Sept. 13, 2011

Scholars debate 9/11 aftermath for U.S.: Proof of our power or vulnerable and weakened?

A sharp difference of opinion emerged in a Sept. 12 debate on campus about Sept. 11, 2001: "To put it bluntly, I think our response to 9/11 over the last 10 years has been a tragedy and a waste that has left us a weaker country than we were on the day when the twin towers fell," said one panelist. Said another, "It is important that our enemies note that if they come into our house and kill our people, they will suffer our vengeance."

The first came from Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York; the second from Stephen Rosen, professor of national security and military affairs at Harvard University. The countering views were expressed at this year's Lund Critical Debate, "9/11 @ 10: What Have We Learned?" in Statler Auditorium, moderated by Cornell professor of government Nicolas Van De Walle.

Beinart argued that "9/11 hit at a time of enormous hubris in American politics and American foreign policy," blinding us to the fact that, quite simply, "Al Qaeda got lucky." He added that "huge amounts of spending on two wars and on very large tax cuts dramatically exacerbated" growing economic, financial and long-term budgetary problems. Americans were left "vulnerable to those real threats" of globalization: the economic challenge of nations like India and China.

Jonathan Kirshner, Cornell professor of government, director of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and the third panelist, said that he was completely surprised by the attack itself, but had been waiting for some "major unanticipated formative event in world politics" for years after the Cold War, during which American foreign policy goals "were blissfully clear."

"The implications of 9/11 can only be understood in the contexts of the choices made afterward," Kirshner said. He labeled the war in Afghanistan a "war of necessity," while Iraq was "the war of choice." This "catastrophic" choice, as Kirshner called it, was "a geopolitically self-mutilating gesture" rooted in "a unilateral, misguided and universally rejected American assertion of its right to engage in preventive war."

Disagreeing with the other two scholars, Rosen said that although "we did go to war in Iraq in part because of rage," we mostly went "because it was necessary." He concluded that "the criminal approach to counterterrorism was not working" prior to 9/11. "Though we did not plan it, the war in Iraq turned into a battle against Al Qaeda worldwide," as terrorists from around the world "came to Iraq to kill Americans," he said.

Beinart, however, claimed that the fact that Al Qaeda has accomplished "nothing on the scale of 9/11 anywhere around the world has very little to do with America's invasion of Iraq and not even that much to do with our invasion of Afghanistan." Instead, the group's incapacity resulted from the "vast amounts of money" poured into "homeland security and into intelligence efforts," he said, putting the network under pressure that it "simply had no capacity to withstand."

Summing up what we have learned from 9/11, Kirshner called the event a "tragic wake-up call to the cold truth that the world remains always a very dangerous place." In contrast, Rosen said: "On Sept. 11, our enemies came into our house. We did what we had to do."

The Lund Critical Debate Series, sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, brings to campus prominent speakers in international affairs.

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.