Peter Beinart: The Case for Waiting Out Our Foes

Pounding away at the Berlin Wall as East German border guards look on from above on November 11, 1989. Reuters-Corbis

They’re exhilarating, of course. But from an American perspective, the revolutions transforming the Middle East are also deeply sad. They’re sad because they underscore what a terrible waste the last decade of American foreign policy has been. Since September 11, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars have cost thousands of young Americans their lives and maimed many more. And for what? We were told (and I, for one, believed) that in jihadist terrorism we faced a threat of epic military and ideological power. We were told that unless we toppled anti-American regimes and imposed American ideals, the military and ideological balance would tip decisively in our enemies’ favor. “I will not wait on events,” vowed George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. We were told to wage war because time was not on our side.

Turns out, time was on our side. It was on our side militarily, because Saddam Hussein had no nuclear-weapons program and because in almost 10 years Al Qaeda hasn’t managed another attack on the scale of 9/11 anywhere in the world. But it was also on our side ideologically, because although our foes appeared ideologically strong, they were actually ideologically weak. From Egypt to Libya to Bahrain to Iran, the lesson of the last month is that any regime that offers its people neither free speech nor a decent job is ideologically weak, whether it wraps itself in the mantle of leftism, secularism, or Islam. Had America’s leaders understood that after 9/11, they might have realized that waiting on events, rather than trying to remake the Middle East at gunpoint, wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

We are relearning the lesson that the architects of containment understood more than a half century ago. Then, key conservative intellectuals argued—George W. Bush style—that because the Soviet Union would grow inexorably stronger, the U.S. must launch preventive war while there was still a chance. Conservative writers like James Burnham and Republican leaders like John Foster Dulles and Barry Goldwater demanded an “offensive” strategy aimed at rolling back Soviet communism while there was still time, even if that meant initiating combat. The United States, insisted Dulles in 1952, must abandon “treadmill policies which, at best, might keep us in the same place until we drop exhausted.”

By treadmill policies, Dulles meant containment: the Truman administration’s policy of building up America’s noncommunist allies, both economically and militarily, so they could withstand Soviet subversion. The strategy’s architects believed the U.S. did not need to vanquish Soviet communism militarily because beneath the bravado, our enemy was weak. Eventually, in a showdown against a freer and more prosperous West, communism would vanquish itself.

Truman and his successors made terrible mistakes in the Cold War, but America’s ultimate success stemmed from this basic insight: that as an economically vibrant democracy facing an economically destitute tyranny, the U.S. could afford to wait. And because America did wait, the Cold War ended without catastrophe.

Now we may be witnessing the end of the “war on terror” as well. The rise of democratically elected Arab regimes that are less beholden to the United States represents Osama bin Laden’s and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s worst nightmare. The only source of their appeal was their opposition to American foreign policy at a time when other Middle Eastern leaders looked like corrupt flunkies for the U.S. and Israel.

America will still face huge challenges in the Middle East, mostly because Arabs and Muslims no longer stand in awe of our power. But they won’t be the challenges of discredited, destitute tyrants. They’ll be the challenge of politically accountable, economically modernizing regimes that throw in their lot with China, India, Russia, or Brazil, and question America’s right to patrol the Middle East and cheaply consume the oil under its soil.

Now, as in the Cold War, the health of our system will prove decisive. We were strong vis-à-vis our enemies on 9/11—strong enough to wait them out as long as we confronted challenges at home. But we didn’t, and will now likely face more formidable competitors from a weakened state. It’s a glorious time, and a time for regrets.