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International experts warn of threats, challenges

Students, faculty and staff gathered in Room E25-111 to hear a panel discussion about US and international security issues.
Students, faculty and staff gathered in Room E25-111 to hear a panel discussion about US and international security issues.
Photo / Donna Coveney

MIT political scientists delivered a sobering view of current US security and near-future domestic and military life in panel discussions organized by the Center for International Studies and held on Sept. 12 and 17.

Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies (CIS), moderated both panels, organized in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"In this time of unspeakable difficulty, we continue to try to understand and cope with the new world in which we are all going to live," Samuels said.

The first panel focused on the nature of the attacks, on the intentions and capabilities of the attackers and on possible US reactions. The second explored the challenges and diplomatic skills of US leadership, the dangers of extreme nationalism in the United States, and on a much-altered national role in international relations.

Speakers portrayed the United States as vulnerable to further attacks and terrorist groups as likely to strike again, and they advocated heightened awareness among the nation's leadership of how other cultures view American power even as US military action of some kind was being crafted.

The panelists specialize in US security policy, international security issues, nuclear proliferation, domestic preparedness and human rights law. They included Stephen Van Evera, associate professor of political science and associate director of CIS; Barry Posen, professor of political science; Allison Macfarlane, senior research associate in CIS; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, assistant professor of urban studies and planning; and Jeremy Pressman, a graduate student in political science who is writing his dissertation on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nazli Choucri, professor of political science, and Gregory D. Koblentz, a graduate student in political science, participated in the second discussion along with Van Evera, Rajagopal, Posen and Pressman.

Joshua Cohen, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor in the Humanities and head of the Department of Political Science, speaking from the floor, described Tuesday's events as a "slaughter of innocents," but challenged any response based on nationalist fervor.

"It is a very bad mistake to say our cause is the cause of the USA. The issue is not a specifically American cause. Nor is the issue freedom, the rule of law, pluralism or the open society and its enemies. Many billions of people--of different moral and religious convictions--know that the slaughter of innocents is wrong. To paraphrase what Lincoln said about slavery: if slaughtering innocent people is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. And we should never respond in a way that continues that evil," Cohen declared.


Posen, a specialist in American security issues and foreign policy, expressed confidence in the Bush administration but had reservations arising from President Bush's personal inexperience with life outside the United States.

"The administration's direction looks right. But they'll need help. Bush himself has no internalization of international history. If they want to succeed, they will have to build coalitions, avoid collateral damages, and pay attention to subtleties--not the natural instinct of this crowd," he said. "They will have to sacrifice some sacred cows."

Van Evera is a specialist in the causes and prevention of war, and American foreign policy and security policy. "Americans must steel themselves for an Israelization of US life," he said. "There aren't any good military options. Are we willing to rethink assassinations? We'll need international help, we'll need diplomacy. Are we willing to rethink NATO expansion? The National Missile Defense Plan?"

Koblentz, whose research focuses on domestic preparedness, noted the measures already in place--more than $12 billion to combat terrorism and protect power plants and industrial sites--and urged protection of "soft targets," such as malls and sports stadiums, as well as federal funding for hospitals in preparation.

"In public health, early intervention is the best method for saving lives," he said. "Our hospitals are not ready for mass infectious disease."

Rajagopal's research focuses on human rights law. He noted that terror destablizes leadership but also warned the audience, "The history of states involved in counterterrorism is very ugly. Secret courts, secret evidence and secret processes are used against the populace. We do not need new laws. Laws are in place here and in the United Nations."


Macfarlane, whose field of expertise is preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, noted that US nuclear plants are vulnerable both to being struck by planes with big fuel tanks, as the World Trade Towers were, or to being infiltrated by terrorists or thieves.

Another threat originates from the potential use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. "The most difficult part of making a nuclear weapon is obtaining the fissile material that powers these weapons," Macfarlane noted. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium stored in poorly guarded sites in the former Soviet Union are vulnerable to theft and to smuggling, she added.


"The post-Cold War world ended yesterday," Posen said. "We haven't heard the last from these people. We must be prepared for a grinding attrition campaign involving intelligence, conventional and unconventional operations. Americans involved in this fight are going to die.

"A failure of deterrence has occurred already. We have no choice but to root these enemies out wherever they are. And their hosts will not produce the terrorists unless they believe something awful is going to happen to them," Posen said.


The panelists noted the history of abuses of power and influence by the United States in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central America and Africa. Pressman commented on the export of US pop and media culture as arousing resentment among traditional societies, and on non-consumerist, religious ways of life.

Choucri, an expert on moderate Arab states, urged the audience and the Bush administration to appreciate the tensions within countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as their leaders weigh the costs and benefits of allying with the United States.

"These states face internal stresses over modernization, poverty, scarcity and gender issues that cannot be ignored. Their governments promise far more than they can deliver to their own people, and many of their regimes have serious concerns for their own legitimacy," Choucri said. "When the US seeks them to be allies, these leaders must attend to sources of domestic instability and internal opposition. What is needed now is the creation of security strategies that do not breed insecurities."

Pressman summarized the history of American involvement in Afghanistan, noting that the ultimate failure of the 1979 Soviet invasion, repulsed in 1989 by US-backed forces, was interpreted by militants as "the defeat of the USSR in the name of Islam. A network was formed. It was strengthened by a sense of betrayal in the Gulf War, when holy shrines were used as US bases; by the 'Made in USA' stamp on weapons used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and by the containment of Iraq. A new foreign policy for the US will require new coalitions. It's not just about us and our allies versus bin Laden," he said.

Van Evera summarized increasing evidence that the author of the attack was Osama bin Laden, 44, the wealthy Islamic extremist likely based in Afghanistan. Bin Laden has called for a holy war against the United States.

"He's been going after the US in increasing scale over the past eight years. He's personally very wealthy. He may have state support. And he's very well organized," said Van Evera.

This forum was sponsored by the Chancellor's Office, the Department of Political Science, and the Boston Review.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 19, 2001.

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