A squandered year

As the ash settled in New York and Washington, many Americans took comfort in the idea some good would come out of the horror. President George W. Bush put it well in his State of the Union speech: “This time of adversity offers a unique moment of opportunity – a moment we must seize to change our culture Ö and lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace.” In the face of terror, many hoped the United States would emerge as a stronger nation. It would embrace its rightful role as a global leader for freedom and democracy, ensuring security in the process. We would trump evil with greater good.

The year after the attacks has indeed revealed some of the best in this country. Police and firefighters performed courageously. Volunteerism rates increased.Our armed services proved capable. Many declared a “new unity” among Americans.

Despite the attacks’ gravity and profound weight on the national conscience, the United States has not made many of the policy changes vital to reducing terrorism in the long term. Although the United States rallied to defeat the Taliban, the “war on terrorism,” to this point, has generally failed in three critical and connected areas. We did not find the political will to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. We were inconsistent in our support for democracy abroad. We did not articulate to the world what we valued. As we reflect today on the past year’s events, an important question emerges: For all the heroism of Sept. 11, where was our political courage?

To be sure, U.S. policies did not create terrorism. However, a revised strategy would greatly help combat it.

Regarding energy policy, Sept. 11 was not the catalyst for reform that many had hoped for. Instead, neither plan offered in Congress promises to produce much new domestic fuel or to conserve a significant amount of existing resources. Congress voted down a proposal to toughen mileage standards and the Senate did not pass a plan to drill in northern Alaska. Such inaction leads us into dangerous relationships with repressive regimes that have produced terrorists.

During the energy debate, the question was posed: Can we afford to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Amid security concerns, the question should be rephrased: Can we afford not to?

In Saudi Arabia, there are few political freedoms. However, the ruling family is able to stay in power because of a deal with the country’s fundamentalist clerics. The clerics support the family, giving it legitimacy. And in turn, they receive oil money and are allowed to teach a curriculum based on intolerance and anti-Americanism. In this system, many students do not learn critical thought. To an extent, it is intellectual rigidity, coupled with political repression and grim economic prospects, which has created a culture capable of producing suicide bombers. Of the 15 hijackers, 19 were Saudi nationals.

Reducing our dependence on oil would effectively strip many corrupt Arab regimes of their political leverage in the international arena, giving us the ability to demand greater political freedoms. In much of the region, dissent is not tolerated and the press is largely state-run. Lacking democratic institutions, frustrated youths express their discontent through religious fundamentalism. When it comes to challenging political repression abroad, however, the U.S. policy has been inconsistent. In late July, a leading Egyptian critic was imprisoned for promoting democracy. In response, the United States said it was merely “disappointed” and offered no immediate sanction. Then, a month later, Bush dismissed Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff’s suspension of the Pakistani constitution. “Musharaff is still tight with us in the war against terror, and that’s what I appreciate,” Bush said. Certainly, Egypt and Pakistan are important allies in the war on terror. However, we overlook authoritarianism at great cost.

Additionally, the United States has not engaged in the fight for global public opinion. Bush had it right when he said “this will be a different kind of war.” Indeed, in this war, information and public relations are as important as tanks and bombers.

Fundamentally, the United States has a good message. For many, it is a beacon of wealth, freedom and opportunity. Unfortunately, that message is too often hidden behind a foreign face of materialism and support for tyrannical leaders. We must clarify our message and speak it loudly.

For its part, the Arab world must look inward. In a globalized world, many Arab states will continue to have difficulty succeeding if they do not reform. Critics, particularly in the mosques, must speak out against a system which keeps their society from reaching its potential.

Today, our nation is considering whether to make a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. No one disagrees with the statement that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous man – a person whom the world would be better without. Still, he has not been directly linked to the terrorists who savagely attacked one year ago. Taking out Hussein, or Osama bin Laden for that matter, would not stop terrorism. While they may be more tangible targets, their deaths would not address the fundamental problem. Terrorism must be defeated at its source. Only then can we help create a safer, more prosperous and more democratic world. As Bush’s rhetoric has charged, we must embrace a new “culture of responsibility.” We neglect that responsibility at our peril.