For about 45 years, from Nasser's seizure of power in Egypt in the early 1950s until 9/11, the United States essentially lived with the Middle East and the broader Muslim world as they were. During that period openly hostile regimes ruled Egypt (until about 1974), Syria (almost without exception), Iraq (after 1957), parts of Yemen, and, after 1979, Iran. Egypt became an American client in the late 1970s after making peace with Israel, and promptly lost its leadership position in the Arab world. Iran had been by far our strongest Muslim ally in the region from 1953 until 1979 but then, not coincidentally, became our bitterest enemy. An anti-American regime took power in Afghanistan in 1996 after we assisted the Afghans in expelling the Soviets. When our two biggest enemies clashed in the 1980s, we helped both of them at different times and in different ways. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the first Bush Administration contented itself with restoring the status quo ante. The Palestinian Authority seemed on its way to becoming an American client at the height of the peace process in the 1990s, but the failure of that process in 2000 helped set things on another path. Meanwhile, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan and collapsed, and Central Asia saw the founding of a number of newly independent Muslim "stans."
Many of the leading intellectual lights of the Bush Administration had favored a more active policy during the 1990s, and they evidently began discussing one as soon as they came into office. 9/11 gave them their chance. George W. Bush's mantra--that those who sheltered or aided terrorists would "share their fate"--was in effect a declaration of unlimited war on all our enemies in the region, since Iraq and Iran (as well as Saudi Arabia) had all helped terrorist groups. The imposition of new American client governments began in Afghanistan and spread to Iraq. Bush also proclaimed that no unfriendly nation would be allowed to secure nuclear weapons. Now Bush has been out of office for more than eighteen months--and all those policies remain orthodoxy. We are launched, indeed, on the most ambitious imperial project since that of the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Thus, in Afghanistan--one of the remotest, poorest countries on earth--more than 50,000 American troops are trying to prop up an inept, corrupt client government against a well-organized insurgency that enjoys the support of much of the neighboring Pakistani government. Numerous stories last week suggest that we shall remain in Iraq, in one way or another, for decades to come, and that we are committed to building a new Iraqi Army with American weapons so that Iraq can defend itself conventionally against its neighbors. (The market for arms races in the Middle East, apparently, never dies.) We are doing whatever we can to strengthen the Palestinian authority on the West Bank, even though we can't stop Israel from building more settlements. Nor is this all. The New York Times magazine recently published an article suggesting that Yemen, one of Al Queda's new homes, would be the next Afghanistan. And the US military is deeply involved in many African governments, looking for new sources of radical extremism and trying to find ways to head them off. Lastly, the new Administration, like the old, continues to argue that we have a right and a duty to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And as a result, President Obama's popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.
Our new enterprise as other dimensions explored in this Sunday's New York Times. After we occupied Iraq I commented to a colleague that the US had now acquired its own much larger West Bank--a more or less ungovernable territory that we would have to police violently for as long as we remained there. The Times story shows that this new West Bank now includes Yemen, Somalia, and unspecified North African territory as well. Copying the Israelis, we are identifying hostile militants in those countries and trying to kill them with precision strikes from drones or cruise missiles. One could argue at length whether this is war or rather a new form of international law enforcement based on summary executions without trial and, inevitably, with considerable collateral damage and killing of innocents. I do not believe that a stable world can be built with such tactics, and indeed, the story concludes with a reference to a new book about them by Micali Zenko that analyzes their use and concludes that "such operations seldom achieve either their military or political objectives."
During and after the Cold War, Presidents did from time to time successfully change their rhetorical thrust and their policy. President Kennedy announced in effect at American University in June 1963 that we did not seek the downfall of the Soviet Union, but rather merely to live in peace. His great rival Richard Nixon did something similar, albeit with less grace, during his first term, and reaped great short-term political benefits. So did Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in response to Mikhail Gorbachev. In his Cairo speech President Obama seemed to want to reverse course, but he had already selected an entirely conventional foreign policy team. Secretary Clinton's policies have not differed in any fundamental way from Secretary Rice's. This weekend the President endorsed the construction of the Muslim cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a courageous gesture towards Muslims here in America. He has not made any new similar gestures towards Muslims abroad. [Note: on Saturday the President backed away somewhat from his original statement, declining to pass judgment on the "wisdom" of constructing the center while re-affirming the rights of all religions.]
When the British extended their control over greater India, Egypt, much of East Africa, and much of the Middle East in the years 1857-1925, western civilization was more self-confident and relatively more advanced, and the populations of those territories were much, much smaller. The British relied mostly on native troops, something which we have not been able to do. Only in India and some parts of Africa was their influence very lasting. In sharp contrast to either 1940-1 or the early stages of the Cold War, we have assumed this enormous new role without any real national debate. The rest of the western world has abandoned formal imperialism on this scale. I am looking forward to reading my friend Andy Bacevich's new book on Washington's permanent war mentality. Meanwhile, I wonder what effect a successful terrorist attack in the US will have on all this, and whether I will live to see a Middle East free of substantial American forces. I will not be surprised if the answer is no.