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by Bruce Laingen

American Diplomacy takes pride in presenting, with the author’s permission, the full text of his speech presented on the first anniversary of 9/11 at a meeting of the Triangle World Affairs Council and the International Visitors Council in Raleigh, North Carolina. Amb. Laingen, now retired in Maryland, provides among other observations a useful assessment of today’s U. S Foreign Service and a remarkably far-reaching overview of current problems arising out of terrorism and Middle East issues.—Ed.

Good evening.

And recalling the way our friends in the Middle East begin most statements of policy—Bismillah Rahmani Rahim—in the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Christians, Muslims, Jews—we are all true to the one God.

On this day, the anniversary of a tragedy few of us will ever forget, you honor me, and I am deeply humbled that you have asked me to speak. I ask you to join me, in a moment of remembrance for those who were lost in that tragic day a year ago.

It is a special honor, to come here, where so many of my former compatriots in the Foreign Service have retired and live and work. I salute in particular you of the Foreign Affairs council, the International Visitors Council and yet another group that publishes the electronic journal American Diplomacy.

I serve currently as head of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, an organization made up of 160 former practitioners of diplomacy whose cause is the quality of American diplomacy, and who know as well as anyone how important you are.

Indeed the Academy shares a suite with the World Affairs Councils of America, with whom the Academy has conducted a nationwide lecture series at Councils across the country, because as former diplomats we know from experience how much the Councils serve as partners in helping build the infrastructure of American diplomacy—i.e., that essential degree of public understanding or at least awareness of policy, without which in a democracy such as ours, policies of government cannot succeed.

Tonight I want to do several things; first to make a few comments about this tragic anniversary, say something about the state of our diplomatic service, take you on a tour d’horizon on Middle East issues and leave some time for questions.

9/11, September 11, 2001. 9/11, September 11, 2002.

9/11, digits that before simply were the number for a general distress call.

A year ago it became a mighty distress call; who does not remember that day and the enormity of that crime; few of us can forget. And you know the response to that call: Those now storied men and women of the New York Fire Department and the New York police and the men and women of the Pentagon and the “let’s roll” courage of those who resisted terror on that plane that fell in Pennsylvania.

Then the people of that great city of New York—and then this entire country and indeed much of the world too, responding with love and offers of help.

As Mayor Giuliani said about that day “It was horrific”—thousands whose lives were cut short, many thousands more, not least children, left with the pain of personal loss and sorrow.

As the poet laureate of the United States has written in a poem called “The Names” – “So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart”.

And in these last few days, almost constant commemorative programs on TV, and in our cities, as here today on the steps of your capitol building, we have wept again. But as the Mayor also said, as have others, from that awful tragedy something good became apparent too.

Above all a national sense of community, of family, of shared hurt and grief; hopefully reminding all of us that we are stronger as a nation when we remember those words on the Great Seal of the United States—”e pluribus unum”—out of many one.

Much has been written and said these past few days—about whether we are different, whether life has changed in some fundamental way. I’m personally skeptical that it has; so perhaps it’s better to ask, have we learned from this experience?

Well, it’s presumptuous of me to stand here and say I know how to answer that. I can answer no better that each of you.

Some things are obvious: we’re all a year older, and presumably wiser. We all react differently when we see fire trucks go by; in Washington and New York we’ve gotten used to the sound of fighter jets far above; our flag, our principal national symbol, means more to us—at least we fly it more. And we’ve gone to war—against terror, against El Qaeda, against the Taliban—and we remain at war in Afghanistan—where 9,000 American forces fight, thousands more in Kyrghistan and Uzbekistan—things unheard of in the days of the Cold War. More American forces are in Kuwait and Bahrain—and more than fifty men have given their lives to date.

And yet it is not war in the traditional sense.

Some of that mood of sacrifice will inevitably fade. But today it is our firefighters who are our heroes and corporate moguls our villains. Today perhaps a large segment of the public thinks well of government and of other public servants.

And let us hope we have all been reminded of our great good fortune in our constitutionally assured freedoms. Basic freedoms of a range that arguably are more assured to all of us than for anyone else on earth.

I have two general concerns about the impact of 9/11 and about some adverse consequences that risk flowing from it. And I am not alone in these concerns.

The first is that we may allow our fears about the danger we sense to see us acquiescence in public policies that begin to undermine those freedoms—the rule of law, religious tolerance, pluralism—that risk beginning to disrupt that unique balance we have fashioned over time in our system of governance between personal liberty and public safety.

We are a strong country, at home and abroad, because of our freedoms, that assure us the right to speak to act to write to travel to live peaceably with our neighbors. We must not lose them.

My second general concern has to do with how we are perceived as a country and, yes, as a people beyond our shores. To what degree have we allowed our unparalleled power, on every conceivable count, military, economic, cultural to cause us to be perceived abroad as an arrogant people and as a power that thinks it can easily go it alone.

We have historically prided ourselves as a generous, open-minded, freedom loving and tolerant people. And I think through much of the post World War II period we were true to that image. Today that is clearly not so evident. “Why do they hate us?” we ask ourselves. What we must work to be is a power whose policies earn the respect of others and a readiness to act with us as a community.

As someone said—this has not been a good summer; it isn’t easy for the world’s leading power to alarm all our allies in a matter of months, not to mention the entirety of the Arab League. And yet there is evidence that that is exactly what we have done.

If you will permit a personal aside—I spent a week in rural Minnesota recently, celebrating the thirty-sixth annual threshing bee in my home town, and I can report that if that experience is any indication, the national spirit out in the heartland is still good; the roots of freedom still run deep.

Speaking of American diplomacy, let me make a few comments about its status today. Is our diplomacy up to the job in this age of terrorism? Well, prejudiced as I am after thirty-eight years in the Foreign Service and now fifteen more years working to strengthen it from the outside, I think it’s pretty good.

And in the view of most secretaries of state on leaving office, they report that it’s pretty good too. Hardly perfect, we are still deficient in language competence and recently there has been a disturbing trend of reluctance among some to accept assignments in hardship posts.

But we are now a Service that is strongly led, and nothing matters more than that. Secretary Powell, a general turned diplomat, a general who is also a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy who believes strongly that diplomacy must be our first line of defense—although sometimes he prefers to call it the first line of offense, a switch perhaps not surprising coming from a former military man.

Yes, it’s still a diplomatic service that has to struggle for resources, still difficult to convince Congress that what is still barely one cent for every dollar in the federal budget is far too minimal, especially when compared to the military budget; difficult to get funding for foreign assistance abroad. Even with the President’s recent pledge to add $5 billion annually to development assistance, the United States ranks very low in what we spend per capita compared to other industrialized countries.

But I’m nonetheless proud, and I hope you are, of our diplomats abroad, including those who have retired and live among you in this area. Last week, some of you may have watched on PBS a film done by the National Geographic called The American Ambassador that chronicled the experience of four serving ambassadors, including two women—Wendy Chamberlain and Prudence Bushnell. Watching them in action, who of us was not proud?

Today, in 240-odd posts abroad, diplomatic life in diplomacy is not striped pants and cookie pushers anymore. Since l988 there have been 188 post evacuations, fifty-five American diplomats have died in line of duty, more ambassadors have been killed than their military counterparts. And among our young people, the Foreign Service continues to attract. This year almost 34,000 men and women signed up to take the Foreign service entry exam—a figure up by 20,000 from two years ago, and 40 percent of them were minorities.

Now let me take a very brief tour d’horizon in areas of the Middle East where my own service took me and where my interests remain strong.

In Afghanistan, where I served three years in better times, and from where I came with a life long affection for its people and with whom we have grieved for the past almost thirty years over the tragedies they have suffered. I am proud of what we have now done to lead an international effort to give them a new lease on life. Yet I am worried that we may not stay the course, with the commitment, as we failed to do once before. It is also clear that our effort is far from complete, that there is a long road ahead—made evident by some of the events of this past week.

We are challenged, having taken that country on, with the challenge of “nation building”, however averse the Administration seemed to be to that when it took office. But that is exactly what we undertook to do, and yes, it’s now our obligation—starting first and foremost with security and the commitment we made to an International Security Afghanistan Force—better known as the ISAF, where the need is obvious—the United States must work to expand the presence of that force across the country.

An old adage applies: Let’s make sure we are on top of one war before we consider taking on another. Our effort in Afghanistan started as an international effort; we must keep it that way. That country can only be managed in a regional sense, where the involvement of it neighbors in positive ways is critical—certainly including Pakistan, but also the Central Asian states, Russia and, not least Iran, a country that cannot be ignored where Afghanistan is concerned. The United States and Iran found ways to cooperate closely in putting in place the recent Bonn accord and the Loya Jirga process. It is important to sustain that—Afghanistan is one issue where we and Iran can work together. And where we need to recognize that Iran and Afghanistan are two immediate neighbors, with close historical, geographic and cultural ties.

And speaking or Iran, a country, a people of immense consequence in the region; one need only look at a map. A country that demonstrably now for twenty years, has been saddled with a theocracy, a structure of government that has denied the huge potential of its people in both material and especially human terms, a people youthful, able and sophisticated.

Iran. A country, a government with whom we’ve had no direct diplomatic contact for more than twenty years. That makes no sense: It complicates our relations with every country in the region:

  • it denies us access to an immense market,
  • it overlooks the fact that we in the United States are today the second largest Persian-speaking country in the world, and
  • it fails to recognize that our two countries have no alternative, over time, but to develop some kind of security understanding vis a vis the Persian Gulf.

Iran. A country that we have officially designated as part of an “axis of evil.” Well, perhaps, however absent are the connections in that axis. Yes, its active opposition to a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians is abominable; yes, it undoubtedly (and in my view, not surprisingly) is on the way to a nuclear capability; and yes, a country that has engaged in abuses of human rights and freedoms, not least those of the hostages in Tehran—an act that arguably led to today’s terrorist excesses across the region.

Iran. A theocracy for which I have no regard; I experienced personally a theocracy in action, and I didn’t like it. But nonetheless a country with which we must find a way to talk about many things, not least its obligation to take account of the belief of the hostages that that government owes them both a fitting apology and some form of compensation.

Yet nothing will happen until that regime gets its own internal house in order, and on that score it is now twenty-three years and counting, and it lives with that albatross around its neck evident in the negative strictures of that regime.

Now Iraq, where I have never served, but I have two Navy sons who have, at sea during Desert Storm; I do not relish the thought of their having to serve there again—however much, as a Navy veteran myself, I know that duty, honor, and country may see them there, if and when the call comes.

I am among those not convinced of a threat sufficient to require that unprecedented and in my view still unjustified resort to a preemptive strike, about which we’ve been reading lately as part of the administration’s plans—not until we have exhausted all other alternatives, above all the UN Security Council and the option of unfettered, thorough inspections, with the threat of force if Iraq does not fully cooperate.

Granted that circumstances are different in several ways, I find it strange that the son of a president—George Bush the elder—who pulled together a truly remarkable example of a wartime coalition endorsed by the UNSC, supported by virtually all the Arab states—has been so skeptical of the utility of the UN, proposing a regime change in the heart of an Arab world that is almost totally opposed to such an attempt.

Having said all this, I find myself saying that the president and the vice president must know something not evident to me, and perhaps not to some of you either; let us see what the President has to say tomorrow when he speaks before the General Assembly. I remain to be convinced.

And then there is the Peace Process; can we still even call it that, given where violence has taken us this past year? I do not profess to be any more knowledgeable than any of you, probably less than many of you. In any event, I’ve lost track of U. S. policy on this issue in recent weeks. Time is already running on the Administration’s announcement that it will pursue a two state solution in a three-year time frame, pressing for a democratic process in the West Bank that will see new leadership in the Palestinian Authority.

How is it to be done? Where is the plan? What came of the idea of leadership by the Quartet—the Russians, the UN Secretary General, the European Union, and the United States? What about that much heralded international conference? How does the Mitchell Plan and CIA Director Tenet’s efforts fit into all this? We seem unable to sustain a clear and continuing commitment to any Peace Process.

I raise those questions, because I believe more than ever that progress in pursuing an Israeli/Palestinian peace in a two state solution must be our first priority in the Middle East.

I remain, as I believe diplomats must always be, an optimist about all the challenges we face in the region—granted that old definition of a pessimist, i. e., a pessimist is an optimist with experience. And God only knows, we’ve had a lot of that kind of experience in that region!

I welcome your questions.End.

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