Paris and the Lessons of 9/11

The U.S. should treat France as France treated the U.S. 14 years ago—by helping the other wage prudent fights and warning its leaders against the rash decisions that trauma can lead to.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

As terrorists murdered scores of people in Paris on Friday, Americans watching in horror from afar immediately began to show solidarity with the French people. Many harkened back to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,  when Le Monde declared, “Nous sommes tous Américains,” and French President Jacques Chirac issued repeated expressions of his country’s solidarity with the United States.

“I have no doubt for a single moment that terrorism, which is always fanatical, mindless, and mad, clearly represents the evil in today’s world. And so we must combat it with the greatest energy,” he told CNN in a representative interview. “The Americans are currently making a great effort, a very effective one, it seems to me, with the search for all the clues and then those to blame, so that they can determine who is at the origin of this murderous folly. And when subsequently it comes to punishment for this murderous folly, yes France will be at the United States’ side.”

I endorse the widespread affirmation of solidarity with the French, the judgment that force is more than justified against the perpetrators of the attack, and the conviction that the U.S. should be at France’s side to assist in punishing the responsible parties.

But France was a good friend to the United States after 9/11 in another way that we Americans also ought to reciprocate: As a majority of Americans began to conclude that Saddam Hussein posed an uncontainable threat, our allies in Paris insisted that our trauma was clouding our judgment, and that preemptive war against him in Iraq would do more harm than good. “France is not pacifist,” Chirac would declare in 2003. “We are not anti-American either. We are not just going to use our [UN] veto to nag and annoy the U.S. But we just feel that there is another option, another way, another more normal way, a less dramatic way than war, and that we have to go through that path. And we should pursue it until we’ve come to a dead end, but that isn’t the case.”

The United States did not listen. Indeed, many figures on the political right in the U.S. vilified France for its criticism. As it turned out, the Iraq War killed many more Americans than 9/11, cost trillions of dollars, and destabilized the Middle East in ways that directly empowered the regime in Iran and gave rise to the terror group ISIS.

The foolhardiness of the Iraq War does not invalidate all calls for force. But America’s mistake and France’s unheeded advice do offer discrete lessons to the world today:

  • Ill-chosen wars can and do carry more costs than benefits. Any call for military action occasioned by the terrorist attack on France should be evaluated with that possibility in mind, not with the abdication of judgment and responsibility embodied in the “we’ve got to do something, so this,” school of foreign policy. It is vitally important not only to do the right thing, but to avoid all the wrong things. The geopolitical situation could end up being far worse than it is now.

  • A wronged nation is as capable of bad decisions as any other. And the feeling of moral clarity that many feel in the aftermath of an attack puts them at risk of rash decisions.

  • The valuable human impulse to rally around people in trauma who have been victimized by horrific injustice must be informed by the recognition that being wronged does not itself make one an infallible judge of the right course. Solidarity with the end of a safe, secure France is righteous; deference to any means the country might choose to secure that end is an abdication of wisdom masquerading as righteous compassion, and must be avoided. That isn’t to say that our notion of what France ought to do will be superior to theirs––only that good allies engage in constructive criticism as best they can, not sensitivity so encompassing that it forecloses saying, “You’re wrong.”

None of the foregoing is a call for or against any particular response to the attack on France, a point I emphasize in hopes that America’s War on Terror hawks at least remain open to the notion that the impulse to react rashly ought to be guarded against. Regardless of one’s ideological priors, it’s easy to look back at American discourse since 9/11 and find prescient advice that was stigmatized at the time it was offered.

Let us learn from that history rather than repeat it.