U.S. strategy in the Islamic world is teetering on collapse. Angry, often violent crowds from Morocco to Afghanistan attacked anything associated with the United States or the West during the past week, from embassies and schools to fast food restaurants. All indications are that the protests accurately reflect a deep and persistent anger toward the United States, one that can be easily manipulated for nefarious purposes.
For decades, the United States was concerned with little but stability in the Islamic world, building partnerships with a sordid cast of monarchs, civilian dictators and military despots. While this approach continues to be applied in a few countries, it was largely discarded after Sept. 11, when the Bush administration recognized that the United States could not rely on friendly dictators to control violent extremism and hope for the best. America’s new strategy for addressing Islamic extremism took the form of counterinsurgency: The United States would attack terrorists directly while simultaneously undercutting support for extremism. While this made sense, it proved tricky to execute.
Despite the fact that most of the Sept. 11 terrorists as well as the leadership of al-Qaida and its funders were from privileged backgrounds, the Bush administration concluded that radicalism and the anger it exploited grew from a lack of political and economic opportunity. Hence democracy and prosperity became antidotes to terrorism, and providing them would address the root causes of extremism.