At a fundamental level, the US struggles with radical Islam today are the same as its struggles with communism during the Cold War. Radical Islam is a POLITICAL movement – as was communism. And like communism, it will never be defeated militarily, but only through politics – a long, slow process that takes decades.
During the Cold War, socialism was popular the world over. The US often had to choose between accepting a democratically-elected socialist government, or working to overthrow that democracy to install a dictator who was sympathetic to the US (and antagonistic to the USSR). While paying lip-service to democracy, the US spent decades subverting it across the globe – in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Chile, Iran and Nicaragua – whenever a population had the poor taste to elect socialists.
Egypt is the most obvious post-Cold War analog, where the popularity of radical Islam was borne out in democratic elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012. It took more than 4000 years of Egyptian history to produce Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected leader – but just one more year to overthrow him. The US responded much as it did to Hugo Chavez’s short-lived coup in Venezuela: given the choice between democracy and a US-friendly government, the US did not hesitate to turn its back on democracy, as it did for decades during the Cold War. The US just did the same thing in Ukraine too, validating the overthrow of a democratically elected pro-Russian government; and embracing the pro-Western leadership that emerged from the revolution.
Syria is playing out as a variation on the same theme. A client-state of the USSR during the Cold War, its poor US-relations were cemented by its role in the Six-Day (1967) and Yom Kippur (1973) Wars. Assad would otherwise be a natural US ally, given that he’s a secular leader, opposed to radical Islam. As Syria descended into civil war, the US could not take a side, because Assad’s overthrow would almost surely bring radical Islamists to power. Faced with a choice between Assad and radical Islam, the US has done nothing – which is good policy. In Syria, the US can do little more than put its own infantry in the way of two warring factions – a futility whose lesson was learned in Vietnam.
Which brings us to Iraq, where the dynamics today are all too familiar. A secular democracy is under siege by radical Islam. Unlike Syria, the US considers the secular leadership of Iraq to be an ally. But it hardly makes a difference, because, again, the root of the conflict is political – and foreign armies make for especially bad politics. See how decades of military confrontation have failed to quell anti-Israeli movements in Gaza and the West Bank. There simply is no role for the use of US military force in Iraq. US infantryman would serve as little more than targets, to the tune of hundreds, if not thousands of casualties per year; meanwhile their very presence would fuel radical Islam’s recruitment efforts.
Chaos in Syria and Iraq today is the direct and foreseeable consequence of Bush Duh’s foolish 2003 invasion. Once the Hussein regime was toppled, everything that’s since happened was inevitable: factionalization, civil war, the rise of religious extremists, and their spread across national borders. The US has no good options. The popularity of radical Islam will not be made to pass with bombs and bullets. The US infantry cannot today win the fight for secular democracy in Iraq, any more than it could win the fight for pro-Western governance in Vietnam in 1968.
Market economics and democracy have arisen the world over – but it takes years for people and their leadership to be won over to that set of policies and principles. There is, unfortunately, no short cut between where we are now – with nascent radical Islamic movements across many countries in the Middle East – and where we hope to be one day.