expand Western Civilization and short on the peaceable conversion of its enemies. Even in the Cold War, the U.S. was compelled to take to the battlefield to protect the populations of South Korea and South Vietnam from conquest.

The Jacksonian impulse: avoid meddling in the world until provoked, then respond with as much brute force as necessary to convince everyone not to get us that angry again.

The neoconservative approach to post-9/11 strategy was not the only one on offer on the Right. On the one hand was the “realist” approach, redolent of containment, that counseled working with the existing regimes in the region to ally against the non-state-actors and bring the bad-actor states in line. The realist school on the Right, preaching power politics, is in this sense often allied with the school on the Left that preaches the maintenance of order by international institutions (an approach that has regained its footing with the passage of time, but which was plainly inadequate to the task of organizing a response in the aftermath of an event like September 11). On the other was the “Jacksonian” approach. Put bluntly, the Jacksonian impulse is to avoid meddling in the world until provoked, and then respond with as much brute force as necessary to convince everyone, innocent or guilty of the attacks, not to get us that angry again. Jacksonians were thus in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in favor of sticking around long-term to clean up the mess.

Bush’s foreign policy team was by no means ideologically monolithic (just as Reagan’s was not); Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all hailed more or less from the realpolitik school of thought that prevailed under George H.W. Bush (although many of Cheney’s old aides, back in government, were identified with neoconservatism), and if you ever described Don Rumsfeld as a “neo” anything, you deserve to have your pundit card revoked. But then, in many ways the decision to seek a more structural, long-term solution was as much a product of Bush’s personality and temperament as any ideology. Bush had come into office believing in decisiveness and the use of political capital for large goals and distasteful of half-measures and short-term “kick the can down the road” solutions, and when possible, he naturally gravitated towards bold strokes. Setting the United States the ambitious task of igniting a regional revolution in the Greater Middle East would put all of these impulses into action.

Condi Rice

Two Blog Perspectives

To understand the logic of the neoconservative project, it is worth looking back at two essays written at the time from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one on a right-leaning blog, the other for a left-leaning magazine.

Probably the most influential blog essay of the War on Terror was the “Strategic Overview” written in July 2003 by Steven Den Beste. It is interesting and telling, looking back, how much of Den Beste’s analysis and that of others on the Right at the time rested more on Arab culture than Islam, although its logic extends to the wider region. Den Beste’s essential argument was that we were dealing with a body of people that was (1) stuck in a constellation of failed states and a failed culture, (2) deeply ashamed by that fact, and (3) lacking either the will to face that fact or a political outlet in which to do something about it, and therefore were (4) encouraged to vent their rage and frustrations at those outside the Muslim and Arab worlds. Den Beste’s prescription was to break down the political order of the Arab/Muslim world and replace it with something more responsive to popular needs, demands and aspirations. An ambitious project, but one in line with the longstanding conservative view that men can change governments more easily than governments can change men. As Den Beste explained:

The large solution is to reform the Arab/Muslim world. This is the path we have chosen.

The true root cause of the war is their failure and their resentment and frustration and shame caused by that failure.

They fail because they are crippled by political, cultural and religious chains which their extremists refuse to give up. The real causes of their failure is well described by Ralph Peters. Most of the Arab nations suffer from all seven of his critical handicaps, and the goal of reform is to correct all seven, as far as possible.

If their governments can be reformed, and their people freed of the chains which bind them and cripple them, they will begin to achieve, and to become proud of their accomplishments. This will reduce and eventually eliminate their resentment.

Their governments would then cease needing scapegoats.

Their extremists would no longer have fertile ground for recruitment.

This is a huge undertaking; it will require decades because it won’t really be complete until there’s a generational turnover. But ultimately it is the only way to really eliminate the danger to us without using the “foot-and-mouth” solution (which is to say, nuclear genocide).

The primary purpose of reform is to liberate individual Arabs. This is a humanist reform, but it isn’t a Christian reform. There will be no attempt to eradicate Islam as a religion. Rather, Islamism as a political movement, and as a body of law, and as a form of government must be eliminated, leaving Islam as a religion largely untouched except to the extent that it will be forced to be tolerant. The conceptual model for this is what we did in Japan after WWII, where only those cultural elements which were dangerous to us were eliminated, leaving behind a nation which was less aggressive, but still Japanese. No attempt was made to make Japan a clone of the US, and no such attempt will be made with the Arabs.

In Den Beste’s view, it was essential that “we had to conquer one of the big antagonistic Arab nations and take control of it” for the following purposes:

To place us in a physical and logistical position to be able to apply substantial pressure on the rest of the major governments of the region.

To force them to stop protecting and supporting terrorist groups

To force them to begin implementing political and social reforms

To convince the governments and other leaders of the region that it was no longer fashionable to blame us for their failure, so that they would stop using us as scapegoats.

To make clear to everyone in the world that reform is coming, whether they like it or not, and that the old policy of stability-for-the-sake-of-stability is dead. To make clear to local leaders that they may only choose between reforming voluntarily or having reform forced on them.

To make a significant long term change in the psychology of the “Arab Street”

To prove to the “Arab Street” that we were willing to fight, and that our reputation for cowardice was undeserved.

To prove that we are extraordinarily dangerous when we do fight, and that it is extremely unwise to provoke us.

To defeat the spirit of the “Arab Street”. To force them to face their own failure, so that they would become willing to consider the idea that reform could lead them to success. No one can solve a problem until they acknowledge that they have a problem, and until now the “Arab Street” has been hiding from theirs, in part aided by government propaganda eager to blame others elsewhere (especially the Jews).

To “nation build”. After making the “Arab Street” truly face its own failure, to show the “Arab Street” a better way by creating a secularized, liberated, cosmopolitan society in a core Arab nation. To create a place where Arabs were free, safe, unafraid, happy and successful. To show that this could be done without dictators or monarchs. (I’ve been referring to this as being the pilot project for “Arab Civilization 2.0”.)

…Neither Afghanistan nor Iran would serve the political goals. The conquered nation had to be one generally thought of as being Arab.

The human and cultural material we needed for reform did not exist in Afghanistan.

The “Arab Street” would not have been impressed by successful reform in Afghanistan or in Persian Iran.

In addition to Iraq’s strategic location and the various casi belli already in existence (also beyond the scope of this essay, but worth revisiting at another time with the distance of a decade), he also noted the important symbolic reasons why Iraq was well-suited to this project:

Saddam had become a hero to the “Arab Street”. He was thought of as a strong Arab leader who was standing up to the West. Though Iraq’s military had been decisively defeated in 1991, Saddam survived politically and this actually enhanced his reputation. He hadn’t won against us, but at least he’d tried, which was better than anyone else seemed to be doing. The “Arab Street” was proud of him for making the attempt. (This involved a lot of revisionism, such as ignoring Saddam’s earlier invasion of Kuwait, or the participation of large Arab military forces in the coalition army which fought against Iraq.)

Iraq’s military had the reputation of being the largest, best armed and most dangerous of any in the region. If it could be decisively crushed it would be psychologically devastating.

Baghdad historically was one of the great capitals of classic Arab civilization. Having it fall to outsiders would be symbolically important.

I would add that Iraq’s religious and ethnic diversity (the very thing that caused Joe Biden to argue for it being partitioned into three separate states) also presented both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge, because of the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia that would break into something resembling a full-blown civil war in 2006, but also an opportunity, because Iraq could not be unified along monosectarian lines; it needed, and continues to need, some tolerance of pluralism within Islam to function as a single state, some mechanism for enabling tolerance and co-existence.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Josh Marshall, writing in April 2003, concluded essentially the same thing about the Bush Administration’s strategy, a strategy he found deeply troubling. He described his nightmare for the aftermath of toppling Saddam:

The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq’s oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence–talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.

To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn’t the nightmare scenario. It’s everything going as anticipated.

Marshall concluded that, in the view of hawks within the Administration,

[I]nvasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East….

[T]he administration is trying to roll the table–to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative–Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria–while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks’ broader agenda.

Eight years later, events have long since taken on a life of their own, and while they have followed neither the precise outline of Den Beste’s positive or Marshall’s negative view, the essential trajectory has been the one projected: disruption of the long-ossified status quo and the ushering in of a revolutionary era that has replaced one longstanding tryanny after another with something different and (in the short run) more responsive to popular movements.

Set The Greater Middle East Ablaze

The Bush Administration was fond of touting the milestones of democracy and freedom (the two things are not the same), and in the early years they came in waves. At the same time, the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm the progress. But as the years have passed, chaos has more often engulfed the enemies of democracy than its friends. Step back and consider the timeline of major events – not every battle or controversy, but the large-scale shifts between democracy, tyranny and extremism:

  • October-November 2001: U.S. invades Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government.
  • December 2001: Conference of Afghan leaders in Bonn appoints Hamid Karzai as interim president.
  • March-April 2003: U.S. invades Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein’s government.
  • July 2003: Iraqi Governing Council established as an interim government. Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay killed in a firefight with U.S. troops.
  • December 2003: Saddam Hussein captured. Also, Libya announces that it is surrendering its nuclear and other WMD program, which would be turned over to international inspectors.
  • December 2003-January 2004: Afghanistan loya jirga assembly adopts a new constitution.
  • March 2004: Iraq adopts an interim constitution.
  • June 2004: U.S. transfers sovereign power to the interim Iraqi government, headed by Ayad Allawi.
  • September 2004: UN Security Council passes a USNC Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal from its occupation of Lebanon. Also, Don Rumsfeld airs the Bush Administration’s mounting concerns over Iran supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
  • October 2004: First Afghan election, won by Hamid Karzai, featuring high voter turnout and the participation of women. Karzai would be re-elected in August 2009, an election surrounded by disputes over various types of irregularities, and at present is scheduled by term limits to leave office following the next elections in April 2014.
  • December 2004: U.S. officials begin to raise public concerns about Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq.
  • January 2005: Iraqis throng to polling places for the first parliamentary elections. Ibrahim al-Jaafari succeeds Allawi as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, elections in the Palestinian Authority (boycotted by Hamas) select Mahmoud Abbas as President and successor to the recently-deceased Yasser Arafat.
  • February 2005: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated by car bombing in Beirut, generally believed to have been orchestrated by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
  • April 2005: Following the popular protests of the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon and diplomatic pressure from the Bush Administration and the French government of Jacques Chirac to enforce UNSC Resolution 1559, Syria withdraws from Lebanon. The Lebanese protests take inspiration from similar movements in Ukraine and Georgia over preceding months.
  • May-June 2005: Free elections held in Lebanon without Syrian interference for the first time in 30 years, won by the party led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri. The younger Hariri would serve as Prime Minister until 2011, when he would be succeeded by Najib Mikati.
  • May 2005: Kuwait grants women the right to vote and run for office.
  • September 2005: First Afghan parliamentary elections.
  • October 2005: Iraq adopts a permanent constitution via popular referendum.
  • December 2005: Second Iraqi parliamentary elections, featuring nearly 80% voter turnout. In May 2006, the new government would make Nouri al-Maliki the Prime Minister, succeeding al-Jaafari.
  • January 2006: Parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, won by Hamas.
  • February 2006: Bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari “Golden Mosque” in Iraq, triggering widespread sectarian violence.
  • April 2006: Taliban launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan. The offensive is unsuccessful, but the first of several such offensives, usually in the spring, that have protracted the war while the Taliban remains ensconced in northern Pakistan and parts of southern Afghanistan.
  • June 2006: A U.S. airstrike kills Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • July-August 2006: Israel goes to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
  • November-December 2006: Saddam Hussein convicted and executed.
  • December 2006-January 2007: U.S. launches the “surge” in Iraq.
  • February 2007: President Bush denounces the Iranian role in arming the insurgency in Iraq.
  • March 2007: Iran seizes 15 British Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf; they are released after brief captivity.
  • April 2007: Coalition forces seize Iranian-made weapons from insurgents in Iraq.
  • September 2007: An Israeli airstrike destroys a nuclear facility in Syria.
  • May 2008: Lebanese factions reach the Doha Agreement, an accord that resolved a lengthy political crisis involving fighting with Hezbollah, and appeared to set the government on a more stable footing for future elections and management and sharing of power.
  • September 2008: Elections held in Pakistan after General Pervez Musharraf resigned in August.
  • October 2008: U.S. Special Forces stage a raid into Syrian territory to kill militants operating across the border into Iraq.
  • June 2009: New elections in Lebanon, won again by Saad Hariri. Also, Iranian protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – supporters of his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, contended that the election had been rigged even above and beyond the usual constraints imposed by the mullahs on Iran’s tightly limited “democracy” – become a mass movement, the “Green Revolution.” But under a government crackdown, the protests die down by the early months of 2010.
  • September 2009: President Obama announces a modest version of the “surge” in Afghanistan, albeit without any plan to pursue military victory over the Taliban.
  • March 2010: Third Iraqi parliamentary election. This time, it would take nine months of wrangling to establish a new government.
  • December 2010-January 2011: The “Arab Spring” begins with a protest movement in Tunisia that leads to the resignation of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
  • January-February 2011: Egyptian mass street protest movement culminates in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and collapse of his government.
  • February 2011: Protests lead to civil war in Libya. The rebels capture the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, but the military consolidates control over the other major coastal cities. Also, protests erupt in Bahrain, leading to a crackdown by the monarchy.
  • March 2011: The U.S. joins a multinational force to enforce a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya, ultimately escalating to a bombing campaign against the regime. Also, a constitutional referendum is held in Egypt.
  • March-April 2011: Civil war breaks out in Syria; it remains ongoing, with the Assad regime facing off against a loose coalition of opposition groups, including a significant presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
  • May 2011: U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan kills Osama bin Laden.
  • August-October 2011: The Qaddafi government collapses with the fall of Tripoli to the rebels in August, and Qaddafi himself is captured and killed in October.
  • October 2011: Elections in Tunisia, won by new Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who would resign in February 2013. The next elections are scheduled for December 2013. Tunisia has been seen as one of the Arab Spring’s relative successes, but remains threatened by car bombings and unrest.
  • November 2011: Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, agrees to step down following 10 months of protests. An election would be held in February 2012, but with only one candidate.
  • December 2011: U.S. troops depart Iraq.
  • January 2012: Military coup in Mali, triggering a crackdown on the growing militant Islamist movement in the country.
  • May 2012: Egyptian elections, won by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first elected Islamist head of state in an Arab country.
  • June 2012: Mubarak convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
  • September 2012: Attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and demonstrations surrounding the U.S. embassy in Cairo the same day.
  • January 2013: France sends troops to Mali to quash the Islamist separatist movement in the Saharan north of the country. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack kills dozens at a natural gas plant in Algeria, near the Libyan border.
  • May 2013: Lebanon’s Parliament, citing the Syrian civil war and ongoing disputes over the settlement of the Doha Agreement, votes to delay the June 2013 elections for 17 months.
  • June-August 2013: Elections in Mali following a June truce. As of September 2013, there has been some recent fighting, raising questions about the truce’s durability.
  • July 2013: Egypt’s military responds to popular mass protests against Morsi by staging a coup and placing Morsi under house arrest. The coup is followed by more protests, by Morsi’s supporters. In August 2013, an Egyptian court would set Mubarak free.
  • August 2013: Chemical weapons are used in Syria, apparently by the Syrian government but possibly also by the rebels. Efforts by President Obama and French President Hollande to organize a military response are ongoing, but appear stymied by the lack of support in Congress, the British Parliament, the UN Security Council and NATO and the active opposition of Russia.

Along the way, especially in 2011, we’ve seen more modest protests and reforms or crackdowns in places like Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Compare all of that to the face of the region in September 2001 – dominated by a few theocratic regimes (Iran and Taliban Afghanistan), a handful of Gulf monarchies, and a long row of strongmen – and you can see how far the project of remaking the face of the region has progressed. By no means is the news all good, but it’s all news compared to the statis that characterized the internal politics of most of the region before 9/11.

The Iraq War dominated U.S. political discussion for the greater part of five and a half years from mid-2002 to late 2007, and Americans have a tendency to focus on how the war affected our politics and foreign opinion of us. But it also gripped the attention of the Greater Middle East, dominating al Jazeera’s regional programming. For would-be democratic reformers, the scenes of voters lining up at the polls and even of squabbling parliamentarians in Iraq and Afghanistan presented an inevitable contrast to their own regimes. And, for that matter, for would-be Islamist revolutionaries, Iraq not only provided a place to prove themselves in battle, but also showed them how to run an insurgency in their own backyards. If U.S. intervention in the region wounded the pride of Arabs and Muslims, it also awakened them to the fact that maybe they could do it themselves – which was the idea of the neocon theory all along, that the process, once started, could develop a momentum of its own without requiring ceaseless American war. We would go to war in Iraq so we wouldn’t have to go to war everywhere else. The Bush Administration’s aggressive pressure also contributed to the dictators’ walkbacks – Qaddafi abandoning his WMD program, Assad leaving Lebanon. Where Saddam had shown a face of defiance, the Arab peoples now saw that even a bloodied, quagmired U.S. could bring the region’s strongmen to heel.

Iraq alone wasn’t the sole cause of the turning; al Jazeera, which had arrived in 1996 and really took off after 9/11, itself had a role in changing the way the region’s people saw their societies. As Rany Jazayerli put it:

Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar – where Al Jazeera is based – to tone down the rhetoric…

For the last 15 years, then, the Arab world has had the access that was denied them for so long. They’ve seen the truth about how oppressive and hypocritical their own governments are, and they’ve seen the truth about how messy and imperfect and yet ultimately how ennobling and empowering Western democracies are…And having already opened the barn door to letting the masses own satellite dishes, the governments of the region were mostly helpless to do anything about it.

Satellite TV would not be the only technological advance to grease the skids; the internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also altering the playing field. But tools of communications can be a two-way street for propaganda and surveillance, as well; what makes them work is when they have something to talk about.


While the tide of Arab and Muslim revolution was surging in the Greater Middle East, it was waning in the West. Directly provoking the “Arab street” raised concerns about retaliation by the extremists, but the opposite has been true since the region really began boiling in 2005. We’ve seen three really large-scale terror attacks – the kind that require coordination and planning – far from the Greater Middle East since 9/11: the October 2002 Bali bombing, the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and the July 2005 bus and train bombings in London. India, still locked in a front-line struggle with Pakistani extremists, has not been so fortunate, being hit by terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani Muslim terror group) and again in July 2011. The same is true of Chechen terror attacks in Moscow in 2002 and 2010. (And, of course, Islamists within Europe have been busy with their own forms of homegrown mischief.) The decline in large-scale terror operations is partly due to good fortune, good law enforcement and domestic surveillance; certainly there have been a number of attempted terror attacks against the U.S. that got pretty far, such as the December 2001 “shoe bomber,” the December 2009 “underwear bomber” and a May 2010 truck bomb in Times Square. And smaller independent attacks, some of them with major death tolls, have continued: the July 2002 LAX shooter, the Fall 2002 Beltway snipers, the November 2009 Fort Hood shooter, the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. But any accounting of major terrorist attacks since the invasion of Iraq shows a distinct shift towards attacks within the region itself.

This, too, was – as Marshall acknowledged at the time – an inherent, if usually unstated, assumption of the neocon grand strategy. People who are busy killing each other won’t have time to kill anyone else. A region that is pulling itself apart will not be able to project force outward. A region engaged in a mad scramble for power internally will dedicate its arms, its money and its excitable underemployed young men to winning that struggle rather than staging complex covert operations in another hemisphere.

Sowing dissension among one’s enemies has a long history; perhaps the most successful example was Imperial Germany’s success in taking Russia out of World War I by shipping Lenin into Russia in the spring of 1917. In this case, it’s a logical extension of the “flypaper theory” of the Iraq War. The idea that the region’s Islamic extremists should be enticed into Iraq to fight U.S. troops was sometimes referred to as a “flypaper” strategy – that they’d be drawn in and trapped where we wanted them, and thus that a bloody insurgency was actually good news. Flypaper may sound like a callous attitude towards the safety of American troops, but the thinking is actually the ancient motivation of men at war: confront and kill the enemy on the battlefield so he cannot disturb your homeland. It is perhaps a more cynical approach to the security of the local population – but then, it’s not unreasonable to want the problems of Iraq and other nations in the region to be played out on their soil rather than ours.

That was never the original war plan, of course; the insurgency may not have been adequately planned for by the Bush team, but it did not result from any provocation by the United States – it was wholly the independent decision of those who rejected a democratic political process in which the Iraqi people would be sovereign. Nevertheless, it was implicit in the broader idea of creating a contest for supremacy in the heart of the region.

And in that regard, even though American troops have left Iraq and are nearing their departure from Afghanistan, the flypaper theory writ large is alive and well. Civil war in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, coup in Egypt, revolution in Tunisia…these are all conflicts that entice the jihadists to test their mettle and influence closer to home rather than travel to the West, and give them enemies other than the U.S., Europe and Israel against whom to vent their frustrations. In that regard, the current landscape may represent the fruits of the neocon project, but it’s also in line with old-fashioned cynical realpolitik (division to my enemies!) as well as embodying the kind of Jacksonian attitude towards one’s enemies that Harry Truman voiced in 1941 when he expressed the view that “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”

All of these attitudes are wholly foreign to President Obama and his national security team, but they have been neither willing nor able to put the genie back in the bottle, as the momentum and internal logic of the whirlwind have swept away one effort after another to re-impose order.

Barack Obama, Samantha Power, Tom Donilon, and Susan Rice

Where We Go From Here

The grand strategy of the neocons has long since passed out of their control, as few still have any influence with the Obama Administration or even in Congress. But the regional revolution they set ablaze is still with us, and they must trust that the path will be clear enough that even those skeptical of the project will make the proper choices.  That is a dicey proposition, because few on either side of the political spectrum understand or accept the grand strategic proposition of turning the region’s angst inward to the battle for its own future.

On the Left, there remains no coherent grand strategy or even petit strategy.

On the Left, there remains no coherent grand strategy or even petit strategy. None of what is laid out above should excuse the Obama Administration from the choices it has made, its inability at times to face the new realities of the region for the challenges and opportunities they present, or its general preference (abroad as at home) for negotiating with elites rather than accepting the messy dynamism of popular sovereignty. In 2009, Obama spoke in Mubarak’s Egypt as if the region had been oppressed by President Bush rather than by its tyrants.  Since then, as he has grudgingly let go of that illusion, he failed when he had the chance to encourage moderate forces to rebel against the old order in Iran and Syria, was flat-footed in Egypt and constantly behind the curve in Libya.  He has seemed, at times, more interested in weapons than people, and completely oblivious to the efforts of Iran and its ally Russia to gain regional hegemony.  He has managed neither a strong hand controlling events nor to wash his hands of responsibility for them.  He has acted less like the world’s policeman than the world’s meter maid, handing out tickets to scofflaws.

On the Right, Jacksonian critics of the neocon project have tended to focus on Islam as an insoluble obstacle to reforming the region, a critique that I’ve written about before as presenting a collision between two longstanding conservative paradigms: the view of human nature as universal and the view of culture as overriding in its importance. But the facts on the ground have mooted that objection, as nobody has a practical solution if the problem is something inherent in the faith of a billion Muslims; we have no choice but to appeal over the heads of culture to the basic human desire for a better life on this earth.  Despairing of a solution is no solution at all.

The way forward must focus on seeking to encourage and influence popular movements to proceed in a democratic, pro-freedom, pro-American direction rather than trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of strongmen – nominally respectful of Westphalian borders and disciplined by international sanctions regimes – back together again. The revolution has come; we should do what we can to see to it that the Islamists are not left alone to ride the wave, as they did in Iran in 1979, Afghanistan in 1996 and Egypt in 2011.  And there is a role again for realpolitik as well; we should see the proxy battles between Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as an opportunity to play balance-of-power politics in the region and prevent one side from gaining the upper hand.

After the fire of September 11, the neocon plan for the Greater Middle East brought not peace, but a sword. America doesn’t need to wield that sword in every conflict – this is a fight that affects us and one we can influence, but in the end it is not our fight to win because it is not our people who must make the final choice. But our ability to affect the course of events begins by recognizing that it’s still the neocons’ world, there is no way out of the fire but forward.

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