09/14/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

9/11: Lessons Unlearned and the Coming Election

On the morning of 9/11, I watched the tragedies in New York City with horror, as did millions. In San Francisco, I live in a neighborhood with some of the fanciest mansions in town just up the hill. Some of them are on a very curvy little one-lane street. Our new young dog had to walk regardless of the events of the day, so out we went, me dazed by what I had just seen on the screen. At the bottom of that winding street idled a long limousine; a tall, distinguished-looking older man in a dark suit was walking down the street towards it, carrying two briefcases. We looked at each other, and for some reason I just blurted, "What's the story?" He nodded at me sagely and said something close to "Don't worry. All will be revealed, and taken care of." The driver of the limo opened the back door, he got in, and off they went. I realized that he needed to be picked up on that corner as the long car would not have been able to negotiate the curves up by the mansions.

There's been no sign of this fellow in the neighborhood in the eleven years since, but I have at times wondered who he was and what he meant. I'm no conspiracy-monger; on the contrary, I believe that even the "best and brightest" too often muddle along, and most putative conspiracies are far too complex for even the Masters of the World to pull off. And the intervening decade-plus supports that conclusion.

I saved some newspapers from that horrid week, and just dug them out. The San Francisco Chronicle for Sept. 13, 2001 -- a Thursday, like this year -- contained not only many photos of the carnage in lower Manhattan, but these headlines: "Tragedy brings nation together"; "The day our cocky sense of invincibility crumbled"; "Bush promises to conquer a new kind of enemy"; "U.S. hunts bin Laden allies - hints at military action"; "U.S. official Rumsfeld hints at response soon to terrorist attacks"; "U.S. allies, foes share our pain"; "ACLU fears loss of civil liberties in probes"; "Air travel will change forever"; "Bay Muslims targets of attacks, vandals": and much more. Anybody around then likely recalls all this, and the many stories of grief, heroism, retribution, and so on.

But one columnist, the long-gone Frank Viviano, wrote from Paris a column titled "The high price of disengagement" which began: "At 8:45 a.m. on a brilliantly clear Tuesday morning in New York, a fatal combination of history, ignorance, and power caught up with America. Thousands have probably died as a result. What remains to be seen is whether the same combination will now prove fatal to thousands more."

Well. Viviano was certainly and sadly prescient, and his column a striking warning against the wars -- invasions, really -- that followed, killing many, ruining our economy and reputation, staining American history. Now, this week, those regions are erupting again, and new tragedy has come in the form of anti-American killings. And it being presidential election time, the challenger made statements that belie a complete lack of learning from the past decade. Factually erroneous, belligerent, blaming, and wholly partisan, Mitt Romney's remarks this week have left even many Republicans aghast.

President Obama, on the other hand, has earned high marks overall for his foreign policy engagement; New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who often reports from around the globe, recently offered a "First-Term Report Card" that included a "B+" in foreign policy (but an "F" for communication, about this and other realms). His 2009 address in Cairo was justly lauded as informed, inspired, and reassuring that he knew what he was talking about and would do good things. The Nobel Peace Prize that followed was seen by many as premature but at least indicating an "A" for effort.

The problem is, as many have argued and history supports, even the "most powerful nation" cannot, and should not, control what is happening in other regions -- especially those where we are too often seen as opportunistic, ignorant, arrogant, even infidels. This is not to argue for some sort of dunderheaded Ron Paul-ist isolationism, but to choose our engagements carefully -- mainly in the form of humanitarian aid, carefully designed and targeted. Experts in that realm have learned much in recent years on how to do that. Obama can listen to them, and learn; I doubt Romney would care to, even though he needs the education much more.

Current events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, and many other places do not lend to optimism. And there is still little proof the United States can really do much about that in the short run, if at all. But this week's ill-considered but revealing reaction by one would-be President has at least clarified even further the stakes in the coming election. This is not amateur hour.

Again, I still don't know who that mysterious distinguished gentleman in the limo was on that terrible 9/11 morning eleven years ago, and likely never will. But if I could find him, I could only ask: "Please, sir, when will all be revealed? And more important, when will it be taken care of?"