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Teach-in examines foreign policy options

Four MIT political scientists explored US foreign policy options in response to recent terrorist attacks and in anticipation of a new era of global interdependence.

The Oct. 4 teach-in was moderated by Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies.

After two hours, the group had agreed generally that a military response to the Sept. 11 attacks was likely and, to some, necessary. (The ongoing bombing of targets in Afghanistan by the United States and its allies began three days after the teach-in.)

A unilateral American military response, especially a fast conventional one, struck them all as certain disaster. Diplomatic responses based on forging broad new multilateral coalitions to combat terrorism were essential to US and global security, panelists agreed with varying urgency.

Joshua Cohen, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and professor of political science, went beyond security issues to envision humanitarian benefits to this new multilateral diplomacy. "International cooperation based on a shared moral norm could be used to protect innocent lives in other arenas, to relieve the sheer misery and destitution of billions of lives in this world," he said.


Samuels noted that US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had little to recommend itself to friend or foe before Sept. 11. Characterized by withdrawing from treaties and ignoring protests, American "triumphalism and unilateralism were already generating backlash among our own allies in NATO," he said.

Harvey M. Sapolsky, professor of public policy and organization and director of the Security Studies Program, characterized past US foreign policy as "arrogant, dangerous, foolish and even a bit evil--we've made promises in places like the Balkans that we're not prepared to live up to."

Acknowledging the "great grievances" provoked by American military presence in the Middle East--including the forces based in Saudi Arabia--Sapolsky advocated a military response to the terrorist attack and expressed concern that a Taliban surrender of Osama bin Laden would hobble US efforts to destroy his Al Qaeda organization.

Following American-led military action in Afghanistan, Sapolsky recommended a longer-range policy of limited goals such as helping out refugees and developing a new government. The United States should not be responsible for establishing democracy or restoring property, he said.

"The fight with Al Qaeda is much more than a fight with Afghanistan. We will need diplomacy, intelligence, police work and military power," said Professor of Political Science Barry Posen, who referred to a map of the region around Afghanistan to show the US and British naval buildup already underway.

Posen recommended that American policy support the Northern Alliance (a coalition of leaders of non-Taliban groups) to aid in dispersing the military forces of Al Qaeda and in reducing their power in Afghan society.

Stephen Van Evera, associate professor of political science, observed that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were "very, very dangerous organizations posing a very serious threat." US foreign policy must focus on counterterrorism to combat this threat by encouraging the "softer side of the Taliban to join the U.S. through bribes or intimidation. We should not overmilitarize our power," he said.

Long-range policy development should be based on awareness of America's real position among nations. US policies on trade, Arab media development and our own cultural exports should support equitable foreign relations, Van Evera said.

"The U.S. should understand that we're asking the world to accept unequal power relations, a double standard. What entitles the U.S. to run world affairs so tightly? How can we tell Iraq not to build nuclear weapons? There has to be a quid pro quo. If we want the privilege and right of being a superpower, we cannot be arrogant. We must take other people into account all the time," van Evera said.

Cohen warned against both unilateral action and unilateral interpretation of events from Sept. 11 onward.

"What happened then is that thousands of innocent people were slaughtered. Nobody can condone that. But whatever our response, it should not be cast as a defense of the US way of life, of democracy, of individualism. If we must attack, the moral reason is, we--the international community--face a common foe, a violation of a moral principle of not taking innocent lives," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 17, 2001.

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