The early morning attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, blasted American security and drove the country into the type of grief and fear not felt since Pearl Harbor. For several days, Americans sought collective comfort in candlelight vigils; movie theaters were empty and churches were full. Yet grief soon gave way to anger and a search for answers and retribution. Who had committed this act of terrorism? How quickly could we respond? How soon would justice be served?
Most Americans assumed that the answer to the first question would be found among the usual suspects.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld immediately concluded that the attack must have come from Iraq. Its half-mad dictator, Saddam Hussein, had chafed for a decade under the sanctions imposed by the United States after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Rumsfeld ordered his aides to begin collecting evidence implicating Saddam in the attack, and to alert him as soon as they had built a case strong enough to justify a retaliatory attack on Iraq.
Others suggested that Iran must be involved. Recent years had witnessed a slight thaw in American-Iranian relations—some trade and travel restrictions had been removed, and in 2000 talks were held between members of the US Congress and Iran’s parliament. But more than two decades of ill will and powerful memories of the 1979 attack on the American embassy in Tehran (and the hostage crisis that followed) led many to believe that Iran had resumed its attack against America.
For others, a more amorphous collection of Islamic terrorists leapt immediately to mind. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Hezbollah all had long terrorist histories—most aimed at Israel but some aimed at the United States. Most Americans knew little about these organizations and the differences and similarities among them. But against the backdrop of 9/11, few felt the need to sort out the nuances of these radical organizations.
Even after the 9/11 terrorists were identified as members of Al Qaeda—Osama Bin Laden’s organization of Sunni Islamic militants based in Afghanistan—many continued to search for links to a larger community of Middle Eastern enemies. President George W. Bush identified Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address, even though thousands of Iranians had marched in the streets of Tehran in demonstrations of sympathy with America following the 9/11 attacks and Iranian government officials cooperated fully when America launched its invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. American government officials also engaged in an extensive, and now widely discredited, investigation of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda as it later prepared to invade Iraq and remove Hussein from power.
There may have been legitimate reasons for some initial confusion. The Middle East is a complex web of religious groups, nationalisms and ethnic rivalries, conflicting goals, and historical tensions. Forced by the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, to sort it all out in this moment of crisis may have been asking too much. But charting an enduring solution to the problem of United States-Middle East tensions requires that we unravel the threads and examine the long and complex history that has left peace so illusive in the region and the United States so frequently hated.
We must understand, for example, the United States’ complex relationship with Israel—both America’s long history of support for the Jewish state and America’s repeated efforts to win recognition among Israel’s Arab and Persian neighbors as an honest broker, a fair mediator of the region’s conflicts.
We must also attempt to understand why Iranians refer to the United States as the “great Satan”—why America was held responsible for the crimes of an old Iranian monarch, the Shah, ousted in 1979 by the Shiite factions still in power today, and why the nation is so intent on resisting American pressures to curtail its nuclear program.
We must understand why oil, the region’s most valuable resource, has become a political tool, rather than just a freely traded commodity—why Middle Eastern countries have used their oil to lash out at the western nations that rely on it and, in the process, bring vast wealth to the region.
These are not simple stories, and they may not lead to the discovery of a miracle solution to either terrorism or instability in the Middle East. But they may help us understand why the surprise attacks of 9/11—as undeniably horrific and unjustifiable as they were—perhaps should not have come as a complete surprise, and why the complications of subsequent American actions in Afghanistan and Iraq should have been anticipated.