Friday, September 27, 2013

Lessons Learned? 9/11 and Syria

On September 11th this year, as in previous years, a flurry of discussion took place about the lessons we should learn. “Never Forget,” some proclaim, carrying a general message some mean as “Always remember those who died and keep them in your hearts,” and some mean as “Never forget that America was attacked by extremist Muslims, and we must be ever vigilant.”  Some people say the primary lesson should be one of seeking to make the world a more peaceful, loving place, a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse.

However, I believe there are lessons to be learned by reflecting on the tragedy of 9-11 in addition to those that compel us to educate ourselves and others about our mutual humanity; beyond the fear of terrorist attack and the monumental efforts our nation has made to try to prevent attacks ranging from airport security to making war on terrorists. Most of us could understand attacking Afghanistan and supporting the Afghanis who overthrew the Taliban. The Taliban was a fundamentalist Muslim government that offered shelter and support to Al Qaeda, who had attacked us on our own soil: an act of war.

But with Iraq we learned, or relearned--many of us learned this during the Vietnam years--of the danger of our government taking us to war on a lie and keeping us at war to save face.

George W. Bush attacked Iraq claiming we were threatened from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and intentionally and falsely connecting Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda. There’s a lesson there about holding our government accountable and being skeptical even when we feel the stirrings of patriotic fervor engendered by an attack on Americans wherever they are in the world. Congress gave Bush authorization to attack based on the misinformation provided them.

Once again, on the anniversary of 9/11 we were in the midst of contemplating military action in a Middle Eastern country, Syria.  Once again, the focus was on weapons of mass destruction. Would this be a repeat of George Bush’s rush to war in Iraq? Today’s Congress and the American people are understandably hesitant to support action against Syria based on incomplete and unconfirmed intelligence reports. I am so appreciative that our Commander in Chief in his remarks on September 10 framed his policy objectives and the reasons it is so important to punish the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s regime. In the absence of a U.N. mandate to enforce the chemical weapons ban because Russia has blocked action against Syria, America can provide leadership in degrading or destroying Assad’s ability to use them again. Near the end of his remarks, he mentioned the possibility that use of force could be avoided if the plan proffered by the Russians results in taking those weapons of mass destruction out of Assad's hands and destroying them.

George W. Bush started with a goal of regime change in Iraq, and in the midst of his march to war, nothing, not UN weapons inspectors saying they could not find evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, not the debunking of false or misleading intelligence on "yellow cake uranium" and "aluminum tubes", was going to stop him. Obama, on the other hand, is using all available tools, from the threat of military force to diplomacy. Who would ever have thought a few weeks ago that Russia would offer to sign on to taking control of and destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal or that Assad would even admit to having them?

I hear pundits and read news articles that suggest that Obama has shown weakness by first deciding to ask Congress to endorse the use of force and then agreeing to pursue a peaceful solution after he had drawn a “red line” and made threats. Since when is it weakness for a president to include Congress in decisions about war and peace? And since when is it weakness to seek diplomatic solutions before using force? If this is weakness, then I think we’re better off with a weak President willing to pursue all options than a so-called strong President like George W. Bush who feeds Congress false information to get its endorsement, then sticks with his plan, rejects offers of peaceful solutions, and takes us into war regardless of the facts.

We are watching a Nobel Peace Prize winning world leader at work. Peace is not necessarily attained by spouting beautiful words about peace; it sometimes arrives as an end result of war, but at what cost? Peace can, however, be attained by forcing brutes to behave themselves with a credible threat of force. That is a lesson we can also learn from 9-11 and its aftermath.

Paul Epstein, a retired teacher, is a musician and writer living in Charleston