Iraq is slipping deeper into the blood-red waters of civil strife. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. Hizballah is crowing in the wake of Israel's inconclusive attacks. Hamas runs the Palestinian Authority. Iran is drawing closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, continue to taunt the West with messages of defiance, as jihadist cells from London to Lahore plot fresh attacks.
Given such grim news five years after 9/11, it is all too easy to conclude that the Bush doctrine is a bust--that, at best, it has been ineffectual and that, at worst, it has actually exacerbated the woes it was meant to address. In truth, it is far too soon to judge the results of the President's grand strategy of transforming the Middle East, which is still in its early stages and which has never been pursued as ardently as his more grandiose rhetoric might suggest.
For all his sweeping talk of "ending tyranny in our world," Bush has been circumspect in implementing his freedom agenda. He got off to a good start with the overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, which liberated more than 50 million people from two of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Since then, unfortunately, much of the momentum for democratic change has been lost, in large part because of the increasing chaos in Iraq. And yet it would be a mistake to become overly dismissive of the long-term prospects for democracy in the Middle East. That would be like writing off democracy in Europe because of the failure of the revolutions of 1848. It's true that the governments that purport to rule in Baghdad, Gaza City and Beirut cannot control the unelected militias that rampage through the streets. But that should be a sign that five years after 9/11, the problem in the Arab world today remains not too much democracy but too little.
What Bush realized after 9/11 is that unless we can change the conditions that give rise to terrorism, new recruits will simply fill the shoes of those we eliminate. And while radicalization can occur in almost any context, it is easier to defuse the consequences in an open society--one where grievances can be addressed through the political process rather than through suicide bombings. Democracy is no cure-all, but the record suggests that liberal, representative regimes are less likely to sponsor terrorism or wage aggressive wars than their more illiberal neighbors.
Jihadist terrorists look for support primarily to Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria--not a democracy among them. For all the carping about Bush's policies, no one has really offered a credible alternative to liberalization as a cure for what ails the region. It hardly seems tenable to go back to the pre-9/11 paradigm of wholeheartedly supporting "friendly" dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family. If our support for the Shah of Iran in the 1970s or Yasser Arafat in the '90s has taught us anything, it should be that secular strongmen cannot keep the lid on forever. Either we push for change now or we risk a fundamentalist explosion later on.