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Oh, The Mistakes We Made

By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- At the beginning of September, Time magazine gave over a big chunk of its space to a British historian, Niall Ferguson, to try to make sense of what happened in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001. He wrote looking back, as if it were the year 2031.

It was an interesting idea and a smart enough piece, but confusing. The "looking back" device did not work very well. A reader had to keep looking back to figure out whether Ferguson was talking about 2031, 2006 or 2001. Luckily, one of those readers, a Canadian named Robert Malcolmson, caught the most interesting part of Ferguson's arguments in a single paragraph, published as a letter to the editor in the magazine's current issue. This is what Malcolmson said:

"'No question, 9/11 was an act of war,' said Ferguson. Actually, 9/11 was mass murder, and it should have been treated as mainly a challenge for the police and intelligence services. Interpreting the 9/11 attacks as an act of war demanding military reprisal has only helped up the ante of violence throughout the world."

In other words, declaring "War on Terror" was a mistake. A big one. Hurt and angry, we overreacted to 9/11. Leaving aside, for the moment, the invasion of Iraq, which history, in 2031 or 2131, is likely to judge as one of the stupidest presidential decisions of all time, we would have been wiser to treat 9/11 as a crime rather than an attack.

I did not think at the time that declaring undeclared war in 2001 was a mistake. That day in September, I was just another guy trying to get into Manhattan to find my family. It was impossible. If someone had asked me then, as I sat in a 50-mile-long line of stopped cars, I might have been for using nuclear weapons to retaliate. But the history of the past five years has persuaded me that we should have concentrated our power and money, whatever it took, to find the people who did it and treat them as common criminals of the worst kind.

Instead, we fell into a well-laid trap: We declared war on Islam. We did exactly what the terrorists wanted. Osama bin Laden and his ilk were dedicated to re-starting the Crusades, hoping to provoke a running war between the evangelical modernity of the West and the more zealous faith of many, millions, of Muslims. And they did it, helped by our righteous anger.

I don't just mean that we are losing in Iraq. Personally, I don't think it matters whether we leave that sad country today or in 10 years. We have been defeated there by our own arrogance and ignorance. Whatever one thinks of his political skills now, John Kerry, the young Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, asked the right question 40 years ago: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Iraq was a mistake. Part of you dies when you see one of our own young (to say nothing of Iraqis of all ages) blown up in a place they don't understand and where they cannot prevail. Even if we sent hundreds of thousands more troops there, it would make no long-term difference. We are occupiers and we will leave one day. When we do, the people who have been there for centuries and will be there forever will make it together or continue to kill together. It is their choice. Perhaps we can postpone things; perhaps we can make them a little better or a lot worse; but we can't save Iraqis from themselves.

The same is true in Afghanistan. I think we might have been able to catch or destroy the evildoers in the early going there, but staying there now won't save Afghans from themselves, either. We are trying to re-create what was never there. What we call Afghanistan is not a country; it is a collection of tribes and violent warlords and smugglers in a very old no-man's-land.

You don't need to read national intelligence estimates to know what is happening. Read Rudyard Kipling:

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

"And the women come out to cut up what remains,

"Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

"An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

Or, get out of there before it's too late.

Copyright 2006 Universal Press Syndicate

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