While most of the attention paid to the recent 9/11 report has focused on the 28 blanked-out pages detailing the actions of the House of Saud, a far more important player has escaped necessary scrutiny: the U.S. State Department.
Not because the diplomats at Foggy Bottom did anything overt (aside from issuing visas to the terrorists that never should have been issued under the law), but because they believe “stability”—even stability of tyrants—is always in America’s interests. What that has wrought, though, is a world more amenable to tyranny and terrorism.
History shows that the State Department has had an inability to recognize—and a disturbing habit of “engaging”—evil.
Even as many other parts of the U.S. government were growing leery of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980’s—particularly after the mass murder of the Kurds in northern Iraq—State became the best friend Saddam had. Anywhere. State defended Saddam’s interests inside the first Bush administration, pushing the president to establish closer ties with a man who had already shown an alarming propensity for terrorizing his own people.
Granted, many in the Reagan administration had argued for an alliance with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war—who can forget the photo of Rummy shaking the despot’s hand in 1983—but State was still shilling for Saddam after most others in the U.S. government finally recognized him as the threat that he actually was.
As glaring a mistake as it was to embrace Saddam well after he had shown his true colors—but before his tanks rolled into Kuwait—State did not learn its lesson. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, State was quick to feign ignorance about the brutal tactics of the new regime, while privately spreading the word that the group would bring all-important “stability” to the war-torn nation.
In fairness, a number of U.S. officials outside of the State Department believed that the U.S. should welcome the change in Afghanistan’s leadership. But State’s job is to know better. And, in fact, most of the rest of the world did know better.
After the Taliban grabbed control of Afghanistan, only four nations on earth that did not recognize the fallen Rabbanni government. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates all recognized the Taliban, and one country did not recognize either the Rabbanni regime or the Taliban: the U.S.
Of course, even if State had used maximum leverage on the Taliban, 9/11 might have happened in exactly the same way. But such speculation is neither productive nor helpful.
Learning from past mistakes, however, is absolutely crucial. And that’s the problem.
Over the years, State has demonstrated no capacity for self-appraisal. It cannot admit mistakes, but more fundamentally, it does not look at its own actions to learn what changes need to be made. There is perhaps no more vivid illustration than what happened with a program called Visa Express.
After this columnist wrote a story last June about a program in Saudi Arabia that had let in three of the terrorists that was still open nine months after 9/11, State did two things: 1) it dropped the name “Visa Express,” and 2) it changed the description of the program on the web site of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. That was it.
There was no attempt to reform or change the program that was allowing all residents in the country that sent us 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists to submit visa applications at private Saudi travel agencies. State, in fact, wanted to expand Visa Express to other nations. It only closed the loophole in our border security—and grudgingly, at that—following a month of intense public pressure.
State’s refusal to change its ways also can be seen in its determination to continue “engaging” the Iranian mullahs, even though years of talks have yielded nothing but the regime’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and continued brutal repression of the Iranian people. Rather than taking a tough stand against the mullahs, State’s number-two official, Richard Armitage, legitimized the oppressors by labeling Iran a “democracy” this February.
There’s one lesson that State must learn before any other—one that should be painfully obvious given State’s history of coddling despots in the name of “securing” America’s interests with “stability”: security in tyrants is no security at all.