President George W. Bush recently presented an enlarged rationale for the war on terror, defining the enemy not as a tactic – terrorism – but rather as a discreet category of individuals and organisations united in pursuit of a “radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia”.
The US president noted that these jihadists often associate themselves with separatist movements and nationalist insurgencies in places such as Somalia, Pakistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines and Algeria. Their object, he said, was to seize control of one or more of these states, as Osama bin Laden was able to do with Afghanistan in the late 1990s, in order to build a base to promote the overthrow of other non-radical Muslim governments.
The president argued that the war on radical jihadism resembles the west's half-century long struggle against communism. Like the jihadists, the communists sought to identify with local grievances and nationalist insurgencies in order to expand their influence and curb that of the western democracies.
As a rationale for the war on terror, this explanation represents a substantial improvement over earlier administration arguments, which tended either to focus too exclusively on al-Qaeda or, at other times, to suggest that the US was committed to fight against all terrorism everywhere. This new rationale draws a carefully considered median point, recognising that al-Qaeda has changed into a network of largely independent groups operating toward a common objective. Working with others to defeat these groups is now the US's primary objective.
As a rationale for the war in Iraq, this new explanation works only up to a point. The US did not invade Iraq, as the president almost seemed to suggest, in order to save that country from takeover by radical jihadists. Nor is it likely that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, and Mr bin Laden would seize “control of Iraq, its people and its resources” if the US left, as Mr Bush warned.
On the other hand a precipitate American withdrawal from Iraq would risk intensified civil war, large-scale ethnic cleansing and the intervention of neighbouring states, which in turn could create the risk of a wider war. From such chaos the radical jihadists would indeed have much to gain, just as the communists did from the chaos of the first and second world wars.
The analogy between communism and Islamic jihadism leads one to the Vietnam comparison. The reasons for staying in Iraq are similar to those put forward 30 years ago by presidents Johnson and Nixon. The loss of Iraq to the jihadists, Mr Bush stated, would allow Mr Zarqawi, Mr bin Laden and their ilk better to target other states of the region for takeover. This is the domino theory in modern dress.
Of course, in the end, most of the south-east Asian dominos did not fall. That does not mean, however, that the consequences of American withdrawal from Vietnam were not grave. The US suffered a blow to its prestige and self-confidence from which it took at least half a decade to recover. America abandoned 20m South Vietnamese to decades of fairly brutal repression.
The US did not, in any case, win the cold war by waging a global crusade against communism. On the contrary, successive administrations identified the Soviet Union, not communism, as their main adversary. Washington co-operated with any government, however repressive and communist, that was prepared to resist Soviet influence.
This policy took distinct form under Richard Nixon and was carried forward under all his successors until the Soviet Union disintegrated. Romania, the most corrupt and brutal dictatorship in eastern Europe, became a US favourite because Nicolae Ceausescu, the president, was prepared to buck the Moscow line. China under Mao Zedong was courted by Washington as a counterweight to Moscow. The newly redefined war on terror calls for a comparable exercise in realpolitik. Iraq will never be stabilised without the co-operation of its neighbours, including unsavoury ones such as Syria and Iran.
To stabilise Bosnia, the Clinton administration had to deal with Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the two men personally responsible for the genocide Washington was trying to stop. To put together a successor regime to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration had to deal with the regional states that had been tearing that country apart for 20 years, including Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran. The time has come for a similarly inclusive effort on Iraq.
Iran – a predominantly Shia Muslim nation – may have its own imperial ambitions but these do not encompass a Sunni Muslim empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia. Iran collaborated with the US in overthrowing the Taliban. Iran is, after the US, the most important foreign sponsor of the current government in Baghdad. Tehran is, indeed, as strongly opposed to an Iraq controlled by Mr Zarqawi and Mr bin Laden as is Washington.
Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, speaking in justification of his alliance with the Soviet Union, said: “If Hitler had invaded hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil.” Now the Islamic jihadists have invaded Iraq, perhaps it is time for a favourable reference to our main enemy's bitterest rival.
The writer directs the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation. He was the George W. Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on November 1, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.