April 5, 2004 | Commentary Magazine

Sounding the Alarm

In the war on terror, we have reached a winter of discontent. Democratic candidates tell us the center cannot hold, that we are over-extended and globally unloved, that the Bush policies have failed. We hear that Iraq was the wrong target, that Saddam Hussein may have had no weapons of mass destruction, that reconstruction is going badly. Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran are growing threats. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remains unresolved. Osama bin Laden is still out there making audiotapes.

From the Bush administration have come reports of progress, of course, but as we advance the terrain seems less certain, the strategy less clear. In a private memo, obtained by USA Today last fall, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing.” In his State of the Union address, the President reaffirmed his commitment to the war but listed no specific new steps, and the word is that any bold new moves are basically on hold for the rest of this election year. Our enemies suffer no such constraints. So where are we going, and what should be the plan?

Into this climate, David Frum and Richard Perle have pitched, as if from another planet, a book that in no uncertain terms spells out exactly where they think we are and what we must now do. Depending on your point of view, this could be just the kind of tonic the country needs or one of the worst developments since Frum, in an earlier incarnation as a White House speechwriter, helped to coin the phrase “axis of evil.” At any rate, the book is bound to help clarify the debate.

Both Frum and Perle have been accused by Bush's critics of belonging to a shadowy neoconservative “cabal,” manipulating the administration behind the scenes–though Frum left the White House two years ago and Perle, a former assistant secretary, of defense under Ronald Reagan, serves these days solely in an advisory capacity as a member of the Defense Policy Board. With An End to Evil, the two authors, both now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, step forth from whatever shadows they have been suspected of inhabiting to place their agenda front and center.

Their basic message is one of urgency. This book was written, they tell us, “at high speed through high summer,” and its purpose is to warn that we have reached not a reasonable resting place in the war on terror but a “crisis point.” While much has been achieved, while Bush was right to go into Iraq, and while the American people have so far passed every hurdle, “Now comes the hardest test of all.” Although the war is far from won, America's political and media elites are tired, caught up in election politics, losing their nerve. And while America blinks, “Our enemies plot, our allies dither and carp, and much of our own government remains ominously unready for the fight.”

Their theme throughout is that U.S. leaders and our allies remain for the most part in a state of denial not only about the extent but about the nature of the threat. (“We sometimes wonder,” they crack, “how the war on terror escaped being called 'the war against you-know-who.'”) For their own part, they unambiguously define the evil of our era, the evil of their title, as militant Islam. Nor is this evil any less hardy and dangerous, they suggest, than the worst threats of the last century:

   In militant Islam we face an aggressive

   ideology of world domination.

   Like Communism, this

   ideology perverts the language of

   justice and equality to justify oppression

   and murder. Like Nazism,

   it exploits the pride of once-mighty


And, like both Communism and Nazism, militant Islam welcomes, when convenient, “all manner of unlikely allies.” Thus does secular North Korea end up paired with the Islamic Republic of Iran on the roster of our most dangerous foes, two states linked by their nuclear programs, both presenting “intolerable threats to American security.”

WHAT TO do? The authors' prescriptions are organized roughly into sections on reforms still needed on the home front, where they fear the war might yet be lost, and actions needed abroad, where they warn that, despite our victories in battle, we are losing the war of ideas. In both theaters, they write, winning will require taking risks that our old bureaucracies and habits do not favor.

At home, Frum and Perle urge a thorough revamping of assorted frontline institutions. Among other things, they recommend reconfiguring the State Department to yield a staff more prone to cooperate with a war-waging White House. They propose sprucing up what they see as a still-ossified Central Intelligence Agency, starting with the firing of its director, George Tenet, who has been in charge since 1997. (“He has failed. He should go.”) And in a brief excursion through domestic economics, they argue for retaining the Bush tax cuts–the better to engender the kind of economy needed to fight this war.

Abroad, they offer not so much a blanket solution as a roster of levers and tactics for dealing with individual threats–the unifying principle being that we must, in whichever ways possible, put an end to tyranny with its “poisonous cultural effect.” While noting that America does not have the resources, or possibly even the desire, to replace every last dictator with democratic rule, they emphasize that at the very. least “we are not obliged to honor the pretensions of nondemocratic governments, either.”

In the case of Iran, Frum and Perle believe our best bet is to aid the democratic opposition within the country, and they deplore the administration's reluctance to do so. With the Palestinians, they are less optimistic, warning that until all terrorist groups are finally gone from within the purview of the Palestinian Authority, any attempt to make common cause with moderates and set up a state is likely to drag us into a “Palestinian South Vietnam.” In North Korea, they suggest the most viable and cost-effective option may be intervention by China to oust the nuclear-extortionist government of Kim Jong II and install in Pyongyang an interim, quisling regime, less immediately threatening to the U.S.

Frum and Perle also highlight the need to alter the behavior of such terrorist-sponsoring regimes as Syria and Saudi Arabia. With Syria, they suggest simply demanding that the government open up its authoritarian system, shut down all terrorists on its turf, and end its occupation of Lebanon, under threat that otherwise we will block the traffic in weapons from Iran and cut off the oil from Iraq. In the case of the Saudis, they tick off a long list of outrages by the royal regime against both its own people and the wider world–especially the funding of Wahhabi missionary work that spreads jihad and crowds out tolerant strains of Islam. Here, Frum and Perle urge the administration to adopt such hardball tactics as contemplating aloud the possible breakup of Saudi Arabia into the oil-rich East, home of the repressed Shiite minority, and the largely Sunni West, where the Wahhabi-sponsoring elite lives lavishly off oil sales. “Independence for the Eastern Province would obviously be a catastrophic outcome for the Saudi state,” posit Frum and Perle. “But it might be a very good outcome for the United States.”

THAT IS just a sampling of the ideas and proposals packed into this book, which touches on a great many more aspects of the war. Russia, for example, poses no major riddle to the authors. They observe that President Vladimir Putin has simply been selling his foreign policy, when convenient, to the highest bidder. (“Our relationship with Russia is not an alliance, not even a friendship, but rather a series of transactions.”) The United Nations they assess as thoroughly outdated, “founded upon the fiction of equal competence of all the world's governments” and designed to stop blitzkriegs across borders, not today's peril of terrorist attacks perpetrated from within. They propose we either drastically reform the UN or simply discard it.

Much here may sound familiar, voiced piecemeal already in the public debate by Frum and Perle, and others. And enough ground is covered so that even those inclined in most ways to agree with the authors will likely find points of dissent. (I should note here that Frum is a former colleague on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and Perle serves as an adviser at two institutions with which I have part-time affiliations.) My own main disagreement is on North Korea, where I believe the risks of further trouble in Asia, including the threat to democratic Taiwan, outweigh the short-term advantages of a Chinese-installed regime in Pyongyang.

But the great virtue of the book is that Frum and Perle have had the courage to set down without euphemism the best global plan yet conceived for winning this war. Among those prone to demonize them before cracking the covers, this may win no converts. For the many who have, in the main, backed the Bush policies, but are now wondering where it is all going, An End to Evil offers a bracing contribution as well as some important bearings. Although the book badly needs an index, and the text at times has the feel of a highly readable rough draft, somewhat loosely stitched together, those are excusable faults. The authors are quite right about the urgent need, at this fractious and weary juncture, to sound the alarm.

Claudia Rosett contributes “The Real World,” a bi-weekly column on foreign affairs, to the Wall Street Journal's online edition, OpinionJournal.com. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.