Twenty Years of Adulthood

On living abroad as an American in the post 9/11 world

In typical French fashion, I decided to take a real summer break from this newsletter. Although it was more of a staycation this year, given our family’s concerns about the delta variant, I did unplug some. I spent some time on the front porch. I ended up doing a lot of yardwork, which I found strangely therapeutic. We housesat at a friend’s place for a week. And I’ve also done a lot of reading (mostly about newspapers and Americans in Paris) and some writing and editing as well.

And if you’re American, do consider lobbying Congress and your employer to move towards European-style vacations. It’s likely a non-starter, but we should all try. Long vacations are wonderful! And, believe it or not, great for productivity in the long run.

I hope you’ve enjoyed whatever vacation you managed the past couple months. Thanks again for reading and subscribing. If you haven’t, do consider doing so. I may set up a paid subscription in the future, but right now I just wanted to have a useful way to write to friends.

The major event that happened in the past two months, of course, was the end of the war in Afghanistan. I couldn’t help but obsessively follow the news as it unfolded. The Taliban’s capture of Kabul on August 15, 2021 is a world-historical event. That much is clear. But the exact meaning of that event is very much up for debate.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know that I’ve shared a fair bit of good writing on the subject. I’ve pushed back on the standard Beltway reading among both politicians and large parts of the media. I hesitate trying to add to those thoughtful and observant commentaries I’ve shared elsewhere. However, I do think I have something to say. Although I am not an Afghanistan expert nor have I spent time there, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the interrelationships connecting American media, its coverage of the world, and American foreign policy.

The twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is coming up next weekend. President Biden had that date in mind, in fact, when he made his fateful decisions about the Afghanistan withdrawal. The date was also chosen for the publication of Samuel Moyn’s new book Humane, which addresses drone warfare and the legality of war. As an editor at the Tocqueville 21 blog, I put together a forum devoted to the book, which will be published over the coming week. So I’ve been thinking about this anniversary of 9/11 much more than many others.

It’s also personal, though. 9/11 didn’t just mark the end of one era in American foreign policy and the beginning of another. It marked the end of my adolescence and the beginning of my adulthood. I was a senior in high school on September 11, 2001, about to send out college applications. That morning, I was driving to my zero hour class, sometime just before 6:30 am, Pacific Daylight Time, when my sister and I heard on the radio that a plane had flown into the first tower. Our teachers put on the TV in most of our classes throughout the day. None of us had ever been to New York City, but we felt that we knew it was ours. Mostly, we knew the skyline because it was part of so many movies and TV shows that we watched.

When we all recovered a little from the shock, there was some good-natured jesting towards the paranoid among us: do you really think the terrorists are going to pick our high school / city hall / mall for their next attack?

But it was clear that something had shifted, and we were part of it. Our conservative community was patriotic. We supported the troops when they went into Afghanistan. I don’t remember many dissenting voices then. I don’t think I heard anyone at that time present an argument as to why we shouldn’t go into Afghanistan. I certainly don’t remember anyone clearly articulating the stated reasons of the terrorists or examining the reasons—real or alleged—that led up to the attacks. I think we all accepted that the terrorists hated us and we had to get them back. I now regret not asking more questions.

In college, the next year, there was more debate about the beginning of the war in Iraq. It divided our hallway in the honor’s dorm. The more secular students and the lefty Catholics, Protestants, and Jews seemed to be unanimously against it. The conservative Protestants were for it. The division was mostly political, Democrats against Republicans, but not entirely. Only a couple two later, after I had returned from abroad, did the two Muslim students in the dorm, brothers from Pakistan, sit me down and tell me how betrayed they felt by Colin Powell and why they were so strongly opposed to Bush’s foreign policy.

The key moment for me was when I went to study abroad in Ecuador. And a couple years later again in France. Strangers and friends alike would confront me over Bush’s foreign policy. I started to ask more questions. I began to grapple with the effects of American foreign policy. The patriotic emotions in America that flowed into military engagements abroad seemed different when viewed from another country.

When you develop a friendship, you come to be able to predict the other person’s thoughts, actions, and responses. You never take them on completely. Perhaps you still disagree significantly. Maybe they even baffle you still. But you come to understand what they are and you develop the ability to predict them. In those years of the Bush presidency, a lot of my foreign friends had strong opinions on my president’s foreign policy. I came to understand them and eventually developed the ability to predict them.

As a side note, this is the greatest gift that study abroad can provide. And, for reasons more chronological than geographical, it is also why studying the humanities will always provide value and should always be taught.

My decision to return to the academy years later was the logical endpoint of these encounters with my non-American friends and the reflections that ensued. I had the fortuitous experience of archiving the papers of William Pfaff. His writing on international relations and geopolitics over more than six decades, much of it from Paris, provided me a broader perspective on the questions that had begun to haunt me in the years after 9/11. He made useful connections and asked pertinent questions that I had not encountered from so many of the American commentators that I had read. One thing led to another, and here I am, a PhD student in History at Cambridge.

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a few reflections about the past two decades of American foreign policy, twenty years that correspond with my adulthood, one which has been spent largely as an American living outside the United States, in the years in which we turned the page on the American century.