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America and the World: What Has Changed Since 9/11?

America and the World: What Has Changed Since 9/11?

Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett explores the post-9/11 world in first of Burkle Center public class series.

The first of ten sessions of an unusual for-credit class that is also open to the general public was held April 2 to a large group of students and members of the public in Dodd Hall. Honors Collegium 155 is entitled "The United States and the World Since September 11,” and is sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. The free series began with a presentation on how the U.S. position in the world has changed since September 2001, given by political scientist Geoffrey Garrett, who is both the Vice Provost of the UCLA International Institute and Director of the Burkle Center.

The two world wars, Garrett said, broke the United States out of its traditional isolationism. The U.S. acted quickly and creatively to forge a new international order after World War II.  On the one hand it helped to establish a group of still viable multilateral economic and political organizations, from the United Nations to the GATT, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. But the cold war with the Soviet Union restricted the subsequent role of the UN, with NATO becoming a more important security organization.

1989-2001: Unbounded Optimism

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of the Soviet Union in 1991 a period of extreme optimism opened, with markets triumphant and globalization as the universal panacea.

One reason the expectations were so high was "the peaceful character of the revolution against the Soviet system." The collapse of communism inspired hopes for a period of indefinite world peace, prosperity and democracy. "There was extraordinary confidence in the United States and in the capitalist world in general that ‘more markets’ would solve most problems."

A decade later the bloom began to fade and opinions about the value of globalization polarized. "A turning point," Garrett said, "was the battle in Seattle against the WTO in December 1999. By the summer of 2001, people who were unhappy about the state of the world tended to focus on the global extension of American capitalism. The bad guys were the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO."

During the optimistic 1990s the American government also came to believe that it could fight low-casualty wars. "How did the U.S. wage the war in Kosovo?" Garrett asked. "It was an air war. It was as if the government was saying to the American people ‘don't worry, we can actively do good things in the world without risking American lives."

What Changed after September 11?

The era of optimism about the world's future ended abruptly with the World Trade Center and Pentagon air hijack attacks in 2001. September 11, Garrett said, "created, among other things, enormous political capital for the Bush administration both at home and abroad. The attack was probably more shocking than Pearl Harbor. The enemy was not a government but was shadowy and unknown. How to defeat it or to defend against it was unclear. Pearl Harbor was a military target, while 9/11 attacked civilian symbols of American life. And New York City and Washington, DC, are the epicenter of the country in important respects. National security has become personal security. September 11 affects people in a visceral personal way. There are websites that sell you gas masks. The Patriot Act can be passed easily even though it abridges traditional civil rights."

The Bush administration, however, Garrett suggested, has dissipated the initial world sympathy through its foreign policy. "Has the U.S. been redefining the rules of the game? Yes, clearly." Security issues are again preeminent, but the United States "is pushing the accepted boundaries on the justifiable use of force. There was little opposition to the war in Afghanistan. It was viewed as a legitimate response to the terrorist attack on the United States. Then the Bush administration proposed the doctrine of preemption to stop an imminent attack from taking place. With the Iraq war, the administration seems to be suggesting that we can use force to eradicate the threat before the perpetrator has the capacity to act." At the same time, Garrett said, “multilateralism has gone from a key objective of foreign policy to a tool that the administration is not willing see become a constraint on U.S. action.”

Risks the U.S. Is Taking

The more aggressive and unilateral approach of the Bush administration, Garrett said, carries a number of risks: "It may provoke radical Islam, not restrain it. This may apply to states as well as terrorist groups. For example, the Egyptian president has come out with some condemnatory statements about U.S. foreign policy, even though Egypt is the number two recipient of U.S. aid. The war may fracture the Atlantic alliance for decades. It also undercuts the collective security regime that has emerged since the end of the cold war. And of course, the rally round the flag effect on public opinion in the United States will dissipate the longer the war lasts.”

The Liberation Scenario and the Quagmire Scenario

Geoffrey Garrett argued that these risks will become increasingly real the longer the war lasts. He suggested that there are two basic positions on the outcome of the war. He called these the Liberation Scenario and the Quagmire Scenario.

"In the Liberation Scenario, the Iraqis greet us with open arms and ask the troops ‘What took you so long to get here?’ Germany and France come in to rebuild Iraq under the UN umbrella. The beacon of a democratic Iraq takes hold and this provides a motor force for democratizing the Arab states, and for getting peace with Israel. Terrorists take notice of U.S. military might, stock prices soar along with Bush's popularity. The U.S. position in the world is strengthened greatly, and the administration’s courage is amply rewarded."

Doing equal justice to the opposite possibility, Garrett outlined the Quagmire Scenario:

"The Iraqis engage in urban guerrilla warfare. The army retreats into Baghdad and commingles with the citizens. The U.S. has little choice but to devastate civilian Baghdad. There are high U.S. casualties. Massive Iraqi civilian casualties become a political disaster in the world at large. The Atlantic alliance rift becomes permanent. There is more anti-Americanism in the Islamic world. A hegemonic U.S. is isolated in world politics, and presidents after Bush will have to work hard to try to repair the damage."

Garrett concluded by tellling the class, "I was in a room with several high level foreign policy types the day the war started, and their consensus was that the war would only take a few days. This optimism has been proved unfounded. The most optimistic scenarios about the war do not look credible any more. We are waiting for the battle of Baghdad to see if the quagmire scenario cuts in or if the administration’s optimism, somewhat scaled back, is ultimately vindicated."