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The Long Lesson, and New Legacy, of September 11

“The legacy of September 11 continues to grow. It used to be all about war. Now, it is about giving peace a chance,” says William Rivers Pitt.

I spent the better part of Tuesday trying to figure out just exactly what President Obama would say during his address to the nation that night. His speechwriters were probably mainlining caffeine, I figured, because the whole narrative had been turned inside out in a day. On Monday> morning, the speech was going to be about convincing the American people that bombing kids because of dead kids is the way to go.

But then Secretary of State John Kerry made his offhand remark about Syria turning over its chemical weapons, which motivated the State Department to announce that anything Secretary Kerry might have said was not to be taken as Secretary Kerry actually saying anything, and all while Susan Rice was on TV advocating a military strike.

To call this run of events “incoherent” is to savagely insult the whole concept of incoherence. It was a mess, a jumble, all of a piece with the whole garbled thing to that point, but when Russia jumped up and endorsed the idea, followed by Syria itself, everyone in the Obama administration finally took a deep breath, stepped back, and said, “OK, yeah, that might actually work.”

What followed was a day of backing down, looking around, and accepting the fact that a negotiated settlement was, in the end, the best possible option. Congress was getting ready to eat the president’s lunch, the American people hated the whole thing, and Mr. Obama was looking at the end of his presidency, for all intents and purposes, with three years left to go.

I give him and his people great credit for hitting the brakes on the attack plan with the alacrity they did. They screwed up the front end of this thing to an awesome degree, but got it right on the back end. Moreover, they had the wherewithal to recognize the essential wisdom of The First Law Of Holes: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Plenty of the presidents in my lifetime alone would have kept digging until they were buried.

Now? The UN is involved, Congress is on hold, Syria has agreed to declare its weapons, and a lot of people who might have been dead already will see the sunrise tomorrow> because the Tomahawks are still in their silos.

But here was this speech on Tuesday> night, the poor speechwriters who had to reconfigure the whole thing to match the new realities…and what they came up with, in the end, was an eloquently stated ball of fundamental incoherence.

To wit: Gas sucks, dead children are terrible, so I want to attack, but Congress needs to be involved, and now we’re working on a diplomatic solution, yet if you’re on the right and love the military, or if you’re on the left and love human rights, you totally have to look at the dead kids on YouTube and get behind me on attacking Syria, because we’re not the world’s policeman even though we’re totally in charge of policing the world on stuff like this, but since I’ve asked Congress to suspend the vote and we’re pursuing diplomacy, there won’t be an attack, or something. P.S. Hitler, and American exceptionalism, and dead kids are bad.

I watched it twice, and I’m still not sure what he was on about. Devout believers of the idea that Mr. Obama is some kind of pan-dimensional hybrid between Yoda and Muad’dib are free to argue that this is all part of the eleventy-dimension chess game he’s been playing since the sixth century BC, when he was first reincarnated as Lao Tzu’s smarter second cousin twice removed…and whatever to all that.

In the end, the speech on Tuesday> night was a hastily-cobbled mishmash of rah-rah gobbledygook that argued for and against war on Syria simultaneously. Those who claim that Mr. Obama’s threat of force is what is pushing Assad to the table need to re-read the transcript of Tuesday> night’s speech. That wasn’t a threat; it was a game of verbal Jenga that collapsed before it was half over.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter; the speech is far less important than the ongoing dialogue and diplomacy that is keeping people alive while avoiding a region-wide conflagration. Mr. Obama could have stepped to the podium and read The Great Gatsby like Andy Kaufman for all I care. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding does not smell like rocket fuel, so we’re all ahead on points.

All told, it’s a hell of a thing to encompass on the anniversary of September 11. I, along with many others, argued that Osama bin Laden won his war the minute he compelled the Bush administration to go militarily berserk abroad while shredding the Constitution at home. Twelve years later, the Constitution is in worse shape than it has been since the Civil War, as evidenced by the ongoing NSA scandal. But maybe, just maybe, the manner in which this Syria debacle has unspooled offers a glimmer of hope that we are finally, finally crawling out from under that long, dark shadow.

After all, Mr. Obama didn’t just flip some missiles the way his predecessors have. He actually went to Congress for approval of what he has described as a very small military engagement, a virtually unprecedented Constitutionally-appropriate move that took the legs out from under the Unitary Executive Theory we’ve been enduring for so long….and when Congress appeared poised to slap him down, along with a tremendous plurality of the American people, he backed off, looked around, and began working to find another way. Nothing is certain, and this whole thing may go sideways at any moment, but it is a refreshing change of pace to see diplomacy at work after so many years of bomb first and ask questions later.

Timothy Egan wrote a scathing article for the New York Times last Thursday that skinned the legacy of George W. Bush alive. In its conclusion, he wrote:

The voice that stands out most by his silence, the one that grates with its public coyness, is Bush himself. He has refused to take a side in the Syrian conflict. The president, he said, “has a tough choice to make.” Beyond that, “I refuse to be roped in.”

This is cowardice on a grand scale. Having set in motion a doctrine that touches all corners of the earth and influences every leader with a say in how to approach tyrants who slaughter innocents, Bush retreats to his bathtub to paint.

I celebrated this article when I first read it, broadbanded it via social media to everyone I know…and then stopped, and read it again. Egan, I realized, was lamenting the aspect of the Bush legacy that makes it harder for presidents like Obama to make war on other countries. This, I decided, is not something for which Mr. Bush should be dunned. It cost the world a mountain of blood, bonemeal and treasure to learn the lesson, but as this whole Syria situation has shown, the lesson has finally taken hold.

If he did nothing else, Mr. Bush made the United States of America very, very wary of war. He should not be celebrated for this – he should, in truth, be in a prison cell chained to Cheney and Rumsfeld picking grubs out of the cold oatmeal he got for dinner – but the fact of it should not be ignored or denied.

And so the legacy of September 11 continues to grow. It used to be all about war. Now, it is also about giving peace a chance.

And that’s just fine with me.