Reassessing America's Grand Strate

More than a year after the Iraq invasion, Iraq remains dangerously volatile, anti-American sentiment is near universal in many Middle Eastern nations and democratic reform in the region is no closer to reality.

More than a year after the Iraq invasion, Iraq remains dangerously volatile, anti-American sentiment is near universal in many Middle Eastern nations and democratic reform in the region is no closer to reality. The situation in Iraq has resulted in a global boost to recruitment and funding efforts of anti-US terrorists. Adding to America's sense of insecurity are the frequent administration warnings of terrorist threats to major cities such as Washington and New York.

The continued insecurity, despite two wars that have cost over a thousand American lives and nearly $200 billion, leads one to question the efficacy of America's national security strategy. A centerpiece of this strategy has been a concerted focus on democratization of the Middle East, described by President George W. Bush as "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" to counter the export of extremism and terrorism from Islamic nations. But is aggressive democratization the answer to the nation's security woes?

While there is a general belief that democracies are less likely to resort to war and aggression, such a sweeping assumption is not necessarily supported by empirical evidence and history. There are simply too many other factors that contribute to conflict, such as ethnic, national, religious and historical animosity, as well as resource-related competition. As an example, the presence of democratically elected governments in Pakistan during the 1990s did not impede the support that nation provided to the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.

The September 2002 US National Security Strategy proclaims that "people of many heritages and faiths can live and prosper in peace", given "America's experience as a multi-ethnic democracy". But the American model does not work everywhere. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke apart largely along their ethnic fault lines, the Chechens are unwilling to be absorbed into Russia, the Czechs and the Slovaks separated after the end of the Cold War, and there are many conflicts driven by religion and ethnicity in the Indian subcontinent. The multi-ethnic model has demonstrated its fragility in the ongoing mayhem in Sudan, and the complications involved in the long-standing Israeli-Palestine conflict prove that, in many cases, democracy is no silver bullet.

It is this faulty logic that has been applied to Iraq and has been postulated for the entire Middle East. For the multi-ethnic democratic model described in the US National Security Strategy to succeed in Iraq, the United States has to balance competing and incompatible claims of ethnic groups including Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Concessions to any group risk antagonizing others.

In the process, Iraq has been left vulnerable to a spread of Sunni Islamic extremism, an influx of Al-Qaeda fighters and increased Iranian influence. The United States finds itself in a no-win situation. It can either keep over a hundred thousand troops indefinitely in Iraq and risk a Vietnam-like quagmire extending over years, or it can exit and watch the country potentially break up into three parts, with the Shiite portion aligned with Iran and the Sunni portion dominated by anti-American clerics and mujahideen.

With the Bush administration tied down in Iraq and focused on Middle East democratization, several potential sources of nuclear technology for terrorists have been neglected during the past three years. North Korea and Iran, both worried that they may be next in line for regime change, have continued progress towards developing nuclear weapons. The United States gave a pass to the Musharraf regime over the Pakistani nuclear proliferation scandal, leaving many questions unanswered about the extent of the A. Q. Khan network. And insufficient attention has been paid to tracking down and securing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The critical requirement for a nation's grand strategy is that the strategy must be based upon its core national interests. A clear hint that the US national security strategy does not meet this criterion is a statement in the September 2002 White House document itself: "The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests." It is this conflation of values and interests in the US strategy that has led to the drive to democratize the Middle East, without considering the consequences within the region and around the globe.

One of the first actions of the next President, whether it is the incumbent, George W. Bush or John Kerry, must be to initiate a review of the nation's grand strategy. The new National Security team must ensure that a redesigned strategy is based first and foremost upon core national interests to best secure the nation, while avoiding counter-productive ideological quests designed to impose American values on the rest of the world.


Subodh Atal ( is an independent foreign policy analyst, and was a member of the Cato Institute Special Task Force that recently recommended a complete American exit from Iraq by January 2005.