America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Nine days after the attacks of September 11, the President George W. Bush declared America’s war on terror had begun. Over time, the spread of freedom and democracy came to be seen as key objectives of the war. Freedom and democracy, it was thought, would be the solution to Islamic extremism.[1]

This is Part 1 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. 

Afghanistan

The goal of democratizing Afghanistan came haphazardly. As U.S. policymakers prepared to launch strikes to root out al Qaeda, they did not initially plan to conduct regime change in Afghanistan. Planning efforts left open the possibility that the Taliban might cooperate sufficiently and, therefore, be allowed to remain in power.[2] Soon after the CIA initiated covert operations, however, it became obvious regime change was coming. The first formal expression of regime change appears to have occurred at an October 3 meeting. At that meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he wanted leadership in Kabul available to fill the void left by the removal of the Taliban, leadership that represented all of the Afghan people.[3] The U.S. launched its first airstrikes four days later.

The Taliban had to go, but what a future Afghan government might look like received scant attention early on. Part of the disconnect resulted from the rapid success of military operations. Within the first week of airstrikes, Pakistani and U.N. officials began pressuring the U.S. government to slow the Northern Alliance advance. They wanted an interim government in place before the Northern Alliance took Kabul.[4] Despite those attempts, the Northern Alliance did enter Kabul and establish a quasi-government before a broad-based, internationally recognized interim government could be appointed.

On November 10, President Bush spoke before the U.N. General Assembly, where he articulated his support of U.N.-led efforts to broker a post-Taliban government that would represent all Afghans.[5] A month later, the U.N.-brokered talks concluded in Bonn, Germany. The talks aimed to place the various Afghan groups front and center, with the U.N. and international community taking a supporting role.[6] Afghans would govern themselves, assisted by a light international footprint to help bolster their capacity.[7] The final agreement read, in part, “Acknowledging the right of the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own political future in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism…”

Hamid Karzai took the oath as interim President of Afghanistan on December 22, 2001.

Iraq

Five years before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Congress and President Clinton enacted a law authorizing 97 million dollars for opposition forces who would remove Saddam from power and promote democracy in Iraq.[8] The Bush Administration, though, needed little encouragement. By this point in the War on Terror, buoyed by perceived success in Afghanistan, the President frequently spoke of America’s responsibility to free the oppressed.

In January 2003, the President Bush met with several Iraqi dissidents. They articulated a favorable picture of what a post-Saddam Iraq might look like. Each spoke optimistically regarding democracy’s future in Iraq, noting the technological skills of the citizenry while discounting what they perceived as overblown commentaries regarding the Sunni-Shia split. When the President asked about the possibility of the U.S. being seen as imposing its will, they had no response.[9]

On March 4, Doug Feith, the Under Secretary of Defense, briefed the President and the NSC on U.S. objectives in Iraq. Moving Iraq towards democracy was high on the list. Iraq, they hypothesized, would soon serve as a model for the region. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes began March 20, 2003.

Eight months after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush presented a “new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”[10] The President’s lofty ambitions for the Middle East could be interpreted as politically motivated perhaps, but the consistency of his message and his passion on the subject suggest he truly did perceive a responsibility to liberate the oppressed. Whether feasible or not, whether politically motivated or not, President Bush appeared to believe that bringing freedom to other nations was the right, and necessary, thing to do.

In June 2004, the United States transferred power to an interim Iraqi government and elections were held in January 2005.[11]

After the Elections

After the first elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush intensified his calls for democracy in the Middle East. Promoting democracy became a cornerstone of his War on Terror strategy. [12] Mentions of freedom, liberty, and democracy can be found throughout his speeches during that time. His 2006 National Security Strategy celebrated the “extraordinary progress in the expansion of freedom, democracy, and human dignity” that had occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The January 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, however, may have had a tamping effect on the Bush Administration’s push for broader democratization in the region. The Hamas victory, along with electoral inroads by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, brought a chorus of criticism against the President.[13]

Efforts to democratize Afghanistan started haphazardly, but what began as a relative afterthought in Afghanistan soon became the perceived cure-all for Islamic extremism.

Next week, part 2 will examine the decision to democratize in light of the intelligence and scholarly research available in the run up to both wars. Erik Goepner’s full paper is available here.


[1] Council on Global Terrorism, State of the Struggle: Report on the Battle against Global Terrorism, ed. Lee Hamilton and Justine A. Rosenthal (Washington, D.C: Council on Global Terrorism : Brooking Institution Press [distributor], 2006), 83.
[2] Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 130.
[3] Woodward, Bush at War, 191–2.
[4] Peter Baker, Molly Moore and Kamram Khan, and Washington Post Foreign Service, “Rebels Delay Move Against Kabul; Devising Plan for New Government in Afghanistan Becomes Priority,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2001, sec. A.
[5] George Bush (United Nations General Assembly, New York, November 10, 2001), http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011110-3.html.
[6] Simon Chesterman, “Walking Softly in Afghanistan: The Future of UN State-Building,” Survival 44, no. 3 (September 2002): 39.
[7] Chesterman, “Walking Softly in Afghanistan,” 38.
[8] Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 10.
[9] Woodward, Plan of Attack, 258–60.
[10] Mark N. Katz, Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 23–4.
[11] Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006), 245.
[12] Raphael Perl, Combating Terrorism: The Challenge of Measuring Effectiveness, November 23, 2005, 4.
[13] Steven R. Weisman, “Bush Defends His Goal of Spreading Democracy to the Mideast,” The New York Times, January 27, 2006, sec. Washington, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/ 27/politics/27diplo.html.

 

Image Credit: U.S. Army

Freedom

By Erik Goepner

Promoting democracy, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, has been a cornerstone of America’s war on terror since the early days after 9/11. To many Americans, including our policy makers, democracy is virtually synonymous with liberty and freedom. Not everyone shares this perspective. Some view democracy as incompatible with freedom and liberty.

After perceived initial successes in Afghanistan, President Bush frequently spoke of America’s responsibility to help free other peoples.[1] In 2003, he spoke of a “new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”[2] The President’s State of the Union addresses delivered during his two presidencies reached a crescendo in 2005, when he mentioned “democracy,” “liberty,” “freedom” or some variant thereof 46 times. The following year, the White House’s National Security Strategy celebrated the “extraordinary progress in the expansion of freedom, democracy, and human dignity” that had had occurred over the past four years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Such concepts are interwoven throughout our nation’s history, whether declaring our independence or stating that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We elect our leaders. We have the right to assemble and to protest. We have an active press and we enjoy the right to worship (or not) as we please. Give me liberty or give me death. Live free or die. It is no wonder, then, that for Americans, the words democracy, liberty, and freedom may often substitute one for another.

Other perspectives, however, while endorsing the concepts of liberty and freedom, reject democracy. Sayyid Qutb, an early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, outlined such a perspective in his provocative book, Milestones. Written in 1964, two years before the Egyptian government executed him, Qutb argued that freedom and liberty were antithetical to democracy. He asserted that Americans were ignorant and rebellious, as evidenced by our legislating of rules for collective behavior and our perceived right to “choose a way of life…without regard to what Allah has prescribed.” God, he said, is the Regent, while the faithful followers are to be his vice regents. How, then, he argued, could the vice regent legislate on issues that the Regent had already decreed as good or bad? For Qutb, Western democracy was the enslavement of one man over another. By encouraging the vice regent to elect human leaders who would then fashion laws in opposition to the will of the Regent, democracy would keep the people in darkness. Only the equivalent of a Muslim theocracy, he argued, offered people the opportunity to be truly free and sufficiently liberated to pursue life.

Polls suggest a majority of Muslims prefer democracy, seeing it as complementary to freedom and liberty. Recent democratic victories, however, for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas raise interesting dilemmas. Some argue that, absent pre-existing democratic institutions and culture, democratic elections can be used effectively by illiberal groups to trap their countries into undemocratic futures, while others see a decidedly brighter short-term future for Islamic democracy.

Image Credit: Bluszczokrzew


[1] See Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack.
[2] See Mark Katz’ Leaving without Losing.