Andrew Bacevich is author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
The events of the past seven years have yielded a definitive judgment on the strategy that the Bush Administration conceived in the wake of 9/11 to wage its so-called “Global War on Terror.” That strategy has failed, massively and irrevocably. To acknowledge that failure is to confront an urgent national priority: to scrap the Bush approach in favor of a new national security strategy that is realistic and sustainable–a task that, alas, neither of the presidential candidates seems able to recognize or willing to take up.
On September 30, 2001, President Bush received from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a memorandum outlining US objectives in the “war on terror.” Drafted by Rumsfeld’s chief strategist Douglas Feith, the memo declared expansively: “If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim.” That aim, as Feith explained in a subsequent missive to his boss, was to “transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally.”
Rumsfeld and Feith were co-religionists: along with other senior Bush Administration officials, they worshipped in the Church of the Indispensable Nation, a small but intensely devout Washington-based sect formed in the immediate wake of the cold war. Members of this church shared an exalted appreciation for the efficacy of American power, especially hard power. The strategy of transformation emerged as a direct expression of their faith.
The members of this church were also united by an equally exalted estimation of their own abilities. Lucky the nation to be blessed with such savvy and sophisticated public servants in its hour of need!
The goal of transforming the Islamic world was nothing if not bold. It implied far-reaching political, economic, social and even cultural adjustments. At a press conference on September 18, 2001, Rumsfeld spoke bluntly of the need to “change the way that they live.” Rumsfeld didn’t specify who “they” were. He didn’t have to. His listeners understood without being told: “they” were Muslims inhabiting a vast arc of territory that stretched from Morocco in the west all the way to the Moro territories of the Southern Philippines in the east.
Yet boldly conceived action, if successfully executed, offered the prospect of solving a host of problems. Once pacified (or “liberated”), the Middle East would cease to breed or harbor anti-American terrorists. Post-9/11 fears about weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of evildoers could abate. Local regimes, notorious for being venal, oppressive and inept, might finally get serious about cleaning up their acts. Liberal values, including rights for women, would flourish. A part of the world perpetually dogged by violence would enjoy a measure of stability, with stability promising not-so-incidentally to facilitate exploitation of the region’s oil reserves. There was even the possibility of enhancing the security of Israel. Like a powerful antibiotic, the Bush Administration’s strategy of transformation promised to clean out not simply a single infection but several; or to switch metaphors, a strategy of transformation meant running the table.