Last week, my 13-year-old son Aviv and I visited the heartbreaking, devastating 9/11 Memorial Museum, set in the cavernous underground area that was once the World Trade Center’s foundation. The visit got me thinking about America’s need to be vigilant – and got him thinking about Israel’s need to remember.
Our trip to the World Trade Center ruins coincided with President Barack Obama’s latest attempt to define his constricted foreign policy vision. America should act unilaterally only when defending “core interests,” such as the free flow of trade, and “US military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance,” the president told West Point graduates. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Even the pro-Obama Washington Post accused the president of “retrench[ing] US global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many US allies and encouraged some adversaries.” Refusing to act boldly to stop genocide or deter aggression, the Post complained, amounted to a “binding of US power,” placing Obama “at odds with every US president since World War II.”
In telegraphing his hesitancy to assert power, Obama emboldens bullies. He fails to understand a central paradox of presidential power – and American positioning in the world: often appearing aggressive helps you avoid having to be aggressive. Just as Jimmy Carter’s tentativeness helped Iran turn radical – and away from the United States – Obama’s fear of engagement has been an unintentional gift to dictators like Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad.
Obama the Democrat should learn some foreign policy lessons from his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Democrats enjoyed mocking Reagan’s notion of “peace through strength,” dismissing him as a warmonger. But Reagan understood that appearing bellicose intimidated the Soviets and helped preserve the peace. Adversaries feared Reagan; they don’t fear Obama.
“Today, we utter no prayer more fervently than the ancient prayer for peace on Earth,” Reagan said during his Second Inaugural. “Yet history has shown that peace will not come, nor will our freedom be preserved, by good will alone.”
Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Ronald Reagan showed that speaking strongly reduced his need to wield his big stick. That approach helped facilitate the Soviet collapse. But when both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush seemed too distracted by domestic issues to be as vigilant as Reagan had been, Osama bin-Laden and his Islamist extremists exploited American complacency. The blame, of course, lies with the terrorists; but the lessons learned for freedom-lovers everywhere are compelling. The cliché is true: the best defense remains a good offense. Bin-Laden did not fear America – and he should have.
While walking through the 9/11 museum, as I was thinking about American foreign policy, Aviv was thinking about Israel.
“How come we don’t have this kind of museum remembering Israel’s terror victims, and showing what happened to them?” he asked.
At the risk of sounding like a proud father, it was a remarkable insight. Aviv was asking for more than the wall with names on Mount Herzl which Pope Francis hastily added to his itinerary at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s request. Aviv wants to see artifacts from suicide bombings, photos of the devastated Sbarro Pizzeria and the Netanya seder, video displays remembering the terror victims beyond their names and ages when they died.
His intentions are not ghoulish. He wants Israel to teach the next generation what happened, to honor memories, help avoid future mistakes, and yes, stoke the outrage against the evil committed against innocents. He envisions a place as vivid, as powerful, as wrenching as the 9/11 monument, which would also become a must-visit spot for all, be they tourists or officials.
Unfortunately, such a museum is not being built. Israeli politics and Middle Eastern geo-politics are too touchy. The museum would become a bone of contention rather than a site of reverence, with the Left and the Right quarreling about what caused the terror. The act of writing history collectively is clarifying. By helping to shape national narratives about the past, we clarify attitudes and forge a path for the future.
The museum’s American 9/11 narrative is quite simple. It depicts an innocent country harmed by an evil deed, even as the exact motivations of the 9/11 terrorists are somewhat obscured. But, ultimately, too many Israelis blame Israel for what Israel endured – and too many others fear that emphasizing this kind of Palestinian extremism would only inflame relations with our neighbors.
In fact, as with most traumas, pretending something does not exist does not make it disappear. One of the greatest obstacles to peace right now is the well-grounded Israeli skepticism based on the fact that the Oslo peace process, the Southern Lebanon withdrawal and the Gaza disengagement all resulted in bombs and rockets, not bouquets and reconciliation. Perhaps a more direct confrontation with history would help unravel the complex causes of those misfires – and encourage the peacemakers to face Israeli fears, then soothe them, rather than increasing them by instinctively blaming Israel for Palestinian rejectionism.
In addition to building this kind of memorial museum, I would add another site elsewhere. Israel never celebrated the victory it achieved over terror by instituting effective countermeasures, starting in 2002. The trauma of the civilian losses – and the culture of guilt – precluded the kinds of parades and toasts military victories usually inspire. A traditional triumphal statue, celebrating Israeli counter-terrorism, might help reaffirm Israeli strength, Ronald Reagan-style – pushing Israelis to be as magnanimous but wary as they need to be, telegraphing the sense of strength and national will that often prevents wars while facilitating what Bill Clinton in 1993 called “the peace of the brave.”
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video! www.giltroy.com