Islam's Medieval Outposts

For centuries, young men have gathered at Islamic seminaries to escape Western influences and quietly study Islamic texts that have been handed down unchanged through the ages. But over the last two decades, revolution, Great Power politics, and poverty have combined to give the fundamentalist teachings at some of these madrasas a violent twist. And now, in one of globalization's deadlier ironies, these "universities of jihad" are spreading their medieval theology worldwide.

As a 9-year-old boy, I knelt on the bare floor of the neighborhood madrasa (religious school) in Karachi, Pakistan, repeating the Koranic verse, "Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God."

Hafiz Gul-Mohamed, the Koran teacher, made each of the 13 boys in our class memorize the verse in its original Arabic. Some of us also memorized the translation in our own language, Urdu. "This is the word of God that defines the Muslim umma [community of believers]," he told us repeatedly. "It tells Muslims their mission in life." He himself bore the title hafiz (the memorizer) because he could recite all 114 chapters and 6,346 verses of the Koran.

Most students in Gul-Mohamed's class joined the madrasa to learn basic Islamic teachings and to be able to read the Koran. Only a handful of people in Pakistan spoke Arabic, but everyone wanted to learn to read the holy book. I completed my first reading of the Koran by age seven. I was enrolled part time at the madrasa to learn to read the Koran better and to understand the basic teachings of Islam.

Gul-Mohamed carried a cane, as all madrasa teachers do, but I don't recall him ever using it. He liked my curiosity about religion and had been angry with me only once: I had come to his class straight from my English-language school, dressed in the school's uniform -- white shirt, red tie, and beige trousers. "Today you have dressed like a farangi [European]. Tomorrow you will start thinking and behaving like one," he said. "And that will be the beginning of your journey to hell."

Hafiz Gul-Mohamed read no newspapers and did not listen to the radio. He owned few books. "You don't need too many books to learn Islam," he once explained to me when I brought him his evening meal. "There is the straight path, which is described in the Koran and one or two commentaries, and there are numerous paths to confusion. I have the books I need to keep me on the straight path." He had never seen a movie and advised me never to see one either. The only time he had allowed himself to be photographed was to obtain a passport for the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. Television was about to be introduced in Pakistan, and Gul-Mohamed found that prospect quite disturbing. One hadith (or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) describes "song and dance by women lacking in virtue" coming to every home as one of the signs of apocalypse. Television, Gul-Mohamed believed, would fulfill that prophecy, as it would bring moving images of singing and dancing women into every home.

The madrasa I attended, and its headmaster, opposed the West but in an apolitical way. He knew the communists were evil because they denied the existence of God. The West, however, was also immoral. Westerners drank alcohol and engaged in sex outside of marriage. Western women did not cover themselves. Western culture encouraged a mad race for making money. Song and dance, rather than prayer and meditation, characterized life in the West. Gul-Mohamed's solution was isolation. "The umma should keep away from the West and its ways."

But these were the 1960s. Although religion was important in the lives of Pakistanis, pursuit of material success rather than the search for religious knowledge determined students' career choices. Everyone in my madrasa class dropped out after learning the essential rituals. I remained a part-time student for almost six years but eventually needed to devote more time to regular studies that would take me through to college. Gul-Mohamed was disappointed that I did not seek a sanad (diploma) in theology, but he grudgingly understood why I might not want a degree in theology from a parallel education system: "You don't want to be a mullah like me, with little pay and no respect in the eyes of the rich and powerful."

And so it was for much of the four decades before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a period when policymakers were more interested in the thoughts of Western-educated Muslims responsible for energy policy in Arab countries than those of half-literate mullahs trained at obscure seminaries. But Taliban leaders, who had ruled Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, were the products of madrasas in Pakistan, and their role as protectors of al Qaeda terrorists has generated keen interest in their alma maters. A few weeks after September 11, I visited Darul Uloom Haqqania (Center of Righteous Knowledge), situated on the main highway between Islamabad and Peshawar, in the small town of Akora Khattak. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been a student at Haqqania, and the madrasa, with 2,500 students aged 5 to 21 from all over the world, has been called "the University of Jihad." The texture of life in the madrasa still has elements that represent a continuum not over decades but over centuries. But at Haqqania, I saw that the world of the madrasa had changed since I last bowed my head in front of Hafiz Gul-Mohamed.

In a basement room with plasterless walls adorned by a clock inscribed with "God is Great" in Arabic, 9-year-old Mohammed Tahir rocked back and forth and recited the same verse of the Koran that had been instilled into my memory at the same age: "Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God." But when I asked him to explain how he understands the passage, Tahir's interpretation was quite different from the quietist version taught to me. "The Muslim community of believers is the best in the eyes of God, and we must make it the same in the eyes of men by force," he said. "We must fight the unbelievers and that includes those who carry Muslim names but have adopted the ways of unbelievers. When I grow up I intend to carry out jihad in every possible way." Tahir does not believe that al Qaeda is responsible for September 11 because his teachers have told him that the attacks were a conspiracy by Jews against the Taliban. He also considers Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden great Muslims, "for challenging the might of the unbelievers."

The remarkable transformation and global spread of madrasas during the 1980s and 1990s owes much to geopolitics, sectarian struggles, and technology, but the schools' influence and staying power derive from deep-rooted socioeconomic conditions that have so far proved resistant to change. Now, with the prospect of madrasas churning out tens of thousands of would-be militant graduates each year, calls for reform are growing. But anyone who hopes for change in the schools' curriculum, approach, or mind-set is likely to be disappointed. In some ways, madrasas are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world. Westernized and usually affluent Muslims lack an interest in religious matters, but religious scholars, marginalized by modernization, seek to assert their own relevance by insisting on orthodoxy. A regular education costs money and is often inaccessible to the poor, but madrasas are generally free. Poor students attending madrasas find it easy to believe that the West, loyal to uncaring and aloof leaders, is responsible for their misery and that Islam as practiced in its earliest form can deliver them.


Madrasas have been around since the 11th century, when the Seljuk Vizier Nizam ul-Mulk Hassan bin Ali Tusi founded a seminary in Baghdad to train experts in Islamic law. Islam had become the religion of a large community, stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. But apart from the Koran, which Muslims believe to be the word of God revealed through Prophet Mohammed, no definitive theological texts existed. The dominant Muslim sect, the Sunnis, did not have a clerical class, leaving groups of believers to follow whomever inspired them in religious matters. But Sunni Muslim rulers legitimated their rule through religion, depending primarily on an injunction in the Koran binding believers to obey the righteous ruler. Over time, it became important to seek religious conformity and to define dogma to ensure obedience of subjects and to protect rulers from rebellion. Nizam ul-Mulk's madrasa was intended to create a class of ulema, muftis, and qazis (judges) who would administer the Muslim empire, legitimize its rulers as righteous, and define an unalterable version of Islam.

Abul Hassan al-Ashari, a ninth-century theologian, defined the dogma adopted for this new madrasa (and the tens of thousands that would follow) in several polemical texts, including The Detailed Explanation in Refutation of the People of Perdition and The Sparks: Refutation of Heretics and Innovators. This canon rejected any significant role for reason in religious matters and dictated that religion be the focus of a Muslim's existence. The madrasas adopted a core curriculum that divided knowledge between "revealed sciences" and "rational sciences." The revealed sciences included study of the Koran, hadith, Koranic commentary, and Islamic jurisprudence. The rational sciences included Arabic language and grammar to help understand the Koran, logic, rhetoric, and philosophy.

Largely unchanged and unchallenged, this approach to education dominated the Islamic world for centuries, until the advent of colonial rule, when Western education penetrated countries previously ruled by Muslims. Throughout the Middle East, as well as in British India and Dutch-ruled Indonesia, modernization marginalized madrasas. Their graduates were no longer employable as judges or administrators as the Islamic legal system gave way to Western jurisprudence. Muslim societies became polarized between madrasa-educated mullahs and the economically prosperous, Western-educated individuals attending modern schools and colleges.

But the poor remained faithful. The failings of the post-colonial elite in most Muslim countries paved the way for Islamic political movements such as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) in the Arab world, Jamaat-e-Islami (the Islamic Party) in South Asia, and the Nahdatul Ulema (the Movement for Religious Scholars) in Indonesia. These movements questioned the legitimacy of the Westernized elite, created reminders of Islam's past glory, and played on hopes for an Islamic utopia. In most cases, the founders of Islamic political movements were religiously inclined politicians with a modern education. Madrasas provided the rank and file.

The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, both in 1979, inspired a profound shift in the Muslim world -- and in the madrasas. Iran's mullahs had managed to overthrow the shah and take power, undermining the idea that religious education was useless in worldly matters. Although Iranians belong to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and their madrasas have always had a more political character than Sunni seminaries, the image of men in turbans and robes running a country provided a powerful demonstration effect and politicized madrasas everywhere.

Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary regime promised to export its revolutionary Shiite ideas to other Muslim states. Khomeini invited teachers and students from madrasas in other countries to Tehran for conferences and parades, and he offered money and military training to radical Islamic movements. Iranians argued that the corrupt Arab monarchies must be overthrown just as Iranians had overthrown the shah. Iran's Arab rivals decided to fight revolutionary Shiite fundamentalism with their own version of Sunni fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries began to pour money into Sunni madrasas that rejected the Shiite theology of Iran, fund ulema who declared the Shiite Iranian model unacceptable to Sunnis, and call for a fight against Western decadence rather than Muslim rulers.

In the midst of this conflict, and the madrasa boom it spawned, the United States helped create an Islamic resistance to communism in Afghanistan, encouraging Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states to fund the Afghan resistance and its supporters throughout the Muslim world. Pakistan's military ruler at the time, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, decided to establish madrasas instead of modern schools in Afghan refugee camps, where 5 million displaced Afghans provided a natural supply of recruits for the resistance. The refugees needed schools; the resistance needed mujahideen. Madrasas would provide an education of sorts, but they would also serve as a center of indoctrination and motivation.

General Zia's model spread throughout the Muslim world. Maulana Samiul Haq, headmaster of the Haqqania madrasa, is a firebrand orator who led anti-U.S. demonstrations soon after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. When I asked if he thought it appropriate to involve his 5- and 6-year-old charges in political demonstrations, Haq remarked, "No one is too young to do the right thing." Later, he added, "Young minds are not for thinking. We catch them for the madrasas when they are young, and by the time they are old enough to think, they know what to think." Students and teachers carried militant Islamic ideology from one madrasa to another. On one of the walls of the madrasa of my youth, someone had written the hadith "Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China." Across the road from the madrasa at Haqqania, some of Tahir's classmates have written a different hadith: "Paradise lies under the shade of swords."

The success of General Zia's experiment led to the creation of similar free schools in places as diverse as Morocco, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America established madrasas alongside their mosques, ostensibly to teach religion to their children. Islam requires Muslims to set aside 2.5 percent of their annual savings as zakat (charity), and religious education is one area on which zakat can be spent. Madrasas do not need huge funds to run, though. Teachers' salaries are low, the schools need no funding for research, and books are handed down from one generation to the next.

Madrasas have proliferated with zakat and financial assistance from the gulf states. (Some classrooms at Haqqania have a small inscription informing visitors that Saudi Arabia donated the building materials for the classroom.) Modern technology has also played a role, whether by creating international financing networks or new methods of spreading the message, such as through online madrasas. Pakistan had 244 madrasas in 1956. By the end of last year, the number had risen to 10,000. As many as 1 million students study in madrasas in Pakistan, compared with primary-school enrollment of 1.9 million. Most Muslim countries allocate insignificant portions of their budgets for education, leaving large segments of their growing populations without schooling. Madrasas fill that gap, especially for the poor. The poorest countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Yemen, and Indonesia, boast the largest madrasa enrollment.

Classes at Haqqania are free, as are meals, which are quite basic. Tahir, the seventh of nine children, likes being at the madrasa because it provides him an education without costing his parents anything. He lives in a crowded dormitory of 40 to 50 students, sleeping on rugs and mattresses on the floor. He spends most of the day memorizing texts, squatting in front of a teacher who memorized them in a similar fashion as a child. "God has blessed me as I am learning His word and the teaching of His Prophet," Tahir told me. "I could have been like others in the refugee camp, with no clothes and no food."

Tahir's teacher carries a cane and can often be brutal. One madrasa in Pakistan has resorted to the practice of chaining students to pillars until they memorize the day's lesson. But compared with life in a squalid refugee camp, the harshness of the madrasa probably is a blessing. Tahir's day begins with the predawn prayer and a breakfast comprising bread and tea; it ends with the night prayer and a dinner of rice and mutton. And if Tahir does well at the madrasa and earns a diploma, he can expect to find a job as a preacher in a mosque.


An estimated 6 million Muslims study in madrasas around the world, and twice that number attend maktabs or kuttabs (small Koranic schools attached to village mosques). An overwhelming majority of these madrasas follow the quietist tradition, teaching rejection for Western ways without calling upon believers to fight unbelievers. The few that teach violence, however, drill in those beliefs firmly. The militant madrasa is a relatively new phenomenon, the product of mistakes committed in fighting communism in Afghanistan. But even the quietist madrasa teaches a rejection of modernity while emphasizing conformity and a medieval mind-set. The Muslim world is divided between the rich and powerful, who are aligned with the West, and the impoverished masses, who turn to religion in the absence of adequate means of livelihood. This social reality makes it difficult for the madrasas to remain unaffected by radical ideas, even after the militancy introduced during the last two decades disappears. Cutting off outside funding might help, but because of their modest expenses, madrasas can survive without assistance from oil-producing states.

Legitimizing secular power structures through democracy might reduce the political influence of madrasas. But that influence is unlikely to wane dramatically as long as madrasas are home to a theological class popular with poor Muslims. And the fruits of modernity will need to spread widely before dual education systems in the Muslim world will come to an end.

Muslim states are now calling upon Western governments to support madrasa reform through financial aid. The proposed recipe for reform is to add contemporary subjects alongside the traditional religious sciences in madrasa curriculum. But madrasas will probably survive these reform efforts, just as they survived the introduction of Western education during colonial rule. Can learning science and math, for example, change the worldview shaped by a theology of conformity? I asked Tahir if he is interested in learning math. He said, "In hadith there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter."


A Grand Strategy of Transformation

President George W. Bush's national security strategy could represent the most sweeping shift in U.S. grand strategy since the beginning of the Cold War. But its success depends on the willingness of the rest of the world to welcome U.S. power with open arms.

It's an interesting reflection on our democratic age that nations are now expected to publish their grand strategies before pursuing them. This practice would have surprised Metternich, Bismarck, and Lord Salisbury, though not Pericles. Concerned about not revealing too much, most great strategists in the past have preferred to concentrate on implementation, leaving explanation to historians. The first modern departure from this tradition came in 1947 when George F. Kennan revealed the rationale for containment in Foreign Affairs under the inadequately opaque pseudonym "Mr. X," but Kennan regretted the consequences and did not repeat the experiment. Not until the Nixon administration did official statements of national security strategy became routine. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Henry Kissinger's "State of the World" reports were remarkably candid and comprehensive -- so much so that they were widely regarded at the time as a clever form of disinformation. They did, though, revive the Periclean precedent that in a democracy even grand strategy is a matter for public discussion.

That precedent became law with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which required the president to report regularly to Congress and the American people on national security strategy (NSS). The results since have been disappointing. The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations all issued NSS reports, but these tended to be restatements of existing positions, cobbled together by committees, blandly worded, and quickly forgotten. None sparked significant public debate.

George W. Bush's report on "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," released on September 17, 2002, has stirred controversy, though, and surely will continue to do so. For it's not only the first strategy statement of a new administration; it's also the first since the surprise attacks of September 11, 2001. Such attacks are fortunately rare in American history -- the only analogies are the British burning of the White House and Capitol in 1814 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 -- but they have one thing in common: they prepare the way for new grand strategies by showing that old ones have failed. The Bush NSS, therefore, merits a careful reading as a guide to what's to come.


Beginnings, in such documents, tell you a lot. The Bush NSS, echoing the president's speech at West Point on June 1, 2002, sets three tasks: "We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent." It's worth comparing these goals with the three the Clinton administration put forth in its final NSS, released in December 1999: "To enhance America's security. To bolster America's economic prosperity. To promote democracy and human rights abroad."

The differences are revealing. The Bush objectives speak of defending, preserving, and extending peace; the Clinton statement seems simply to assume peace. Bush calls for cooperation among great powers; Clinton never uses that term. Bush specifies the encouragement of free and open societies on every continent; Clinton contents himself with "promoting" democracy and human rights "abroad." Even in these first few lines, then, the Bush NSS comes across as more forceful, more carefully crafted, and -- unexpectedly -- more multilateral than its immediate predecessor. It's a tip-off that there're interesting things going on here.

The first major innovation is Bush's equation of terrorists with tyrants as sources of danger, an obvious outgrowth of September 11. American strategy in the past, he notes, has concentrated on defense against tyrants. Those adversaries required "great armies and great industrial capabilities" -- resources only states could provide -- to threaten U.S. interests. But now, "shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank." The strategies that won the Cold War -- containment and deterrence -- won't work against such dangers, because those strategies assumed the existence of identifiable regimes led by identifiable leaders operating by identifiable means from identifiable territories. How, though, do you contain a shadow? How do you deter someone who's prepared to commit suicide?

There've always been anarchists, assassins, and saboteurs operating without obvious sponsors, and many of them have risked their lives in doing so. Their actions have rarely shaken the stability of states or societies, however, because the number of victims they've targeted and the amount of physical damage they've caused have been relatively small. September 11 showed that terrorists can now inflict levels of destruction that only states wielding military power used to be able to accomplish. Weapons of mass destruction were the last resort for those possessing them during the Cold War, the NSS points out. "Today, our enemies see weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice." That elevates terrorists to the level of tyrants in Bush's thinking, and that's why he insists that preemption must be added to -- though not necessarily in all situations replace -- the tasks of containment and deterrence: "We cannot let our enemies strike first."

The NSS is careful to specify a legal basis for preemption: international law recognizes "that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack." There's also a preference for preempting multilaterally: "The United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community." But "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country."

Preemption in turn requires hegemony. Although Bush speaks, in his letter of transmittal, of creating "a balance of power that favors human freedom" while forsaking "unilateral advantage," the body of the NSS makes it clear that "our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." The West Point speech put it more bluntly: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge." The president has at last approved, therefore, Paul Wolfowitz's controversial recommendation to this effect, made in a 1992 "Defense Planning Guidance" draft subsequently leaked to the press and then disavowed by the first Bush administration. It's no accident that Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary of defense, has been at the center of the new Bush administration's strategic planning.

How, though, will the rest of the world respond to American hegemony? That gets us to another innovation in the Bush strategy, which is its emphasis on cooperation among the great powers. There's a striking contrast here with Clinton's focus on justice for small powers. The argument also seems at odds, at first glance, with maintaining military strength beyond challenge, for don't the weak always unite to oppose the strong? In theory, yes, but in practice and in history, not necessarily. Here the Bush team seems to have absorbed some pretty sophisticated political science, for one of the issues that discipline has been wrestling with recently is why there's still no anti-American coalition despite the overwhelming dominance of the United States since the end of the Cold War.

Bush suggested two explanations in his West Point speech, both of which most political scientists -- not all -- would find plausible. The first is that other great powers prefer management of the international system by a single hegemon as long as it's a relatively benign one. When there's only one superpower, there's no point for anyone else to try to compete with it in military capabilities. International conflict shifts to trade rivalries and other relatively minor quarrels, none of them worth fighting about. Compared with what great powers have done to one another in the past, this state of affairs is no bad thing.

U.S. hegemony is also acceptable because it's linked with certain values that all states and cultures -- if not all terrorists and tyrants -- share. As the NSS puts it: "No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police." It's this association of power with universal principles, Bush argues, that will cause other great powers to go along with whatever the United States has to do to preempt terrorists and tyrants, even if it does so alone. For, as was the case through most of the Cold War, there's something worse out there than American hegemony.

The final innovation in the Bush strategy deals with the longer term issue of removing the causes of terrorism and tyranny. Here, again, the president's thinking parallels an emerging consensus within the academic community. For it's becoming clear now that poverty wasn't what caused a group of middle-class and reasonably well-educated Middle Easterners to fly three airplanes into buildings and another into the ground. It was, rather, resentments growing out of the absence of representative institutions in their own societies, so that the only outlet for political dissidence was religious fanaticism.

Hence, Bush insists, the ultimate goal of U.S. strategy must be to spread democracy everywhere. The United States must finish the job that Woodrow Wilson started. The world, quite literally, must be made safe for democracy, even those parts of it, like the Middle East, that have so far resisted that tendency. Terrorism -- and by implication the authoritarianism that breeds it -- must become as obsolete as slavery, piracy, or genocide: "behavior that no respectable government can condone or support and that all must oppose."

The Bush NSS, therefore, differs in several ways from its recent predecessors. First, it's proactive. It rejects the Clinton administration's assumption that since the movement toward democracy and market economics had become irreversible in the post–Cold War era, all the United States had to do was "engage" with the rest of the world to "enlarge" those processes. Second, its parts for the most part interconnect. There's a coherence in the Bush strategy that the Clinton national security team -- notable for its simultaneous cultivation and humiliation of Russia -- never achieved. Third, Bush's analysis of how hegemony works and what causes terrorism is in tune with serious academic thinking, despite the fact that many academics haven't noticed this yet. Fourth, the Bush administration, unlike several of its predecessors, sees no contradiction between power and principles. It is, in this sense, thoroughly Wilsonian. Finally, the new strategy is candid. This administration speaks plainly, at times eloquently, with no attempt to be polite or diplomatic or "nuanced." What you hear and what you read is pretty much what you can expect to get.


There are, however, some things that you won't hear or read, probably by design. The Bush NSS has, if not a hidden agenda, then at least one the administration isn't advertising. It has to do with why the administration regards tyrants, in the post–September 11 world, as at least as dangerous as terrorists.

Bush tried to explain the connection in his January 2002 State of the Union address when he warned of an "axis of evil" made up of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The phrase confused more than it clarified, though, since Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Kim Jong Il are hardly the only tyrants around, nor are their ties to one another evident. Nor was it clear why containment and deterrence would not work against these tyrants, since they're all more into survival than suicide. Their lifestyles tend more toward palaces than caves.

Both the West Point speech and the NSS are silent on the "axis of evil." The phrase, it now appears, reflected overzealous speechwriting rather than careful thought. It was an ill-advised effort to make the president sound, simultaneously, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and it's now been given a quiet burial. This administration corrects its errors, even if it doesn't admit them.

That, though, raises a more important question: Why, having buried the "axis of evil," is Bush still so keen on burying Saddam Hussein? Especially since the effort to do so might provoke him into using the weapons of last resort that he's so far not used? It patronizes the administration to seek explanations in filial obligation. Despite his comment that this is "a guy that tried to kill my dad," George W. Bush is no Hamlet, agonizing over how to meet a tormented parental ghost's demands for revenge. Shakespeare might still help, though, if you shift the analogy to Henry V. That monarch understood the psychological value of victory -- of defeating an adversary sufficiently thoroughly that you shatter the confidence of others, so that they'll roll over themselves before you have to roll over them.

For Henry, the demonstration was Agincourt, the famous victory over the French in 1415. The Bush administration got a taste of Agincourt with its victory over the Taliban at the end of 2001, to which the Afghans responded by gleefully shaving their beards, shedding their burkas, and cheering the infidels -- even to the point of lending them horses from which they laser-marked bomb targets. Suddenly, it seemed, American values were transportable, even to the remotest and most alien parts of the earth. The vision that opened up was not one of the clash among civilizations we'd been led to expect, but rather, as the NSS puts it, a clash "inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world."

How, though, to maintain the momentum, given that the Taliban is no more and that al Qaeda isn't likely to present itself as a conspicuous target? This, I think, is where Saddam Hussein comes in: Iraq is the most feasible place where we can strike the next blow. If we can topple this tyrant, if we can repeat the Afghan Agincourt on the banks of the Euphrates, then we can accomplish a great deal. We can complete the task the Gulf War left unfinished. We can destroy whatever weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein may have accumulated since. We can end whatever support he's providing for terrorists elsewhere, notably those who act against Israel. We can liberate the Iraqi people. We can ensure an ample supply of inexpensive oil. We can set in motion a process that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby eliminating the principal breeding ground for terrorism. And, as President Bush did say publicly in a powerful speech to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, we can save that organization from the irrelevance into which it will otherwise descend if its resolutions continue to be contemptuously disregarded.

If I'm right about this, then it's a truly grand strategy. What appears at first glance to be a lack of clarity about who's deterrable and who's not turns out, upon closer examination, to be a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East: for bringing it, once and for all, into the modern world. There's been nothing like this in boldness, sweep, and vision since Americans took it upon themselves, more than half a century ago, to democratize Germany and Japan, thus setting in motion processes that stopped short of only a few places on earth, one of which was the Muslim Middle East.


The honest answer is that no one knows. We've had examples in the past of carefully crafted strategies failing: most conspicuously, the Nixon-Kissinger attempt, during the early 1970s, to bring the Soviet Union within the international system of satisfied states. We've had examples of carelessly improvised strategies succeeding: The Clinton administration accomplished this feat in Kosovo in 1999. The greatest theorist of strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, repeatedly emphasized the role of chance, which can at times defeat the best of designs and at other times hand victory to the worst of them. For this reason, he insisted, theory can never really predict what's going to happen.

Does this mean, though, that there's nothing we can say? That all we can do is cross our fingers, hope for the best, and wait for the historians to tell us why whatever happened was bound to happen? I don't think so, for reasons that relate, rather mundanely, to transportation. Before airplanes take off -- and, these days, before trains leave their terminals -- the mechanics responsible for them look for cracks, whether in the wings, the tail, the landing gear, or on the Acela the yaw dampers. These reveal the stresses produced while moving the vehicle from where it is to where it needs to go. If undetected, they can lead to disaster. That's why inspections -- checking for cracks -- are routine in the transportation business. I wonder if they ought not to be in the strategy business as well. The potential stresses I see in the Bush grand strategy -- the possible sources of cracks -- are as follows:

Multitasking: Critics as unaccustomed to agreeing with one another as Brent Scowcroft and Al Gore have warned against diversion from the war on terrorism if the United States takes on Saddam Hussein. The principle involved here -- deal with one enemy at a time -- is a sound one. But plenty of successful strategies have violated it. An obvious example is Roosevelt's decision to fight simultaneous wars against Germany and Japan between 1941 and 1945. Another is Kennan's strategy of containment, which worked by deterring the Soviet Union while reviving democracy and capitalism in Western Europe and Japan. The explanation, in both instances, was that these were wars on different fronts against the same enemy: authoritarianism and the conditions that produced it.

The Bush administration sees its war against terrorists and tyrants in much the same way. The problem is not that Saddam Hussein is actively supporting al Qaeda, however much the Bush team would like to prove that. It's rather that authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East support terrorism indirectly by continuing to produce generations of underemployed, unrepresented, and therefore radicalizable young people from whom Osama bin Laden and others like him draw their recruits.

Bush has, to be sure, enlisted authoritarian allies in his war against terrorism -- for the moment. So did Roosevelt when he welcomed the Soviet Union's help in the war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But the Bush strategy has long-term as well as immediate implications, and these do not assume indefinite reliance on regimes like those that currently run Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Reliance on Yasir Arafat has already ended.

The welcome: These plans depend critically, however, on our being welcomed in Baghdad if we invade, as we were in Kabul. If we aren't, the whole strategy collapses, because it's premised on the belief that ordinary Iraqis will prefer an American occupation over the current conditions in which they live. There's no evidence that the Bush administration is planning the kind of military commitments the United States made in either of the two world wars, or even in Korea and Vietnam. This strategy relies on getting cheered, not shot at.

Who's to say, for certain, that this will or won't happen? A year ago, Afghanistan seemed the least likely place in which invaders could expect cheers, and yet they got them. It would be foolish to conclude from this experience, though, that it will occur everywhere. John F. Kennedy learned that lesson when, recalling successful interventions in Iran and Guatemala, he authorized the failed Bay of Pigs landings in Cuba. The trouble with Agincourts -- even those that happen in Afghanistan -- is the arrogance they can encourage, along with the illusion that victory itself is enough and that no follow-up is required. It's worth remembering that, despite Henry V, the French never became English.

Maintaining the moral high ground: It's difficult to quantify the importance of this , but why should we need to? Just war theory has been around since St. Augustine. Our own Declaration of Independence invoked a decent respect for the opinions of humankind. Richard Overy's fine history of World War II devotes an entire chapter to the Allies' triumph in what he calls "the moral contest." Kennedy rejected a surprise attack against Soviet missiles in Cuba because he feared losing the moral advantage: Pearl Harbor analogies were enough to sink plans for preemption in a much more dangerous crisis than Americans face now. The Bush NSS acknowledges the multiplier effects of multilateralism: "no nation can build a safer, better world alone." These can hardly be gained through unilateral action unless that action itself commands multilateral support.

The Bush team assumes we'll have the moral high ground, and hence multilateral support, if we're cheered and not shot at when we go into Baghdad and other similar places. No doubt they're right about that. They're seeking U.N. authorization for such a move and may well get it. Certainly, they'll have the consent of the U.S. Congress. For there lies behind their strategy an incontestable moral claim: that in some situations preemption is preferable to doing nothing. Who would not have preempted Hitler or Milosevic or Mohammed Atta, if given the chance?

Will Iraq seem such a situation, though, if we're not cheered in Baghdad? Can we count on multilateral support if things go badly? Here the Bush administration has not been thinking ahead. It's been dividing its own moral multipliers through its tendency to behave, on an array of multilateral issues ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the International Criminal Court, like a sullen, pouting, oblivious, and overmuscled teenager. As a result, it's depleted the reservoir of support from allies it ought to have in place before embarking on such a high-risk strategy.

There are, to be sure, valid objections to these and other initiatives the administration doesn't like. But it's made too few efforts to use diplomacy -- by which I mean tact -- to express these complaints. Nor has it tried to change a domestic political culture that too often relishes having the United States stand defiantly alone. The Truman administration understood that the success of containment abroad required countering isolationism at home. The Bush administration hasn't yet made that connection between domestic politics and grand strategy. That's its biggest failure of leadership so far.

The Bush strategy depends ultimately on not standing defiantly alone -- just the opposite, indeed, for it claims to be pursuing values that, as the NSS puts it, are "true for every person, in every society." So this crack especially needs fixing before this vehicle departs for its intended destination. A nation that sets itself up as an example to the world in most things will not achieve that purpose by telling the rest of the world, in some things, to shove it.


Despite these problems, the Bush strategy is right on target with respect to the new circumstances confronting the United States and its allies in the wake of September 11. It was sufficient, throughout the Cold War, to contain without seeking to reform authoritarian regimes: we left it to the Soviet Union to reform itself. The most important conclusion of the Bush NSS is that this Cold War assumption no longer holds. The intersection of radicalism with technology the world witnessed on that terrible morning means that the persistence of authoritarianism anywhere can breed resentments that can provoke terrorism that can do us grievous harm. There is a compellingly realistic reason now to complete the idealistic task Woodrow Wilson began more than eight decades ago: the world must be made safe for democracy, because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world.

The Bush NSS report could be, therefore, the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half a century. The risks are great -- though probably no more than those confronting the architects of containment as the Cold War began. The pitfalls are plentiful -- there are cracks to attend to before this vehicle departs for its intended destination. There's certainly no guarantee of success -- but as Clausewitz would have pointed out, there never is in anything that's worth doing.

We'll probably never know for sure what bin Laden and his gang hoped to achieve with the horrors they perpetrated on September 11, 2001. One thing seems clear, though: it can hardly have been to produce this document, and the new grand strategy of transformation that is contained within it.