Much has been said over the past few years about the novelty of the security challenges now facing the United States. In what is still the most popular version of events, history started on 9/11, when “everything changed.” The global jihadist movement is an unexpected offshoot of the encounter between Western-driven modernization processes, now of global scale in the 21st century, and an Islamic world still struggling with the legacy of the 20th. One result of this encounter is a decentralized web of mobile, marauding Islamist terrorist organizations capable of complex attacks, highly adaptable in structure, often indistinguishable from the broader Muslim communities that succor or tolerate them, and reasonably skilled at public relations (at least with regard to those communities). In the worst scenario, al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates may use weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies, marking the only time since Westphalia that a substate actor can credibly threaten the vital interests of not only a state, but of the strongest state in the international system. If that’s not novelty, nothing is.
That there is something new about this threat is undeniable. Substate actors with global reach and the technical skill of modern apocalyptical terrorists bear almost no resemblance to the main challenges to international security during the past several centuries, which were characterized by more or less rule-based competition among well-defined states. Another difference stands out, too: The modern state system enforced a separation of church and state on the international level with its doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio. Its 17th-century founders learned the lessons of the Thirty Years War and determined not to let the passions of religious disagreement inflame the necessities of political order. Today’s salafi warriors mean to destroy that separation utterly, a separation that even the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Caliphate, came to accept in practice over time.
So there is novelty in our midst, but as this latter example suggests, only in comparison with what we generally call modernity. If we look at pre-modern history we find that the al-Qaeda menace does not appear so novel after all. Most pre-modern great powers—empires, they are commonly called—faced an obstinate and in some cases deadly menace from “barbarians.” In some ways, al-Qaeda and its franchises are the planetary-scale barbarians of the 21st century.
My use of “barbarian” implies no necessary moral judgment, but only objectively specifies small groups composed often of nomads and arranged in tribes rather than hierarchically structured states. Barbarians were also uncivilized—again, not in a moral but in a literal sense—because they did not live in cities. They preferred instead a highly mobile lifestyle based on pastoralism to the settled agriculture that enabled urban life. Think of Rome facing the Goths, and especially the highly mobile Huns, Vandals and Alans between the 3rd and 5th centuries; China under the Ming dynasty (14th–17th centuries) struggling to contain the persistent threat of the Mongols from the north; the Ottoman Empire being devastated in the 14th century by Central Asian hordes led by Tamerlane; 13th-century Russia invaded by the Mongols.
The similarity between pre-modern barbarians and their contemporary counterparts lies in three key domains: the way they are organized, how they assault established powers, and the challenges they inherently pose to states when seen in the broader context of state security conditions. There are enough similarities along these three domains to enable, at the least, a thought experiment based on the following question as its main purpose: What can we learn from our pre-modern forebears about how to cope with and even defeat barbarians? The short answer is as simple to understand conceptually as it is difficult to implement in practice: Imperial victors followed a highly integrated strategy that pursued political objectives of settling, assimilating and trading with barbarians in the shadow of credible and oft-employed military power. In more blunt language, when an imperial anti-barbarian strategy worked, it employed accommodation and assimilation in conjunction with the threat of annihilation.
Before moving in earnest to this thought experiment it is worth noting why a more rigorous model along these lines cannot be constructed. As there are similarities between certain post- and pre-modern conditions, so there are profound differences. Pre-modern barbarians were not motivated by common universal claims, which limited their potential operational integration. Nor could they insinuate themselves unnoticed inside the opponents’ societies as do present-day barbarians living in multicultural Western societies. Perhaps most important, pre-modern barbarians lacked access to technologies that flatten the conventional balance of power and provide a global reach. Today, a mere handful of willful men thousands of miles from their birthplaces can kill thousands, perhaps millions, of imperial citizens; that was never a prospect for Roman or Ottoman subjects.
Differences lay not only on the side of the barbarians. For all the clever rhetoric one may hear about the contemporary United States being an empire, it really is not an empire, at least in the classic sense: Americans today do not seek to subjugate and colonize territories that are the native lands of present-day jihadist barbarians. And whereas Roman leaders could offer barbarian warlords vast acreage for settlement on their imperial periphery, American leaders cannot give to barbarians what they do not, in fact, claim to own. All that said about differences, let us now think about similarities.
Mobility, Tribalism and
The first feature common to all barbarians is that they are highly mobile. This, above all, sets them apart from empires and states and makes the clash between barbarians and empires, then and now, a conflict between two types of political organization with fundamentally different natures and hence with different goals.
Some barbarian groups tended to lead nomadic lifestyles (Mongols, Huns) or, at the very minimum, were migrating in search of more land or in fear of other nomadic groups threatening them (Goths, Alans). Scholars still debate how nomadic some of these groups were. Some barbarians were seasonal or “vertical” nomads (moving between two specific regions, usually highland and lowland, from season to season). Some maintained traces of villages or other settlements to which they occasionally returned. And some, such as the Huns and Mongols, abandoned many nomadic traits in order to adapt to new geographic conditions into which they moved after their long-range assaults. Nonetheless, despite these limitations on full-fledged nomadism, none of the main nomadic groups in the historical record led the kind of settled political life that characterizes organized polities. Migrating barbarians also lacked extensive political and administrative organization, and were most often composed of tribal elements that happened to be moving in the same direction, impelled by demographic pressures, ecological changes or military defeats. This seems to have been the case for the various groups moving westward from the Eurasian steppes in the 4th and 5th centuries CE.
The lack of a settled lifestyle means that barbarians have no real estate to defend. They have no cities to wall in and no fields to protect. As a result, they expend minimal effort and resources in defense of their negligible property. Moreover, barbarians fight to plunder, not to conquer. They need commit few if any resources keeping territory they have taken, for they wish not to keep it. Barbarians are therefore veritable offensive machines that are very difficult to deter or stop.
A second feature common to all barbarian groups is their tribal or clan character, and what that implies about nomadic techniques of military operations. To speak of the Goths or Mongols is to refer to a network of tribes rather than to a hierarchical structure for administration across the entire population of the group. Most times they remain a loosely affiliated network of clans, as long as that works well enough to achieve near-term objectives. The existence of larger barbarian groups often depends on the ability of a particularly powerful leader to conduct successful raids against a wealthy neighbor. In circumstances where decision-making processes are but rudimentarily institutionalized, only military success and the prospect of further success can breed anything more than momentary barbarian social cohesion. Failure, or the death of the unifying leader, brings disintegration. For instance, the Huns, who devastated a grand part of the Roman Empire, disappeared from history after Attila died in 453 CE. Tamerlane’s death in 1405 put an end to well-advanced Mongol preparations to invade Ming China.
Thus, while it is hard to destroy barbarian networks altogether, it is relatively easy to reduce them to marginal threats by inflicting defeats and killing key leaders. Such are the advantages and disadvantages of inherently fragile tribal organizations.
The third common feature of barbarian threats is that they imperil their imperial targets not by dint of conventional size or strength, but by leveraging various asymmetries. Taken individually, each barbarian group is invariably much weaker than the empire it is attacking. In terms of sheer numbers, for example, the various barbarian groups assaulting Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries probably numbered in the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands. Compared to the population and army of the Roman Empire, these numbers seemingly represented a weak enemy.
But mobile barbarians can concentrate their forces at a particular point, while an empire has to spread its much more formidable numbers thinly. That is why barbarians can often initiate a successful pitched battle against imperial forces. In many cases, they proved able to inflict shocking defeats at historically pivotal moments. In the 378 CE battle of Adrianople, for example, the Goths defeated and killed the Roman emperor Valens. In the 1402 battle of Ankara, Tamerlane crushed an Ottoman army and captured the emperor Bayezid. In the 1449 Tu-Mu battle, the Mongols massacred a Ming expedition and took the Chinese emperor hostage. Obviously, these and other barbarian victories occurred not by virtue of numerical or technological superiority, but because of momentary tactical advantage usually combined with the ineptitude of imperial forces.
These imperial defeats did not result by themselves in the crumbling of empires. Barbarians could stun an empire, but could not by themselves destroy one. The danger that barbarians pose to empires does not reside in the efficacy of individual groups, but in the number of these groups, their capacity for tactical surprise, the fear they inspire because of cultural differences, and, above all, the fact that barbarian threats overlap with other, more traditional threats. Barbarians discomfit, surprise, horrify and distract empires. If an empire already has internal problems and other significant adversaries, these effects are often more than enough to spell collapse.
Rome, for instance, faced not just the Goths, but also the Alans, the Vandals and the Huns all within the span of a century, and often at the same time. The Ottoman Empire faced the Seljuks in the south, but also Central Asian nomads to the east. Rome and the Ottomans were also forced to face their barbarian threats in conjunction with the menace of a rising rival state (or states)—Persian in the former case, variously Safavid, Russian, Hapsburg and British in the latter. Rising rivals demand enormous attention and resources that barbarian threats are prone to divert. The Ming Dynasty, for instance, spent more time and resources building defensive positions in the north against the Mongols than it did to stem or control European maritime forays in the south.
The Strategic Challenge
The main consequence of these three common traits of barbarians is that it is difficult for empires to apply traditional tools of statecraft toward them. The challenge is threefold.
First, barbarians are difficult to locate. Because they are highly mobile, nomadic or migrating, barbarians do not fight a concentrated war along a clear front line where an empire can mass its troops and seek a climactic engagement. Most military encounters between barbarians and imperial forces occur when the barbarian side initiates them. Empires, of course, have always sought military solutions to barbarian threats and have conducted expeditions in barbarian territory in search of those solutions. Such forays have occasionally yielded discrete battle victories, even something that may have been deemed a triumph back in the imperial capital. And such victories may reduce the barbarian threat to a mere nuisance, sometimes for a long time. But military means alone have rarely brought any barbarian threat to an end.
Second, barbarians don’t do diplomacy. In most historical cases, barbarians and empires were not hermetically separated from each other. Particularly during times of relative quiet, commercial and political interactions took place. These interactions rarely morphed into regularized relations, however, because imperial leaders could find no counterparts capable of maintaining any commitments that might be made. Nor could barbarian leaders readily be found who were willing to associate with the empire for various benefits promised. Barbarians simply lacked a clear hierarchy that could impart and maintain a consistent strategic direction.
Third, as can be surmised from all this, deterrence was a wasting imperial asset in the face of barbarian threats. Coercion works only if a state can credibly threaten to impose certain costs on an enemy. Historically, this has meant the ability to burn crops (for example, Sparta burning the olive orchards of the Athenians) or destroy cities (it is not by chance that siege warfare represents one of the oldest forms of war). But barbarians possess neither fields nor cities. No matter how powerful they may be, empires cannot coerce an enemy they cannot find or effectively punish.
Coercion and deterrence can work, in theory at least, by denying a barbarian enemy the ability to achieve his goals through force. So it is no surprise that empires often attempted strategies of denial by building walls and defensive fortifications meant to hold barbarians at bay. The Romans erected a complex system of fortifications along the Rhine and Danube rivers, often relying on the rivers as natural barriers. The Ming Chinese hoped, especially after their disastrous defeat at Tu-Mu, that the monumental wall built in the north would suffice to keep the Mongols out.11.
On the Great Wall, see Owen Lattimore, “Origins of the Great Wall of China: A Frontier Concept in Theory and Practice”, Geographical Review (October 1937). See also Stephen Rosen, “An Empire, If You Can Keep It”, The National Interest (Spring 2003).
Despite some limited success, however, such defenses did not avail. To some degree, the ineffectiveness of strategies of denial was due to the nature of the barbarian attack, which rarely consisted of a clearly defined force attacking a precise point in the frontier. Especially in the case of the Roman Empire, many barbarian groups simply seeped through the frontier either with the approval of local authorities or unnoticed and unchecked by them.
We learn from this that political efforts alone and military efforts alone were both prone to fail as anti-barbarian strategies. Unable either to co-opt barbarians through statecraft or to awe or destroy them with imperial power, some empires succumbed to the relentless onslaught of multiple barbarian groups. The western part of the Roman Empire was weakened, and ultimately carved up into separate kingdoms, by several groups of barbarians who moved westward from central Europe. Russia wore the “Mongol yoke” for most of the 13th and 14th centuries. Tamerlane’s foray almost destroyed the Ottoman Empire, except for some European territories.
Yet empires did not always succumb or suffer irreversible defeats. The historical record suggests that a two-pronged strategy had the best chance of success. On the one hand, empires tried to settle, educate and trade with barbarians—the political component of this strategy. On the other, they simultaneously maintained a high level of military readiness with which to deprive barbarians of these benefits. The key principle behind this strategy was to make barbarians more amenable to political and military pressures by making them more similar to states. The idea was to give them something to lose, so that they would then be prone to respond to threats and incentives, to diplomacy and war, to commerce and sanctions, as states traditionally did in interstate relations. In brief: Find a way to fix the barbarians in place, threaten to destroy them if they misbehave, and if they do misbehave, carry out the threat.
The most interesting component of the political strategy historically was the attempt to end barbarians’ nomadic habits. A policy of settling barbarians was pursued with the greatest clarity by the Roman Empire. Many Germanic tribes that migrated west starting in the 3rd century were received and settled in Roman territories. Initially, they were settled as individuals and separated from their leaders, often by being drafted into the Roman army. This policy changed slightly, with important consequences, in the early 5th century, when entire tribes were settled under their own leadership, but with a clear commitment to defend Roman frontiers and supply troops when needed. Most notably, the Visigoths settled in Aquitania in the early 400s, and later aided Rome in its campaign against the Huns.
This type of settlement formed the beginning of the barbarian kingdoms that, in the course of the following two centuries, led to the disintegration of the Western part of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, in either form, the Roman policy of receptio was initially pursued out of a position of strength. The settlement was a gift given to barbarians by the stronger Roman authorities that could be taken away if the barbarian group did not maintain allegiance to Rome or supply military manpower when needed. It benefited the empire both because it increased the manpower available to protect the borders and because it was an effective tool in managing the otherwise intractable problem of wandering barbarians.
Other empires also encouraged barbarian tribes to settle down through a variety of means, from commercial benefits to tributes and loose forms of alliances. It is debatable how conscious this strategy ever was in most cases outside of Rome. Often, settlement policies appear to have been motivated more by the desire to increase a tax base and supplement military manpower than by an understanding that it was inherently easier to deal with sedentary people. But whether deliberate or not, these strategies were counterproductive, sometimes deadly, when not accompanied by an effective and credible threat of military force. The Roman strategy worked well when Rome was strong; it backfired when Rome let its military clout decay.
As we have seen, military force is of dubious utility by itself, but when combined with the political component of trade, assimilation and settlement, it assumes a vital role. Just having a political strategy toward barbarians gives military power a new lease on life because it restores the deterrent value of force. But a powerful state can only leverage a barbarian stake in trade or in a specific territory if adequate military force is at hand and imperial leaders are not shy to use it. When political strategies are pursued from a position of weakness, they strengthen and embolden barbarians. Settling or trading with the barbarians without a concurrent threat of destruction gives them a source of wealth that the empire cannot then take back. It is said that in war there is no substitute for victory, but in long wars with barbarians victory is elusive. In such wars, rather, there is no substitute for strength maintained over the long haul.
History is not a roadmap for the future, and past imperial confrontations with barbarians are not the same as our current war with Islamist terrorists. Jihadists may be mobile and they may be “virtual” tribesmen of the trans-state umma, but they are not literally nomads. Nor, as noted above, can American policy readily “settle” small groups of radical Muslims wandering among, but not really “living in”, various European, Arab and South Asian cities. The U.S. government does not own relevant tracts of land for the purpose of settling them even if they wanted to be settled—a very dubious assumption for, say, radical Pakistani-origin Muslims living in British cities.
Nonetheless, this thought experiment does suggest some broad lessons that may help us put al-Qaeda in perspective. One is that when empires encountered barbarians, the resulting conflict tended to be a long one. It was often a generational struggle rather than a relatively well-defined war with a clear beginning and end. We can break down the historical conflicts mentioned above into wars with specific dates, but these wars were often simply outbursts of violence within a longer and larger confrontation that dragged on for decades or centuries. This tracks with the indeterminacy of the beginning of the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden in effect declared war in 1998, but the United States seemed not to have noticed, despite a fair bit of action initiated from the barbarian side, until September 2001. The end of the War on Terror is liable to be even less distinct.
History also shows that the correlation between imperial power and barbarian threats is uneven. Most pre-modern empires faced a challenge from barbarian forces, nomadic or migrant, but that challenge ebbed dramatically after the 17th century. There seem to be two reasons for this. First, large territories devoid of political control are what make nomadic forces possible. As uncharted territories increasingly came under the administration of various powers, this “empty space” was filled, limiting the ability of the nomads to develop enough cohesion and size to attack neighboring states. Second, the decline in the nomadic/barbarian threat to empires was also due to dramatic changes attending the rise of the modern state. From the 16th century on, states had to develop a tax base large enough to fuel the industrial power required to wage war. To do that they had to become administratively more centralized. Nomads simply lacked the social and economic base to compete with the modern state and its technologies, thus making the nomadic lifestyle strategically irrelevant.
In this light, the return of a barbarian threat may be due, at least in part, to trends that are reversing some of these century-spanning changes. The weakening of the modern state has abetted the reappearance of “empty space” within failed states, making barbarian social organization again possible. Meanwhile, the growing separation between a society’s industrial base and a state’s military capabilities is making barbarian social organization strategically threatening again. These are structural features of our postmodern circumstances, not short-lived trends. It will take a mighty effort to change them, and even a mighty effort could fail.
Hence, there is another lesson that comes from all of this: Great powers must once again learn how to coexist with some level of violence from barbarians. One group of barbarians may be defeated or disintegrate, but others will fill its place because nomadic traits often define the most effective way to challenge an imperial power. Coexistence does not imply the tolerance or appeasement of barbarians; it merely points to the fact that a barbarian challenge cannot be ended through either military campaigns or attempts to seal imperial frontiers. Because empires can neither completely eradicate the barbarian threat nor isolate themselves from it, they must prepare for the long haul.
The Bush Administration seems to be aware of this. As the opening line of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review states, “The United States is engaged in what will be a long war.” The length of the conflict means that, “[u]nlike the image many have of war, this struggle cannot be won by military force alone, or even principally.” The QDR might have added that lengthy wars cannot be won militarily because they tend to exhaust the stronger power faster than the weaker one. The stronger power expends more transactional costs just moving itself around. A stronger power also has many interests, so it must divide its attention and energies, while a weaker power has limited local concerns, allowing it to move deftly and concentrate its forces.
Thus, even though the Bush Administration speaks of a Long War, one cannot help but wonder whether it has a clear strategic concept with which to wage it. In particular, the Administration has been unable to devise a clear and effective political component to the War on Terror. Its first choice of political component, the President’s “freedom agenda”, has been pursued inconsistently and ineptly, so much so that it appears to have now been virtually abandoned in practice. We are thus back to having no viable political dimension to the current, highly militarized strategy of dealing with Islamist terrorists.
The heavy U.S. reliance on military force also highlights a recurrent feature of empire-barbarian relations; namely, that it is difficult to maintain strategic moderation when dealing with barbarians. Overestimation and demonization often lead to the overmilitarization of strategy toward barbarians. When barbarians are seen as the gravest threat to the culture and often the religion of the empire, it becomes difficult to conceive of and justify political strategies to apply toward them. The result is that empires do not want to trade or settle or assimilate barbarians; they only want to kill them.2 This is a danger from which U.S. society and politics are not immune.
Moreover, because barbarians are seen as fundamentally opposed to whatever the empire deems valuable, from its cultural underpinning to its material wealth, they often become the preeminent strategic concern for imperial policymakers. The result, in many cases, is strategic over-reaction, with the empire devoting too many resources to chasing nomads to the detriment of concentrating on the rise of a new power or on maintaining a balanced economy and polity. Over the past five years, U.S. policy has focused overwhelmingly on al-Qaeda and its networks—and rightly so, given the 9/11 attack. But there are always trade-offs in the spending of military resources and political attention, and our preoccupation with al-Qaeda comes with a strategic cost. If we are very heavily engaged in one area, it means we will lower our sense of urgency in others. We are hunting down Islamist cells in the dark alleys of the world while China is growing, North Korea is augmenting its nuclear capabilities, and Russia is rattling sabers in its “near abroad.”
Implications for U.S. Strategy
So what should we do? Besides exercising caution, what can history teach us? The broad principle behind all effective anti-barbarian strategies was that, if elimination by military means was not feasible, then it was necessary to transform barbarians into something resembling a state. This transformation was pursued not out of goodwill, but out of a desire to make barbarians more amenable to political and military pressures. The same broad principle should be applied to our current strategic situation.
The key challenge of dealing with al-Qaeda is that, like nomadic groups of the past, it is highly mobile and consequently difficult to deal with by military means. Limiting its mobility should be one of our key objectives, analogous to past examples of settling barbarians in a well-defined region that then can be contained, pressured and, when necessary, attacked. Post-modern barbarians do not have to be annihilated everywhere; it is enough to concentrate them in a few “reservations” to minimize their offensive capabilities.
This does not mean that the U.S. government should encourage the rise to power of Taliban-like groups. The suggestion that the United States and its allies should give jihadists states by undermining current Muslim regimes overlooks what such people can do with modern weapons, safe havens and the financial resources of a state: think Taliban Afghanistan, or think present-day Iran. Still, the establishment of such regimes should not be greeted with panic. Managed correctly, the territorialization of Islamist political energies may limit the geographic dispersion of terror cells, create deep fissures inside the larger movement, and ultimately sap its aggressiveness.
At the same time, as was the case historically, any policy encouraging or tolerating “settlement” or territorialization must be accompanied by a credible threat of massive force. We can accept the settling of Islamist groups only if we are willing to present them with a clear and credible threat of devastation and destruction. If the threat of violence is absent or is not exercised when needed, then the geographic concentration of barbarians will embolden them. Thus, for example, the de facto cession of Waziristan by the Pakistani government to al-Qaeda should lead us to do two things: monitor as closely as we can what is going on there, and choose targets to attack should those settled Islamists misbehave.
Beyond the fact that settling barbarians creates targets against which violence can be threatened or used, settlement also creates opportunities for dividing them—in the case of al-Qaeda, of dividing jihadists from their base in Muslim communities. The resources and material advantages attached to the possession of a territory, together with the appeal of establishing a government, will create constituencies that value the protection and maintenance of their own land. Al-Qaeda operatives and Sunni insurgents in Iraq are liable to fall out over just such a cleavage. So are al-Qaeda members and tribal elders in Waziristan—or the Islamic Courts and clan leaders in Somalia. (Indeed, they already are.) This also happened before 9/11 in Afghanistan: When bin Laden settled there in the late 1990s, some Taliban leaders opposed allowing al-Qaeda to pursue an aggressive strategy against Saudi Arabia as well as the United States. They judged the danger too great, and of course they were right.
Disagreements within al-Qaeda and between al-Qaeda and its communal hosts continue. They argue over whether they should attack the United States, the “far enemy”, or local regimes, the “near enemy”? Target secular Sunnis and Sunni regimes, or kill Shi‘a and Christians? In Iraq, kill only Coalition soldiers, or also Iraqi officials, or also civilians? Settlement would likely exacerbate these divisions, pitting those who have something to lose from over-the-edge behavior against those who don’t. Such divisions are obviously not a guarantee that a settled group will be peaceful, but they do raise the prospect that those concerned with consolidating and maintaining their territorial possessions can be peeled away from unconstrained jihadists through incentives or threats.3 That could give the United States more leverage over outcomes. But, as before, a credible threat to destroy the territorial base of such a group must exist in order to nurture internal tensions. The Taliban and al-Qaeda had no reason to fear a U.S. onslaught in the late 1990s because we presented no credible threat to them. Those among them who worried about the consequences of attacking the United States therefore did not prevail in these internal arguments. The benefits of settling barbarians, ancient and modern alike, vanish if settlement leads to the creation of a sanctuary.
Beyond the potential benefits of territorializing Islamist groups, recall that in some historical cases a settled barbarian group became a defender of imperial interests against other barbarians—the Visigoths against the Huns in the 5th century, for example. This lesson may perhaps be extended to our current challenge if we are very careful in applying it.
Islamist radicals hardly represent the entire population of the Arab and wider Muslim worlds (though estimates of how many people are broadly sympathetic to salafi views is an important matter of considerable controversy). The fact that large numbers of Muslims are being murdered by al-Qaeda and its affiliates (in Jordan and in Indonesia, not to mention Iraq) is, however tragic in itself, a positive development, because it separates even further Islamists from the local populations.
So surely the U.S. government should encourage splits between Muslim populations-at-large and Islamists, and should, as so many urge us, support and help to network Muslim moderates. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier to say than to do, not least because the U.S. government is not well set up for such activities.
The encouragement of popular participation in the politics of the Middle East is another way to give the non-salafi inclined population a vested interest in its own stability and survival. To “open up” political space, no matter the near-term risks, has been the Bush Administration’s main approach to the matter in its Middle Eastern “freedom agenda.” In theory, that approach could pit the general population against the Islamists, limiting their ability to function. In practice, however, greater political participation under current conditions will help Islamists—as we have already seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories—because, at least in the near term, Islamists (in Arab countries, at least) are by far the best organized groups in otherwise depleted civil societies. Should the Islamists acquire power through the polls, there is every reason to suspect that they will not be prepared to surrender it in the same manner. Democratic procedures carelessly applied so as to help enemies of democracy are ultimately not good for democracy.
Even where elections have not helped Islamists, the Administration’s “freedom agenda” has undermined existing anti-Islamist regimes in the Arab world. Not only is instant democracy probably not the most efficient way to empower Muslim populations, but undermining anti-Islamist regimes amounts to undermining our allies. Our goal is to control modern barbarians, and the existing states in the region have strong incentives to help us do that. Whatever we may think of the Saudi or the Egyptian regime, it would be naive to deny that their leaders are our natural allies. After all, they are more vulnerable to being overthrown by al-Qaeda than we are. In a way, the local regimes are already “settled” groups; they are our equivalent of Rome’s Visigoths fighting the Huns.
There are, however, strict limits to such a strategy. The Bush Administration is correct in arguing that oppressive Muslim regimes help create barbarian terrorists. It is also true that a too close and too visible U.S. relationship with those regimes will deflect some degree of terrorist wrath onto the United States. More important, perhaps, these regimes—especially the Arab ones—are aging, and the military-bureaucratic support structures they depend on are losing ground in society to more Islam-friendly forces. The danger is that in order to burnish their own legitimacy in the face of social changes, these regimes will grant more space to Islamists, giving them increasingly larger roles in the running of their states. These regimes may be choosing to co-opt and appease Islamists, rather than fight them, and thus are morphing into states that are increasingly less friendly to the United States. Our Visigoths, in other words, may be willing but increasingly unable to act effectively against the barbarian Huns at both our gates.
But even such a scenario is not completely bleak. Historically, nomads have had a limited success in building and maintaining a state. As Genghis Khan allegedly said, conquering a state is easy on horseback, but dismounting and building one is difficult. Those who succeeded had to alter their societies in such profound ways as to limit their willingness and ability to be constantly plundering their neighbors. But by and large, nomads proved to be poor state builders and even poorer state administrators. So, it is also important to keep in mind that in the long run Islamists may turn to be inept and even corrupt state officials, further increasing the benefits of sedentarization of these groups. Take, for instance, al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups. Their objective is the eviction of the United States from the Middle East, the restoration of a medieval interpretation of Islam, and the reconquest of every territory held by Islam—but beyond these vast goals they have no plan or skill to administer the territory that they possibly could obtain. Moreover, their ideology has such a skewed understanding of human nature, economics, or even basic administrative techniques that, once in power, they would most likely discredit their whole enterprise. Their rule would be based in large measure on violence, fueled by anti-Western and anti-Jewish rhetoric, which, combined with the promise of domestic order, may generate support in the short term among populations affected by anarchy and violence. But in the long term torture, sharia, and cultural devastation will transform support and respect into fear that can cow people but will not generate resources to maintain a state, and even less to project power. A state like that can last and can be dangerous, but probably not for a prolonged period of time and will not be capable of waging effectively a Long War.
As things stand today, the American debate over strategy in the War on Terror is excessively polarized. Our new hawks want to wage war on the Islamists and hunt them down relentlessly; our new doves want to address the “root causes” of their grievances by fostering economic development and social equality, solving the Palestinian problem, and so on. But as history indicates, the most effective strategy against barbarians is an integrated one that pursues political and economic objectives (the territorialization of Islamist groups) for military purposes (the threat of destruction) In the long conflict ahead, we have to first make political capital yield military dividends, and then invest those dividends back into lasting political transformations. We are unlikely to rid the world of all barbarians, but we can limit their ability to roam the world and fight like barbarians. This will take perhaps generations to achieve, and for this reason it will require intelligence and patience, as well as the help of like-minded others.
On the Great Wall, see Owen Lattimore, “Origins of the Great Wall of China: A Frontier Concept in Theory and Practice”, Geographical Review (October 1937). See also Stephen Rosen, “An Empire, If You Can Keep It”, The National Interest (Spring 2003).
On the military challenges of dealing with nomads, see Anna Simons, “The Death of Conquest”, The National Interest (Spring 2003).
Robert Trager and Dessislava Zagorcheva, “Deterring Terrorism: It Can Be Done”, International Security (Winter 2005/06).