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Seven years on

Seven years ago this week, I was filled with optimism. Not everyone responded to the events of 9/11/01 that way, but I did.

Yes, I was mindful of the horrific loss of human life. But nothing could change that; my optimism rose from what I believed would come next.

Surely, I thought, we could set aside foolishness and use the unprecedented resources our nation possessed — military power, certainly, but also our economic dominance and perhaps most of all the strength of the ideas upon which our nation is built — to make future 9/11s less likely.

By “foolishness” I mean a number of things. Take, for instance, our insatiable appetite for oil produced by nations that consider fostering al-Qaidas as being consistent with their interests. (Joe Biden has a great speech he’s given around South Carolina for years about the incalculable opportunity wasted by George W. Bush on Sept. 12, when, instead of urging us to every sacrifice and every effort toward transforming the energy underpinnings of our economy, he told us to go shopping and delegate the war fighting to the professionals.)

But the greatest foolishness was the pointless, poisonous partisanship that militated against focusing the nation’s resources toward solving any problem. It should have been the easiest to set aside. It’s not that I read too much into those Democrats and Republicans singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps; it’s that partisanship is based on considerations that are so much less substantial than the realities of 9/11. Those attacks should have melted away party differences like the noonday tropical sun burning away a morning mist.

But partisanship is an industry that employs thousands of Americans — in the offices of Beltway advocacy groups, in the studios of 24/7 cable TV “news” channels, in party headquarters, on congressional staffs and in the White House. And they are much better focused on that which sustains them — polarization for its own sake — than the rest of us are on the interests we hold in common.

They lay low for awhile, but as most of us went back to shopping while our all-volunteer military went to war, the polarization industry went back to work dividing us, hammer and tongs. They tapped the powerful emotions of 9/11 to their purposes, and led us to levels of bitterness that none of us had seen in our lifetimes.

But what did I expect to happen, seven years ago? Nothing less than using our considerable influence to build a better world. Go ahead, laugh. All done now?

In an editorial the Sunday after the attacks, I wrote that “We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term — military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.” That meant abandoning a lot of foolishness.

Take, for instance, our policy toward the Mideast. Our goal had been stability above all. Prop up some oppressive regimes and come to terms with others; just don’t let anything interfere with the smooth flow of petroleum. Saddam upsets the equilibrium by invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia? Send half a million troops to restore the status quo ante, but don’t topple his regime, because that would upset the balance.

But 9/11 showed us that the status quo was extraordinarily dangerous. It produced millions of disaffected young men, frustrated and humiliated by the oppression that we propped up. Things needed to change.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed part of the equation well in Cairo in 2005: “For 60 years the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.” The New York Times’ Tom Friedman took it further, speaking of the need to “drain swamps,” the figurative kind that bred terrorists the way literal bogs breed malaria.

But instead of leading a national effort on every possible front — the military speaks of our national power as being based in the acronym DIME, for “Diplomatic,” “Information,” “Military” and “Economic” resources (those who put their lives on the line are wise about these things) — we’ve spent most of the past seven years bickering over the military aspect alone. This argument between the antiwar left and the hawkish right has so weakened the national will to do anything that we came close to failure in Iraq, could still fail in Afghanistan and are helpless in the face of Russian aggression in the Caucasus and Iranian nuclear ambition.

So how do I feel about our national prospects today, given all that has happened? Forgive me, but I am once again (cautiously) optimistic, based on a number of signs, from small to momentous:

 Dramatic improvement in Iraq — thanks largely to the “surge” that he belatedly embraced after four years of floundering — has changed the national conversation, and led President Bush to speak of starting the process of moving troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, the battleground even the partisans can agree upon.

 Last week Secretary Rice sat down to solidify a new understanding with Moammar Quaddafi of Libya, the once-intractable sponsor of terror whose mind was changed by the Iraq invasion.

 The choice for president is between two men who gained their respective parties’ nominations by speaking to the deep national desire to move beyond partisan paralysis. (I realize they would lead in different directions. But if either can lead a national consensus toward implementing his best ideas, we will be better off — if only for having had the experience of agreeing with each other for once.)

Yes, the threads of hope to which I cling are delicate, and cynics will regard me as laughably foolish. But the alternative is not to hope. And that, given the potential of this nation, would be the ultimate foolishness.

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