September 11 created an unaccustomed problem for many writers: how to discuss events that until that day had been inconceivable. The terror attacks on New York and Washington were so unexpected, and so overwhelming in scale, that many normally prolix pundits found themselves at a loss. Much of what was published in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was either incoherent or intemperate.
That was then. Now, figuring out how to speak in the face of an overwhelming crisis has been supplanted by another challenge: how to distinguish one's writing from the gushing tide of ink. The problem is no longer too little analysis. If anything, there's too much to wade through (though opinions still tend to vary too little).
This includes reams of articles, and even a handful of books. Some of these are surprisingly good, especially considering the speed with which they were produced. (Full disclosure: The magazine I work for, Foreign Affairs, has sponsored one of these volumes.) Even considering the time constraints, however, "The Age of Terror" doesn't fall into that category.
Edited by Strobe Talbott, a veteran Time reporter who served as Clinton's deputy Secretary of State, and Nayan Chanda, a longtime editor at the Far Eastern Economic Review, "The Age of Terror" is a collection of eight essays, mostly by professors at Yale, where Talbott and Chanda now head the Center for the Study of Globalization.
The term "essay" is used lightly here: Some of these pieces, which rarely stray over 20 smallish pages in length, are little more than beefed-up op-eds. Many of them meander haphazardly; some are downright confused.
A few offer original analysis, or analysis that might have seemed original in October, when they were written. Most of what we get, however, are well-intended platitudes (at best) or angry invective (at worst). Only a few offer much new thinking.
Into the worst camp - angry rants - falls Charles Hill's "A Herculean Task: The Myth and Reality of Arab Terrorism." With more invective than argument, Hill derides Washington's attempt to eradicate terrorism and promote peace over the last 30 years, and blames American journalists and diplomats for ignoring international conflicts and promoting cowardly quick fixes.
Hill reserves his real spleen, however, for Middle Eastern countries, and the Islamic world in general, for failing to develop politically or economically and thus creating the miserable conditions that allowed violent hatred of the West to flourish.
While Hill is right that Arab tyranny is partly responsible for the kind of rage that fueled bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, and while it is appropriate to point out that too few Muslim authorities condemned the attacks after they occurred, the former aide to three Republican secretaries of State (Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and George Shultz) undermines his own case by making sweeping statements such as, "The shadow of illegitimacy falls over all political power in Islam." And his insistence that Washington shouldn't bother with peacemaking efforts in the Middle East until all terror there has been eradicated is dangerous to the extreme.
Four essays present a number of helpful observations, even if they are basically conventional and frustratingly short on specifics:
Abbas Amanat provides a workmanlike but shapeless explanation of the roots of Muslim rage.
Harold Hongju Koh exhorts us to remember core American values like liberty, the rule of law, and democracy in waging the legal war on terror.
Paul Bracken argues that Washington must improve its human intelligence-gathering, but not make the kind of sweeping reforms that will undermine the nation's intelligence agencies.
Maxine Singer urges the US government to recapture the flexible and creative approach toward scientific research and development that helped it win World War II.
Only three of the pieces offer much original thought. Oxford historian Niall Ferguson colorfully argues that, to counter bin Laden's "Islamo-bolshevism," America should embark on a campaign of unabashed benign imperialism. Ferguson makes too much of the parallels between contemporary America and Victorian Britain, but his willingness to violate political correctness in the name of muscularly promoting liberal values is refreshing.
Also impressive are the essays by two lions of Yale's history department. John Lewis Gaddis laments Washington's failure to shape the international environment in the post-cold-war world and urges the building of a new, broad-ranging coalition based on shared democratic values. And Paul Kennedy warns that maintaining US power today, while also fighting terror and promoting economic globalization, will require the kind of hybrid foreign policy that gives government officials nightmares. No nation, he suggests, has ever enjoyed so much power but faced such a vexing foreign environment.
Even at their best, unfortunately, the essays in this collection offer too few answers about how to surmount the challenges ahead. As Kennedy, Koh, and others point out, the conflicting imperatives now facing Washington will require real wisdom to untangle. Compromises and sacrifices are going to be necessary (liberties compromised, perhaps, or allies angered). Painful policies will have to be pursued, or else we should be prepared to suffer the consequences.
As the new year dawns, the problems created by Sept. 11 have become all too apparent. Still obscure, however, are the proper solutions. And "The Age of Terror" offers frustratingly few of these.
Jonathan Tepperman is senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine in New York.
"The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11"
Edited by Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda
Basic Books 232 pp., $22