Mac Deford: 9/11, Today, Yesterday — and Tomorrow?
Thursday, September 15, 2016 10:12 AM
The 15th anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone. The news media over the weekend came up with a few personal remembrances, a couple of interesting insights, some “what ifs,” but, with pneumonia and “deplorables” kicking in, it quickly returned to the Hillary/Trump Show.
The Arab focus now is internal, not external. And the most surprising result of today’s chaos across most Arab countries is the substantial mellowing of the traditional anti-Israel sentiment amongst Arab governments.
The first column I ever wrote for The Free Press was in direct response to 9/11. Alice McFadden, the publisher, had somehow heard that in my Foreign Service days, many years earlier, I had spent most of my career in the Arab World. So while the World Trade Center buildings were still smoldering, she asked if I would write something about what lay behind 9/11: “Why did they do this? Why do they hate us so?”
In response, in that first piece for The Free Press, I highlighted the necessity “for a more forceful role for the US in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The Bush administration’s previous stance of leaving it up to the parties meant, in effect, because of the vast disparity in power between the two, that the Israelis were given the go-ahead to deal with the situation as they wished — poor policy at the best of times, potentially disastrous with Sharon in power. A satisfactory resolution of the problem would go a long way towards reducing anti-Americanism in the Arab World and would remove a lot of the conditions under which Islamic fundamentalism can grow.
“Obviously, it would not, in and of itself, end Muslim fanaticism — that genie is out of the bottle — but it could slow its growth and dampen its appeal. It would also help speed up the rapprochement between the US and Iran and would remove the raison d’être for Syrian and other Arab support of Hamas and similar radical Palestinian groups. Finally, it would once again isolate Saddam Hussein in the Arab World.”
In today’s Middle East, the Palestinian issue has been all but forgotten, buried under more pressing problems: the tragic, bloody Syrian civil war; the emergence of the Kurds, in Syria as well as Iraq, as a growing political force; the deepening Sunni-Shia split which guarantees inter-Arab, as well as Iran-Arab, turmoil long into the future.
In retrospect, the creation of a Palestinian state — whatever its benefits to Palestinians or Israelis — would not have prevented Syria’s vast Sunni majority from rising up against Assad and his narrowly based Alawite government. And while our invasion splintered Iraq and tied its Baghdad government to Iran, it’s not unlikely that the uprising of Syria’s Sunnis over the past five years would have eventually prompted its reverse, the overthrow of Saddam’s minority Sunni government by Iraq’s much larger Shia population.
One thing, arguably, a separate Palestinian state would have meant would have been less anti-Americanism in the Arab World. But even that is a somewhat irrelevant emotion today: the Arab focus now is internal, not external. And the most surprising result of today’s chaos across most Arab countries is the substantial mellowing of the traditional anti-Israel sentiment amongst Arab governments.
Egypt, even under the autocratic military rule of General Sisi, has developed, if not warm, certainly realistic relations with Israel. Even the radical Wahhabi version of Islam, which has been the key underpinning of Saudi Arabia since its founding early in the last century, has not prevented high-level Saudis from holding serious discussions, in Israel, with the far right-wing government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And, of course, the Jordanian monarchy has long taken a realistic approach to its Jewish neighbor.
Ironically, the Sunni Arab monarchies and military regimes have closer relations these days with Israel than they do with their fellow Arabs in Iraq — or certainly than with their fellow Muslims in Tehran. And it’s all happened with little input from Washington. The murderous free-for-all in Syria and the rapid growth of ISIS has influenced the behavior of Arab governments in a way that US policy over the last half century was never able to do.
But to return briefly to that original 9/11: I was out early that morning, fishing for stripers — they were still abundant in Maine waters in those days — up the Kennebec well above Bath. It was shortly after noon, a glorious September day, bright sun, unusually warm. We were heading back under the Bath bridge, vaguely in the direction of the Bath Iron Works, opening a few beers to celebrate our catch. Suddenly, well in front of us but bearing down at full speed, was a Coast Guard cutter. We could see someone on board gesturing wildly, a megaphone in his hands.
As he got closer, we heard a few words: “These waters are closed. Closed. Off limits.”
“What’s going on?” we asked.
“You don’t know?” He was alongside us now and was obviously exasperated. “New York’s been attacked. The Pentagon’s been bombed. We’re at war.”
“We don’t know.”
A confusing time. And 15 years later, it’s even more confusing. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, we are still at war. A different enemy, perhaps: al-Qaeda has been decimated, its remnants morphed into ISIS. In Syria, we provide support for the Kurds, whom our NATO ally Turkey opposes; we are giving arms to Sunni rebels there who are sharing them with al-Nusra, which we consider a terrorist organization; we are working with Russia to find a solution even as Syria’s President Assad remains a strong ally of theirs while we insist he must go.
15 years after 9/11, it’s an ever more chaotic Middle East. Will it be any more stable in another 15 years?