Zelikow on Post-9/11 Adjustment

by Anna Hansen ’12

Last Tuesday, Philip Zelkow came to speak for the tenth anniversary of September 11 as part of Dickinson’s Clarke Forum. As the former director of the 9/11 Commission, Zelikow has many interesting insights. His speech was preceded by a memorial service.

Zelikow began by briefly discussing his own experiences on 9/11 and while working on the Commission. He discussed the difficulty in making sense of such a tragedy and the need to create meaning out of it. He pointed out how 9/11 brought out both the best and worst in us. It produced heroes, but also led to Abu Ghraib. Similarly we can look at the perpetrators of 9/11 and contrast them to our admiration of the Syrian protesters. Both come out of the Arab world’s struggle with modernization, change, and repressive regimes, just as our best and worst acts both rose out of our struggle to cope with 9/11.

Zelikow also discussed how our desire to create meaning from 9/11 and fit it into a grand narrative has lead us to treat Al Qaeda as a “world historical force”. Zelikow says they are not and we should not dignify them with such a title. The speech continued with a comparison of today’s terrorist threat with the anarchists a century earlier. They, too, inspired fear and compelled people to see them as part of a grand narrative. But in truth the threat soon faded away. Then as now, the terrorist acts were an outlet for alienated and oppressed people. Perhaps Al Qaeda will fade as anarchist movements did.

Next Zelikow introduced his idea of the “paradox of prevention”. Before 9/11, Al Qaeda would have been easier to address but taking action in Afghanistan would have seemed disproportionate. It was not considered. Thus, 9/11 was not prevented. After 9/11, the need to respond was clear and agreed upon, but we had already suffered the attacks and Al Qaeda was now more difficult to eradicate.

At this time, we are now facing the “paradox of adjustment”. Al Qaeda is no longer the threat they once were. This is not to say that an attack is no longer possible, but every attempt since 9/11 has been on a smaller scale and has failed. However, we are unable to lower our assessment to reflect the reduced risk Al Qaeda poses. If the government does downplay, or “right-size” the risk, it faces embarrassment and criticism if an attack does occur. But if there is no attack, that leaves us living with greater fear and too-high expectations of danger. Our own overestimation of risk is what gives Al Qaeda power. Like the paradox of prevention, the paradox of adjustment is difficult to solve, but may be gradually resolved over time, especially in light of Bin Laden’s death.

The types of threats we face are changing. Zelikow predicts less traditional conflicts and more of the sorts of dangers we are experiencing today, what he calls “twilight wars”. This leads to questions as to what the new rules are and how governments can adjust to these new threat environments. Zelikow offers two suggestions. First, some sort of restructuring between the military and CIA, which is increasingly responsible for our defense. Second, we must remain resilient when things do happen. Zelikow gives the examples of how both our government and air travel bounced back quickly after 9/11 and advises us to protect this ability.

Zelikow’s ideas of the paradox of prevention and paradox of adjustment were compelling ways to frame the pre- and post- 9/11 situations. I found his argument persuasive and agree that it is time to adjust to the now lower (though this is not to say eliminated) threat. It is also true that the types of dangers nations face seem to be changing. However, the possible combination or reorganizing of the armed forces and CIA seems potentially problematic in its right, for legal reasons at least. I think this could create more questions than it would answer. But certainly preparing for these types of threats, as opposed to traditional warfare, would be wise. While Zelikow’s speech was interesting, I do wish he would have discussed his thoughts on the implementation of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. The speech was more general and conceptual than I had expected. I expected to hear more about he process of working on the 9/11 Commission Report. It would have been interesting to hear what someone who worked on the report thought of the 2004 IRTPA and how those changes have or have not worked.

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