Jeff Jacoby

The war on terror, Bush accurately foretold, would be a long struggle fought on many fronts. But ultimately the only way to prevent al-Qaeda and its allies from imposing an "age of terror" was for America to sustain an "age of liberty, here and across the world." While Bush would get plenty of things wrong after 9/11, this ideological insight -- that the root of Islamist terrorism was the lack of freedom in the Middle East -- was one of the big things he got right.

There were plenty who didn't. Many voices insisted that terrorism was fueled by poverty or lack of education. Other analysts rushed to explain 9/11 as the fruit of US "arrogance," or as a reaction to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, as Princeton economist Alan Krueger demonstrated in a 2007 book, What Makes A Terrorist?, the best predictors of terrorism are "the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights."

Bush's campaign to democratize the Middle East -- what came to be known as the "freedom agenda" -- was rooted in the conviction that the way to break the back of jihadist hatred was to drain the swamps in which it breeds: the dictatorships and theocracies of the Muslim Middle East. "Terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples," he said in 2003. "When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror, and turn to the pursuits of peace."

For decades, foreign-policy "realists" argued that stability in the Arab world was more important than liberty, and so it was better to tolerate oppressive regimes than to risk the upheaval that democratic change might bring. That was the roadmap that led to 9/11.

Today, 10 years after 9/11, the region is more unstable than it has been in generations. Iraq's dictator is dead, Libya's is on the run, and demands for freedom and democratic reform have shaken regimes from Tunisia to Syria to Iran. Yet who wouldn't prefer today's churn and ferment to the illusory stability of 2001?

No, Islamist terror hasn't been eradicated. Liberal Muslim democracy has a long way to go. But we have engaged the struggle of ideas. And as we fight not just the terrorists, but the poisoned ideas that motivate them, we are slowly winning the war that began on 9/11.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.