The Presidential Speech I Wish We Heard

I wrote this in late September, 2001. I’ve learned a bit more about history since then, and would write it differently today. But some of it still stands, and I can’t see the point in changing it now:

If it’s true that “Only Nixon could go to China,” then maybe only George W. could give this speech:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President Pro Tempore, Congressmen and women, and my fellow Americans,

The losses this nation experienced on September 11 were incalculable. My heart, as all of our hearts, goes out to the victims, who did nothing to deserve the fate they endured. Nor did their loved ones deserve this horrific loss. I’ve directed a number of people, inside and outside of our government, to help those families every way they can. We’re going to help to educate the victims’ children, feed them and shelter anyone who needs it. We’re going to provide counseling for all who want it, and provide it as well for all of the workers who labored to rescue people from the site of the worst disaster I hope most of us will ever see.

The victims of those vicious attacks did nothing to deserve what happened to them. But I have to tell you the truth, my fellow Americans, and I hope you’re ready to hear it: The victims did not harm the Arabic world, but most of them were citizens of a nation that did. Our nation did not harm the Arabic world out of malice, but some of our actions have led to real pain there, and we need to look at those actions closely now if we ever want to be safe again.

Looking at our own actions does not in any way absolve the terrorists of their guilt. What they did was evil, plain and simple, and we will bring their leaders to justice. You can count on it. America will not be terrorized!

But the evil came out of a context that we must study, with humble hearts, if we are to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Our military is strong, but our military was unable to prevent what happened on September 11. Obviously, we cannot rely on it to prevent future attacks, either. The existence of chemical and biological weapons means that no one’s military is strong enough to keep its people safe.

And so, as our hearts erupt with shock, sorrow and anger at our losses, we must also keep and use our heads: We must ask ourselves what we may have done, as a nation, in order to incur the wrath of so many of our fellow humans.

In the initial days after the attack, I told you that the people who attacked those buildings did so because they wanted to attack “freedom” and “democracy.” That’s what I really thought, at the time. But I’ve been learning a lot since then, and without getting into too much history, it looks like there’s a little more to it. I’d like to explain a little bit about how we got ourselves into the world we are now in.

I can explain it best by means of an analogy, so I’ll ask you to bear with me until it becomes clear:

In the interest of stability, the National Forest Service used to suppress as many of this country’s forest fires as it could. Seeing the destruction fires cause, our rangers believed that they needed to prevent all such fires, in order to maintain our forests’ overall health.

The rangers did this in good faith. As time passed, though, they began to learn that occasional fires are actually good for a forest. They’re part of nature’s plan. Some plants don’t grow unless a fire makes room for them, and causes their seeds to open. Some animals can’t thrive without the invigoration of a few flames.

Moreover, the rangers learned that if they suppressed a region’s natural fires for too long, then eventually so much dry tinder built up that a tiny spark could make the region explode in a destructive inferno.

As I have been learning recently, the U.S. may have done something similar in some Arabic lands. In an effort to maintain stability, we helped to prop up some repressive governments. We helped to keep down the fire of the people’s will.

Now, America didn’t used to do this sort of thing. Our nation used to mind its own business, more or less. But after the Cold War began in 1945, as we faced the threat of an expanding Soviet Union and possible nuclear annihilation, we began to use new methods to protect ourselves. Whenever it looked as though communism might be gaining a foothold, the U.S. acted to stop it. Sometimes that meant that your government would actively suppress revolutions in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

That policy may have helped save the world from a corrupt and unworkable system. But it’s important for us to recognize that it also led to a lot of damage. And when I say “damage,” I mean that it led to the displacement and killing of a whole lot of innocent people. We need to acknowledge that our government contributed to those things. It accepted those killings as the necessary price of containing what it considered to be a greater evil: communism.

During that fight, in the nation of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Osama bin Laden fought on the same side. Our nation helped him expel the Soviet Union, as it helped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fight against Iran. In those two cases, at least, our policies of interference led to no gratitude on the part of those we helped. Instead, we helped strengthen our future foes.

By the time the Cold War ended, our nation was in the habit of interfering in affairs far from its borders. And our citizens didn’t want democratic freedom only. They were also hungry for oil.

So our government did a number of things to try to maintain a supply of cheap oil.

Sometimes that meant suppressing movements that might have resulted in unstable governments. When fundamentalist Muslims sought power in a country like Iran, for example, support from the U.S. helped that nation’s ruling class stifle the fundamentalists. As we have seen, stifling them did not make them go away. Instead, their resentment grew, until they overthrew the Shah and took U.S. hostages as punishment.

Now, the action of taking U.S. hostages was obviously wrong. Those hostages, like the victims of the attacks on September 11, were innocent pawns in a larger game. But it’s important for us to understand that the hostages were taken in a context that we did not always explain very well to the American people.

By propping up royal families in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, we suppressed the will of the people. We discouraged the people of other lands from choosing their own leaders – an ability that we value so highly here at home.

And by suppressing the will of the people – the small fires of democracy – the United States helped to frustrate many, many people. It helped to prevent many, many people from gaining the opportunity to thrive.

Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and others see those people and want to use them. They want to be the sparks that will set off a fire the world cannot control. They know they have the raw material – thousands upon thousands of Muslims who feel a burning and sometimes justifiable anger toward America. And they have fueled that anger with lies and propaganda that made America’s guilt appear to be much greater than it actually is.

We will not let bin Laden or Hussein or anyone else start that fire.

In the short run, we will continue to work with the world community to isolate bin Laden and Hussein and their immediate followers, because it is toward them that the evidence points. We must isolate them to prevent their sparks from catching.

But we must do this carefully, so that we do not further anger those parts of the Islamic world that some of our policies have inadvertently harmed.

No matter how carefully we do this, though, containing this threat is likely to prove costly. We will probably lose American lives, and we will almost certainly take the lives of some of their followers and maybe of bin Laden or Hussein themselves.

Most of the world recognizes our right to do this. We simply cannot allow anyone to terrorize our people. We will not allow bin Laden or Hussein or anyone else to turn our world into an inferno.

In the long run, though, I’ve instructed my advisors and the State Department and the CIA to allow more small fires of instability to go through oil-producing lands. This nation will no longer suppress democratic or other movements just because they are likely to drive up the price of oil.

My fellow Americans, we will continue to engage and work with the rest of the world. But we will no longer seek to control it.

Sometimes, our new policy will mean that the people of other nations will choose rulers who don’t like Americans very much. Some of those nations will seek to hurt us and enrich themselves by raising the price of oil. In that case the price of oil will go up, and we’ll just have to live with it.

For too long, America has treated cheap gasoline as a fundamental right. It is no such thing. And beginning with my administration, we will no longer sacrifice the rights of other human beings to keep our gasoline cheap. Doing so has already cost too many lives – and it’s ruining the Earth, besides.

This may sound surprising, coming from a Texan who got most of his money from oil — a man whose Vice President used to run an oil company. You might have expected Dick Cheney and I to continue the U.S. policy of putting oil first.

Well, I have to admit, it surprises me, too. But when my advisors explained the connection between U.S. policy and Arabic anger, I saw little choice.

The images of the victims from the September 11 attacks are still fresh in our minds. We must not let them become stale without taking steps to ensure that there are no more victims like them. If that means that the U.S. should stop supporting undemocratic governments, then that’s what the U.S. ought to do. After all, the Cold War is over. Policies of interference that may have helped us then are certainly hurting us now.

I’ve directed the State Department to re-examine our policy on Iraq, as well. It may be time for us to remove the sanctions that have contributed to the deaths of so many thousands of innocent children in Saddam Hussein’s land – while leaving Hussein himself in power. Our sanctions have had ten years to work – yet they have not done so. We need to reassess our strategy there.

We need to stop contributing to the deaths of those children, because America believes in the rights of children. And if the rights of those children are not enough to convince us to stop, then our own self-interest also urges us to stop. After all, if we maintain our current policy, then the brothers and sisters of those dead and dying children will grow up to hate Americans the way so many Americans now hate Osama bin Laden for killing our fellow citizens. The world is too small to make unnecessary enemies.

These words, too, may sound strange, coming from a man whose father once counted the Gulf War as one of his proudest victories. But my conscience compels me to say it. Because as I contemplate the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I wonder if the U.S. can consider the Gulf War a victory anymore.

What did we win? We killed thousands upon thouands of Iraqis – soldiers and civilians – more than the U.S. lost in all its years in Vietnam. We pushed Iraq back out of Kuwait. And we earned what may be undying enmity on the part of many of our Arab brothers.

Why did we do it? Were we promoting democracy? Containing communism?

No. We were doing neither of those things. Kuwait, the land Iraq sought to reclaim, had never been a democracy in the first place, and is not one now. We put many American soldiers at risk in order to reinstall a royal family. Some of those American soldiers died. Our government told us that they died to stop a new Hitler. It did not tell us that they died for oil.

As a nation we supported our troops, and we thought we had won. Our victory came so quickly and easily that we did not ask ourselves what, exactly, we had won. Nor did we dwell on the many thousands of Iraqis we had killed. We accepted those losses because they were not our own — and because we felt so strong. We didn’t worry that anyone would dare to take revenge.

But others, those related by blood or religion to the dead and injured Iraqis, did not accept those losses. They knew their weapons were no match for ours, but they plotted revenge anyway. Without knowing it, our “victory” had put thousands of American civilians at risk. Now, ten years into the future, we may still be paying for the Gulf War.

And the continued presence of our troops in Saudi Arabia, which began during the Gulf War, has apparently inflamed not only Osama bin Laden but also thousands of his followers – the throng whose hidden existence makes America feel less free now than it has felt in a long, long time.

My administration will take another look at the need for American troops in Saudi Arabia. We will never allow terrorism to push us out of our own land. But neither will we let a misguided machismo keep our troops in lands that are not ours.

I am my father’s loving son. But my responsibilities now go well beyond preserving my father’s image. My primary responsibility as your President is to keep all of America safe. I cannot do that unless I help you understand why the world has become so dangerous for Americans.

Unless we understand how we have contributed to this problem, we cannot begin to solve it. In the days since the attacks I have heard rash proposals to bomb people who may have had nothing to do with the attacks. I have heard people talk as if America were utterly innocent, minding its own business, and then, out of nowhere, we were attacked. I have heard the Rev. Jerry Falwell blame the American Civil Liberties Union for the disaster.

My fellow Americans, America did not get into this trouble because it protected individual liberties here at home. It got into this trouble, in part, because it diminished such liberties in other lands.

We will not withdraw entirely from the Middle East. The U.S. has strong ties to Israel, and those ties will remain strong. Let no one mistake this reassessment for weakness on the question of Israel.

But as America goes forward, even as we devote ourselves to capturing those responsible for these heinous crimes, we will continue to seek ways to bring Palestinians and Iraqis and our other Arabic brethren into the world community. We will provide economic aid to make that happen, and we will ensure that such aid goes to the people, not into the pockets of their undemocratic leaders. By promoting prosperity for others, we will promote safety for ourselves.

We will live in a way that will make us proud, as we defend a country that believes in freedom not only for itself, but also for others.

We will live in a way that will make prospective followers of men like bin Laden and Hussein think twice before signing their lives away. There will always be madmen in the world, and we will always have to guard against their attacks. But by our own behavior, we can minimize the likelihood that others will find common cause with such madmen. That much, at least, is within our control.

The course ahead is uncertain. We do not know what will happen to the Arabic world if the U.S. stops trying to control it. But we are about to find out.

May God, who is also known as Allah, bless us as seek the right path.

Originally published by The Guy Code, September 25, 2001. 

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