11 years after terror attacks, America should calm itself

The changes in our foreign policy have us reacting to far too many situations in countries where we have little at stake.
Crosscut archive image.

Flowers at Ground Zero (2010).

The changes in our foreign policy have us reacting to far too many situations in countries where we have little at stake.

We observe this week the 11th anniverary of the Al Qaida attacks of 9/11/2001 which, briefly, united the country as it had not been united in many years and has not been united since.

The irony of the anniversary can perhaps be best demonstrated by the disputes among New York and New Jersey state and local governments that have postponed, for at least a year, the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City

Many changes have taken place in American daily life in the 11 years since the attacks.

The most visible are the security measures we have learned to live with. Airport-security checks have frustrated millions of airline passengers and cost federal taxpayers many billions to enforce. Airlines have had their operating costs increased. Yet huge holes continue to exist in airport security, especially among airline and airport employees, and in the treatment of baggage not carried by passengers.

Public and some private buildings have installed security checkpoints and procedures. These, too, have added to public and private costs. Border crossings are more time consuming and difficult.

Yet, to be truly safe from terrorist attack, we would have to employ equally expensive and burdensome security procedures on rail, bus, and water transportation; on rails, highways, and roads near cities, ports, dams, and power stations; on areas near forestlands, rivers, harbors and reservoirs; at sports stadia — as a matter of fact, at just about every major population center, corporate headquarters and production facility, public or private building, and place where important economic activity takes place.

Locally, some of the landmarks and targets are: the Space Needle, Grand Coulee Dam, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, our state's forestlands, the University of Washington and other university and college campuses, Husky Stadium, Safeco Field, and CenturyLink Field, the I-5 and Aurora Bridges and Ballard Locks, the innumerable military installations in the state, the Federal Building, post offices.  The targets are readily at hand.The options of attack are multiple.

Background checks for public and private employees are now far more intensive than previously. Cybersecurity measures necessarily are in place. Law-enforcement agencies have heightened surveillance and security-related activities.

The changes began, of course, before 9/11 but have been intensified since then.  Perhaps the best measure of the security changes of the past 50-plus years is the nature of life in Washington, D.C. In the early 1960s, even after President Kennedy's assassination, you could walk into the Executive Office Building, adjoining the White House, without having even to pass through a reception desk. Any citizen off the streeet could walk to the door of any office in the building, which housed all but a handful of White House staff, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Vice President's office. And this, remember, was during Cold War days. Now everything in the capital city is secure, including the offices of many private businesses. Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, is blocked to traffic.

One thing any Secret Service person or experienced security executive will tell you: Any determined person or persons, if willing to sacrifice their own lives, can find a way to kill almost anyone or destroy any target. That is reality.

You thus could argue that 9/11/2001 was a victory of sorts for Al Qaeda, beyond the destruction wrought by the four hijacked airliners, since it changed drastically the way we live in America.

The attacks of 9/11 also changed the way we regarded the world.

There was, of course, the immediate intervention in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban so as to root out Al Qaeda's secure base of operations. There was, later, the expensive intervention in Iraq, billed not only as part of the war on terror but as the necessary way to strip Saddam Hussein of his nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare capabilities (which, it turned out, had been abandoned several years earlier).  We are pledged to remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, although Al Qaeda has long since moved its base of operations and the principal terrorist threat in the region is now the Hakkani network, headquartered in Pakistan. We presently are confronting Iran not only because of its development of nuclear weapons but, also, because of its support for Hezbollah terrorism.  

We have, in fact, taken a more activist and strident posture toward all we regard as present and prospective adversaries, terrorist or otherwise. We waged war to depose Gaddafi in Libya, gave support to those overthrowing Mubarak in Egypt, and presently are providing covert aid to rebels seeking power in Syria. (Yet, ironically, we do not yet know who ultimately will govern Libya, Egypt, and Syria, since Islamic fundamentalist factions seek to take power in those countries). We are so fearful of Iran that we may find ourselves supporting a preemptive Israeli attack against that country's nuclear and industrial facilities. In traditional foreign-policy relationships, we increasingly describe Russia and China as adversaries.

My own reaction to all the above: Both domestically and internationally, we should calm ourselves.

Of course security precautions should be taken at key facilities which might be targeted by terrorists. But we should do so in the knowledge that we cannot make everything safe from everyone and everything. Intelligence operations, breakup of terrorist groups, and apprehension of dangerous individuals are more important to our safety than locking down the country.

Internationally, we should be worrying most greatly about the dangers posed by financial and economic contagion than by real or imagined dangers posed by national leaders of whom we disapprove.

We should remember that nations mainly operate on the basis of their perceived interests. Iran, for example, seeks nuclear weapons because its near neighbors possess nuclear weapons and it knows that the possession of such weapons guarantees a place at the global bargaining table. Russia historically has worried about security at its periphery, and domestic instability from dissident groups and nationalities, and will continue to conduct itself accordingly. China saw the collapse of communism in Russia when Russian leaders tried simultaneously to liberalize economically and politically. Chinese leaders are taking no such chances and are maintaining party political control while they conduct wholly pragmatic financial and economic policies. They also have China's historic obsession with the real or possible losses of Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Manchuria and contested islands and the desire to become the dominant power in Asia.

The above situations all argue for the conduct of relations with these countries on a pragmatic, traditional basis. Except in the instances of North Korea, a dangerous rogue state, and Pakistan, a nuclear power where a fundamentalist takeover must be averted, there is no need to proceed with urgency or "too much zeal" (in the words of the French statesman Talleyrand and some of his British counterparts).

Had 9/11 not happened, we would be far more likely now to be playing a long and patient game in foreign policy rather than jumping into disputes within and with countries that pose no immediate threat to us. The perfect example is Iran, where a young, well-educated population badly wants political and economic modernization. Perhaps the present theocratic regime will be overthrown before Iran gets a nuclear-weapons capability. But, if it is not, our interests still would be best served by casting our lot with a rising generation, which wants modernism. That means calming ourselves and waiting for change that almost certainly will take a direction we desire.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.