[This essay is adapted from a full-length essay, "The Theological Iron Curtain: A Strategy for Engaging the Muslim World," which will appear in the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest.]
Half a century ago, ideological extremists drew a political iron curtain across Europe. Today, the fanatical forces of jihad are trying to build a "theological iron curtain" to divide the Muslim world from the rest of the globe-a Berlin Wall built with bricks made from the frustrations and anger that arise from conditions of poverty and tyranny, and cemented by the mortar of hatred and violence.
It is still not too late to stop this theological iron curtain from falling. But the more we wait, the more we risk. The United States must act now-proactively, aggressively and in cooperation with our allies-to help the millions of moderate Muslims in the world who are being besieged by isolation and intolerance. For if the curtain should someday fall, it would be a great and grave danger to our own security and could bring awful repression to the hundreds of millions of Muslims trapped behind it. In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we had a glimpse of the horrors fanatics can perpetrate against the populations under their control-as well as the destruction that could be wrought by terrorists living under their protection.
American actions since September 11 showed that we can have a powerful impact. During a bipartisan Senate delegation trip to Central Asia in the wake of our victory in Afghanistan two years ago, I saw heartening evidence of the secondary effects of America's resolve, with regional leaders taking a clearer and stronger stand for moderation and modernity than they had before September 11. We have empowered them to give voice to their moderate message and to provide leadership to fight the forces of fanaticism.
The Bush Administration, however, has too often failed to capitalize on our progress. In a pattern emerging in postwar Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the United States takes forceful action to drain the swamps that breed terrorism, but fails to adequately seed the garden to enable peace, prosperity and democracy to take root and to prevent terrorism from returning. Moderates are competing with extremists for control in the vacuum our military victories leave, with precious little support from the United States and its allies. Should the forces of fanaticism prevail in these postwar struggles, the theological iron curtain will undoubtedly descend, and behind it, terrorism will fester.
We already provide hundreds of millions of dollars per year to nations throughout the Muslim world, not to mention having taken on the responsibility of reconstructing post-Saddam Iraq. In each case, we now have to evaluate very carefully whether the people-the intended beneficiaries of our assistance-are benefiting from such aid. Are attitudes toward America improving? It is time to take a hard look at how we spend this money-where we might want to make new strategic investments and cut out old, failing ones. This may mean re-targeting funds away from large-scale, government-run projects toward better public education systems, stronger public health infrastructures, more independent media outlets controlled by citizens and not the state, and reinforcement of the basic civic values of tolerance, equality and opportunity throughout these societies.
The Honorable Joseph Lieberman is a member of the United States Senate (representing Connecticut) and is a candidate for the nomination of the Democratic Party for President. He is also a member of the board of directors at The Nixon Center.