Commentator Jay Craven remembers penetrating comments he heard shortly after 9/11 that continue to resonate for him, five years later.
(CRAVEN) There hasn’t been a week since the September 11th attacks, that I haven’t thought about interviews with Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Halberstam that I read and heard during the weeks that followed those terrible events.
Halberstam spoke at Harvard’s Kennedy School about meetings he attended at the Council of Foreign Relations, just two days after the assaults. The meetings’ participants included current and former U.S. intelligence officers who had been urgently called together by the Council to help shape deliberations about this country’s appropriate next steps.
Halberstam cited intelligence officers who advocated a policy of “drying up the swamp” – to isolate Al Queda, separate it from its surroundings, and eliminate its opportunistic appeal to the disaffected.
Given the elusive nature of this foe, Halberstam said the agents warned against “lashing out.” To do so, they said, would “do the things the enemy wants us to.”
Their argument was that by declaring war we would alienate the Islamic world, thereby helping Al Queda expand its influence.
Halberstam said intelligence officials instead advocated a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; track and interdict Al Queda funds; and improve poor inter-agency cooperation that had resulted in several missed opportunities, under both Clinton and Bush, to pre-empt bin Laden and his operatives.
Other recommendations called for upgrading intelligence; aggressively targeting and prosecuting individual terrorists; removing offending American military bases from Saudi Arabia; and constructively engaging the region through stepped-up economic development, education, and cultural exchange.
Some of this advice was followed. U.S. forces did withdraw from Saudi bases. Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the “roadmap for peace,” which showed a renewed U.S. commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, that peace initiative never bore fruit.
The Bush administration also pushed for better inter-agency cooperation and tracked Al Queda funds, closing off money trails leading to terror cells.
These efforts seemed aimed at “drying up the swamp” that feeds Al Queda and similar groups. At the same time, however, that swamp dramatically expanded as war took root and intensified, energizing insurgencies.
This year’s five-year commemoration of September 11th includes many calls for “winning the war” on terrorism. But it may be useful to note how war may not be the answer. Many observers see growing insurgency as a response to military occupation not simply a call to religious jihad. And others are now warning that new military moves against Iran may again be “what the enemy wants us to do.”
No matter how much I try to put Halberstam’s comments from five years ago out of my mind, I keep returning to them and to the hope that we may find a path that leads not to more war but to accelerated dialogue, consensus, and hard work within the international community to remove this war’s causes and foster stability at home and abroad.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.