On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was driving on the Long Island Expressway, heading out to a friend’s house to spend a few weeks working on a book. An hour into my drive, I switched from music to news and listened with horror to reports that two large passenger planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. I turned around instantly, realizing that my sabbatical was over. So was America’s.
It’s difficult now to recall the mood of the 1990s. The Cold War had ended, overwhelmingly on American terms. A world that had been divided into two camps, politically and economically, was now one. Dozens of countries from Latin America to Africa to Asia that were once staunchly socialist were moving toward capitalism and democracy, embracing a global order they once decried as unjust and imperial.
America in the 1990s was consumed by talk of economics and technology. The information revolution was just taking off. I try to explain to my children that only two decades ago, much of the world that seems indispensable today — the Internet, cellphones — did not exist for most people. In the early 1990s, AOL and Netscape gave everyday Americans the chance to browse the Internet. Until then, the revolutionary technology that had broken down government censorship and opened access to information in the communist bloc was — the fax machine. Explaining its effects, the strategist Albert Wohlstetter had written an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Fax Will Make You Free.”
What few of us recognized at the time was that one part of the world was not being reshaped by these winds of change — the Middle East. As communism crumbled, Latin American juntas yielded, apartheid cracked and Asian strongmen gave way to elected leaders, the Middle East remained stagnant. Almost every regime in the region, from Libya to Egypt to Syria, was run by the same authoritarian system that had been in place for decades. The rulers were mostly secular, autocratic and deeply repressive. They had maintained political control but produced economic despair and social paralysis. For a young man in the Middle East — and there was a surfeit of young men — the world was moving forward everywhere except at home.
Into this void entered political Islam. There had always been preachers and thinkers who believed that Islam was not just a religion but a complete system of politics, economics and law. As the Arab world’s secular dictatorships produced misery, more and more people listened to ideologues who had a simple slogan — Islam is the answer — by which they meant a radical, literalist Islam. The seductiveness of that slogan is really at the heart of the problem we still face today. It is what drives some young, alienated Muslim men (and even a few women) not just to kill but — far more difficult to understand — to die.
Where do things stand now? Since that day in September 2001, the United States has waged two major wars, embarked on dozens of smaller military missions, built a vast bureaucracy of homeland security and established rules and processes all meant to protect the United States and its allies from the dangers of Islamist terrorism.
Some of these actions have protected the United States and its allies. But the striking change that has taken place across the Middle East is that stability has been replaced by instability. The United States’ intervention in Iraq might have been the spark, but the kindling had been piling up high. The Arab Spring, for example, was the result of powerful demographic, economic and social pressures pushing up against regimes that had lost the ability to respond or adapt. Growing sectarianism — Shiite vs. Sunni, Arab vs. Kurd — had reshaped the politics of countries such as Iraq and Syria. When the repressive ruler was toppled — Hussein, Saleh, Gaddafi — the entire political order unraveled and the nation (a recent creation in the Arab world) itself fell apart.
The challenge in defeating the Islamic State is not really about vanquishing it on the battlefield. The United States has won battles like that for 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq only to discover that once U.S. forces leave, the Taliban or the Islamic State or some other radical group returns. The way to have these groups stay defeated is to help Muslim countries find some form of politics that addresses the basic aspirations of their people — all their people. The goal is simple to express: to stop waves of disaffected young men from falling into despair at their conditions, surfing the Web and finding within it the same old slogan — Islam is the answer. When those young men stop clicking on that link, that is when the war on terrorism will be won.
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