This has been weeks in the works (in terms of writing), a decade plus in terms of thinking, but I needed to put down a few thoughts on 9/11….
As much as I try to understand political views that run counter to mine and as much as I separate the person from the politics, as much as possible, I make no effort to understand people who, since 9/11, have decided Islam is a religion of hate, intolerance, and jihad against the West. Having spent time in the Muslim world and appreciating that the battle within Islam has driven so much violence and conflict, I’m intolerant of the views that all Muslims are suspect, Muslims are trying to impose Sharia’ law on the US, and Islam – in and of itself – is violent. Two simple facts: 1) since 9/11, more Muslims have died from attacks by al Qaeda and al Qaeda-like/associated groups than have people of any other religion, and; 2) not all terrorist attacks in the West since 9/11 have been perpetrated by Muslims. The first fact, to me, illustrates how much the main conflict is within Islam, not between Islam and the West. The second fact tells me Islam has no monopoly violence or terror.
Yeah, I know it was composed and written in the shadows of the Berlin Wall in the lead-up to celebrating that wall coming down. And, yeah, I know it is about a band on the verge of breaking up. But no song, not even The Rising, which I know and respect, compares to U2’s “One” when I think about 9/11. I can’t listen to it — even the bluegrass cover — without thinking about those last weeks of September and early October 2001.
I didn’t live through Vietnam — I was too young, really, to experience it…alive, but not really living through it — but I saw “Miss Saigon” in Boston in 1993 or 1994 and I will never think about that conflict without the music from that show going through my head. Someday someone will compose and write something about 9/11 that is the Miss Saigon for my kids. I need to remember to ask them and then try to hear whatever it is through their ears.
I’m still vexed over my own support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A few weeks before the war started, probably mid-February 2003, I remember accompanying US ambassador to Kuwait Richard Jones to Boeing’s Rosslyn office for a meet-n-greet with former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Pickering, during which Ambassador Jones briefed about 15 senior Boeing officials on Jones’ view of the upcoming war. He used the terms “shock and awe” a few times and repeatedly stressed the regional fear of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. If I had any doubts prior to that meeting, they were gone by the time we got back to Foggy Bottom.
And once the shooting started, an email exchange with a soon-to-be-National Security Council rising star, Meghan O’Sullivan, permanently colored my view of what was happening on the ground. O’Sullivan was in Kuwait, working for whatever the transitional authority was at the time, and she was trying to make sure the war didn’t make gasoline and kerosene scarce in Iraq — Meghan knew, and her bosses knew, that the Iraqi people would need gas for their cars and kerosene (or the whatever the equivalent is) for their homes and stoves, but no one had any idea what the daily national consumption was or whether Iraq’s neighbors could and would ship supplies to Iraq. So over a hotmail account, I got emails asking, 1) do we have stats on Iraqi energy consumption, down to as much detail as possible; and 2) could we please have our embassies in the region go ask the local governments to ship free gas to Iraq for the Iraqi commuters. That the requests came over a hotmail account doesn’t seem odd now (although it freaked me out then), but the complete lack of knowledge and preparation struck me as nearly criminal. How the hell did we not know this stuff and plan for it? We spent so much time gearing up for this war and didn’t think about some of the most obvious consequences? Everything that flowed from those first few failures in post-war planning — no cops, too many contractors, and so on — never surprised me and always reminded me that from Day 2 we were missing a plan for Days 3 through the end.
But growing doubts about post-invasion planning and competent execution is different than growing doubts about why I supported the war in the first place. Thankfully, Andrew Sullivan helps. It was easy to believe three things in 2003, before and after March: 1) Saddam had WMD and might use them; 2) a Saddam-free democratic Iraq would be good for the Middle East, and ; 3) if you disagreed, it was probably because you hated George W Bush, not because you had real doubts about 1 and 2. Because it doesn’t make sense now doesn’t mean it didn’t make sense then…its just a lesson in trying to see the world through eyes that aren’t shrouded in concrete and steel ash.
Allies and Friends
I was in Germany on 9/11 and didn’t get back until the Saturday after the attack. I spent most days walking around Frankfurt, checking in with the Consulate and talking to Germans. The front gate at the Consulate was a sea of flowers and German teachers were bringing their classes to pay respect. On 9/12, the morning walk for coffee was quiet, as though every person had the same heaviness in the heart. Every foreigner I spoke with was sad for Americans — “we are all Americans” was not just a political speech, it seemed to be what people genuinely felt. My hosts, an Australian and a Lebanese, were profoundly saddened by the attacks, even, in the case of my Lebanese friend, though 9/11 was one day compared to a childhood growing up in war-torn Beirut.
Four years later, over dinner with friends in Cairo, an Egyptian woman who had previously traveled to the US and loved it said she would never go back. She was horrified by the war in Iraq and angry that 9/11 had become, in her eyes, a way for the US to wage war on Islam, for Americans to lump all Muslims together as “terrorists.” She was wrong about a lot of things, but her attitude – and the sharp contrast between where she had been and where she was, with respect to respect for the United States — was disheartening.
In contrast, I learned through experience to love the French. No other country did more on counter-terrorism (and, yes, that includes the Emiratis, but more on that in a second). Set aside my love for The Tour and the French national soccer team and Cote du Rhone — based solely on what I saw in a year at the NSC and three and a half years total working CT finance at State and Treasury, the US has no better ally in combating terrorist groups around the globe, at every level, on every issue. Yes, Israel is a great ally. No, Israel is not our greatest ally on counterterrorism (please see me in 20 years for full details, when I can write without censure).
Sometime in 2004-2005, I went to Abu Dhabi and sat in on a dinner with the Crown Prince. I was traveling with a superstar and we had just come from a big conference in Saudi Arabia, where she was a huge hit. After a meal filled with mostly stories and joking and family and goodness and light, the Crown Prince, MBZ, got serious and said something to the effect of: “if 15 of the 19 hijackers had been from the UAE, we would not have looked for excuses or someone else to blame.” MBZ then reminded the group of what the Emiratis had done since, including boots on the ground in Afghanistan. MBZ truly was/is a prince among men, but his point resonates all these years later. Who did step up after 9/11 and take responsibility for their actions and take action against the people and ideas that led to that attack? Ten years is too soon to know all the names of the righteous and the good, but the list right now includes the Egyptians who protested in Tahrir Square (and allowed freedom of worship for Muslims and Copts during the protest), every single person who has talked to a Muslim American and recognized they are a person and not a terrorist or wanna-be-jihadist, and countless analysts at the Agency and trainers at US Navy bases who worked hundreds of thousands of hours to make sure Osama bin Laden’s last image was an American shooting him dead.
That is no way to end this, so here is one last thought: in Tent-Makers in Cairo sometime between 1995 and 1997, I was waiting as Maureen drank tea with a merchant and bargained over the right price for a wall-hanging (that is now somewhere in the attic) and I watched a scene in front of me…and old man had some tea on a tray, likely delivering it to another foreigner haggling with a merchant, and a group of shabaab, teenage boys, went careening by, knocking into the old man just enough to spill his tea onto his hands. He stood there angry and at the edge of exploding and another old man walked by, saying to him again and again “al’hamdula’allah, al’hamdula’alla”….God is great, God is great….reminding the old man God is greater than some spilled tea. I’d like to think that has been the US since 9/11. We’re the old man, understanding that God – and we – are greater than one tragedy, greater than one attack…we’re resilient…confident…blessed with abundant patience and willingness to see what is good in others. Yeah, we’ve slipped up a few times, with horrible consequences…and I am not blind to the failures nor will I sell short or diminish our successes, but the larger point is that over all we’re still here, we’re still free, we still believe every person deserves respect, and every person deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.