Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: we must understand our enemies.
Regardless of your opinion of Karl Rove, he hit the nail on the head, though I would substitute "Republicans" and "Democrats" for "conservatives" and "liberals". There are many conservatives who understand the complexities of the problems we face just as there are many liberals who do not. Given the atrocity of 9/11, it's incumbent on all who are affected to understand how this tragedy occurred and what we can do to try and prevent another. A good place to start is reading the 9/11 Commission Report (or the brilliant online graphic adaptation). However, I have this report in my hand and while it appears to be thorough, it has a glaring omission: why did the terrorists do this? Here's what the book has to say about why the Muslims hate us and how we can stop the attacks:
Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions. To the first, they say that American had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. American is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as "your agents." Bin Ladin has stated flatly, "Our fight against the governments is not separate from our fight against you." These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to American's support for their countries' oppressive rulers.
And that's pretty much it. A report of thirteen sections, fifty-five subsections, three appendices, 567 pages, written after reviewing 2.5 million pages of documents, interviewing 1,200 individuals in ten countries and interviewing most senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations sums up the reasons for the attack in a single paragraph. Something is seriously wrong here.
That paragraph raises more questions than answers. What's that bit about Kashmiri Muslims? What does the Philippines have to do with anything? Oh, there are mentions of the poverty, political corruption and religious oppression many Muslims in the Middle East endure, but these hardly explain the anger towards the US. In trying to organize my thoughts and understand this oversight, I quickly discovered another omission from this work: there's no index. One of the single most important tools for research is missing from this report.
Given the recent election and the fact that Democrats will now apparently control both the House and Senate of the US Congress, many people have been elated, others have despaired. Part of the despair is the concern that Democrats will not appropriately deal with the "War on Terror." I share this view. Though I am unhappy with the current administration's response this problem, I do not believe for a moment that the Democrats have the political capital or courage to do what must be done. Building a platform on "we're not Bush" -- upgraded in the wake of many Republican scandals to "we're not Republicans" -- is doomed to failure. We need strong, decisive leadership with an eye to the long term and this is hardly a Democratic strength.
To understand a large part of the required response, imagine you've built a house on a poor foundation which constantly cracks and shifts. You can keep shoring up the house, but sooner or later you must do something about the foundation. It's an expensive proposition. Imagine you have lung cancer. Doctors may be able to remove the cancer -- or a lung -- but you need to quit smoking. Imagine you are a programmer getting bad data. You can work around it, but sooner or later you should try to fix the bad data. Any professional in a complex field will tell you that in the long run, problems are better solved by understanding and correcting the source of the problem and not just attending to the symptoms. The terrorist problem today is a problem that must be solved in the long run.
To rebut Karl Rove, I can best quote the controversial philosopher, H. L. Mencken:
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
Let's say that we could snap our fingers and every al Qaeda operative were to die immediately. Palestinians would still see their sons and daughters being killed with Israeli bullets purchased with US dollars. Iran's president would still be a holocaust denier and want to see Israel wiped off the map. There would still probably be a civil war in Iraq (though possibly diminished). The Kurds would still lack a homeland. Saudi Arabia's government would still be oppressive. The Saudi people would still hate the US. Syria would still covet Lebanon (which was temporarily part of Syria in the early 20th century). Jordan would still not allow Jews to own land. And so on ...
In other words, by focusing on one aspect of the problem, we're ignoring the larger context. However, we can't understand that context without understanding a the history of the region. More importantly, as far as the US is concerned, we cannot understand the deep antipathy towards the US without understanding our role in the Middle East. But first, let's take a little trip to Amsterdam.
I moved to Amsterdam in April of 2001. Since I am an American, many Dutch people were eager to discuss politics with me. One comment which was constantly expressed was how the Dutch loathed the US government but admired the people. They made a very clear distinction. Five years later I live in the UK, arguably the strongest ally of the US, and I'm hearing a different tone. Many British are not only blaming the US for many of the ills of the world, they're blaming the US people for our support of these actions. In reading newspapers and keeping track of current events, I am seeing a reaffirmation of the switch in mood. The American people are being held accountable. When bin Laden issued his "fatwa" stating that it is the duty of Muslims to kill any American they can, including civilians, he too failed to distinguish between the populace and our government. But only a few decades ago, there were far fewer problems with Americans touring the Middle East. What changed?
To be fair, it's not that hard to figure out. President Bush's repeated assertion that our enemies hate freedom is not incisive political analysis. It's a taunt worthy of a playground bully. It's trivial to find many instances of US violating the sovereignty of many Middle East nations. We need look no further than our installing the Shah of Iran into power to understand much of Iran's reaction to the US. Our long-standing support for Saddam Hussein hardly needs to be belabored. Our staunch refusal to pressure Israel on human rights abuses against Arabs and Palestinians also shouldn't be overlooked. These are just a few of the many grievances the terrorists have. It's a pattern of constant US interference in Middle Eastern affairs. And how did we respond to 9/11? We invaded Afghanistan.
If you read the report, our invasion of Afghanistan was quite understandable. I supported it at the time and I still support our intention, though not our execution (pun intended). Most of the world, if not outright supportive our our invasion, was at least sympathetic to it. Even the Arab states generally stood quietly by, knowing this was something we needed to do. Polls in Islamic countries showed that the people supported our response to 9/11 (page 375 of the commission report). Then we invaded Iraq.
To this day, I still do not understand the rationale. Page 334 of the 9/11 report makes clear that the evidence the administration was collecting did not show any connection between 9/11 and Iraq, nor was their evidence of Saddam Hussein working with bin Laden on unconventional weapons. The evidence also made clear that bin Laden "resented" the secular nature of Iraq. Curiously, it was Wolfowitz who is fingered as the guy constantly beating the "let's invade Iraq" drum. Bush is presented as someone who isn't terribly concerned about Iraq. Later, however, the Downing Street Memo and various other sources suggest that the US was, in fact, intent upon invading Iraq for reasons which may have little to do with the publicly offered ones.
Whatever the reasons for the war, the clear failure of our invasion of Iraq matches the failure of the 9/11 report: we did not take the time to appreciate why our opponents feel the way they do. It is the constant interference of the US (and others) in Middle Eastern affairs which they object to and the Iraqi invasion is viewed as a continuation of this objectionable behavior. If we wanted to eliminate "bad men", why did we support Hussein for so long? Why did we support the Shah of Iran for so long? We could cover the globe and find plenty of murderous dictators we've supported or continue to support. The "Saddam Hussein is a bad man" theory doesn't hold water and the Muslims know it. They wanted Hussein gone, too, but not by the US invading and setting up another client state. Even Kuwait, invaded by Iraq in the previous Persian Gulf war, was conspicuously absent from the Coalition of the "Willing" (as were all Arab nations, much of NATO and, in fact, most of the world).
This raises another problem. Many in the Middle East are deeply mistrustful of Iran and they are extremely concerned about Iran's attempt to develop nuclear capabilities. The US is perhaps the one nation that could, militarily, go in and deal with the threat. However, by overspending our political capital, we find ourselves bankrupt and in no position to garner world support for any action, even an action that in another context, many would view as desirable.
So what recommendations does the 9/11 Commission make? Here they do a somewhat better job and many of their recommendations are sensible. On page 376, they make a very telling comment, one that everyone should be aware of (emphasis their's):
One of the lessons of the long Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most repressive and brutal governments were too often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America's stature and interests.
American foreign policy is part of the message. American's policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world.
The 9/11 Commission Report is thoughtful, surprisingly easy to read, and incomplete. Its failure to deeply examine why many Muslims are outraged at the US is a terrible oversight, but I suspect it's one that was viewed as a matter of political expediency. If we do not have a better understanding of our role in this worldwide problem, we cannot possibly formulate a long term strategy to fix the foundation of our house. Until that time, our "War on Terror" will merely be shoring up collapsing walls and ignoring the bad foundation.
None of this should be taken as some naïve assertion that understanding is all that's required. We will still need to fight terrorism. We will need to figure out some way of handling Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll also need to implement most of the Commission's recommendations, something the Bush administration has largely ignored but the Democrats have pledged to support. If we do these things, more attacks on US soil will still be planned and regardless of who is in power, some might succeed, but we'll have a (very) long-term strategy which has a chance of succeeding if somehow successive administrations can resist the temptation to avoid meddling for short-term political wins.