The Case for Sitting on Our Hands

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Beinart

They're exhilarating, of course. But from an American perspective, the revolutions transforming the Middle East are also deeply sad. They're sad because they underscore what a terrible waste the last decade of American foreign policy has been. Since September 11, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars have cost thousands of young Americans their lives and maimed many more. And for what? We were told (and I, for one, believed) that in jihadist terrorism we faced a threat of epic military and ideological power. We were told that unless we toppled anti-American regimes and imposed American ideals, the military and ideological balance would tip decisively in our enemies' favor. "I will not wait on events," vowed George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. We were told to wage war because time was not on our side.

Turns out, time was on our side. It was on our side militarily, because Saddam Hussein had no nuclear-weapons program and because in almost 10 years Al Qaeda hasn't managed another attack on the scale of 9/11 anywhere in the world. But it was also on our side ideologically, because although our foes appeared ideologically strong, they were actually ideologically weak. From Egypt to Libya to Bahrain to Iran, the lesson of the last month is that any regime that offers its people neither free speech nor a decent job is ideologically weak, whether it wraps itself in the mantle of leftism, secularism, or Islam. Had America's leaders understood that after 9/11, they might have realized that waiting on events, rather than trying to remake the Middle East at gunpoint, wasn't such a bad idea after all.

We are relearning the lesson that the architects of containment understood more than a half century ago. Then, key conservative intellectuals argued--George W. Bush style--that because the Soviet Union would grow inexorably stronger, the U.S. must launch preventive war while there was still a chance. Conservative writers like James Burnham and Republican leaders like John Foster Dulles and Barry Goldwater demanded an "offensive" strategy aimed at rolling back Soviet communism while there was still time, even if that meant initiating combat. …