A February NBC news poll reveals some dramatic diversity within the minds of Donald Trump’s America. The topics covered are varied, and include Americans’ current feelings about Russia, and their worries over a future major war (56 percent are very or somewhat worried). One other question caught my eye, however, and that was a choice of two statements, asking respondents to pick the one closer to what they believe. They were "using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism" or "relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism." Surprisingly, the split was nearly even, but the latter won out 49 percent to 47.
Depending how a poll is phrased, you can get a large number of people to agree to all sorts of things, some of which are awful. However, that NBC bothered to ask about this, and that it rang true for so many people feels new and strange for those of us who grew up with the war on terror, and who have been accused more than once of condoning terrorism because we wished to explain its motivations.
Blowback is a CIA term that former Rep. Ron Paul tried his best to popularize as an explanation for terrorist attacks, and other forms of violence. Fittingly, it was first used in a 1954 CIA document about the consequences of the British and US-backed 1953 Iranian coup (the consequences being, well, everything that happened in Iran after 1953).
Outside of certain circles, "blowback" and Paul himself were relatively unknown until, during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Texas Congressman went up against former New York Mayor and 9/11-panderer Rudy Giuliani over why those attacks happened.
Paul did significant work bringing the word blowback closer to common lexicon. However, in doing so, he, and others who use that argument, were often treated the way that Giuliani treated Paul. Namely, grandstanding and accusing the person who suggested that actions have consequences of condoning mass murder followed. In short, the person who suggests that US or US-backed murders abroad may lead to angry, violent reprisals, and more innocents killed, so maybe we should quit it, is the one who thinks that the people in the Twin Towers were asking for it somehow. Indeed, Giuliani’s response to Paul is the Platonic ideal of the political sidestep – the refusal to openly confront the fact that people in other countries bleed, die, and grow angry when people who practice the same religion, live in the same countries, or who are in their very families are killed. This is a basic, human idea, and it’s one that has to be ignored in order to condone the practice of just about every powerful nation-state on the planet, the US being far from an exception.
Daringly, Paul also helped encourage the idea that no, America’s stated good intentions was not enough. As the late, great Harry Browne put it in an Antiwar column from September 12, 2001 as he listed the myriad interventions the US had engaged in over the past few decades, "Did we think the people who lost their families and friends and property in all that destruction would love America for what happened?" Asking for nuance and understanding of people whose loved ones are killed, and who have had their homes occupied is asking too much. And we barely even ask.
In spite of his declining approval ratings, for much of the George W. Bush years, this topic of responsibility was pushed to the fringes of media and debate. And then when Barack Obama rolled into town, the antiwar movement, besides the stalwarts at Code Pink and a few others, gave its last breath. Iraq was so catastrophic that not having started being that on your legacy makes you appear to be a decent president (not to mention that Bill Clinton, Bush Sr. and others are also to blame, thereby making passing the buck easier).
There’s also the strange softness that soft liberals feel towards presidents they like. If you asked them directly, so many of them agreed that drones and spying were worrisome Obama habits, but well, he was their guy, and not a Republican. They both celebrated Obama’s status, and refused to seriously consider what would happen when their man’s powers were passed over to a man or woman on the right.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq went on and on, unofficially or not, and Libya and half a dozen droned countries were added to the list, Americans zoned out. Most of the media followed suit. Movies about the war on terror mostly tanked. That’s the kind of war America likes to fight – the kind that they can ignore.
However, the rise of ISIS, and the increase of high-profile attacks in cosmopolitan centers such as Paris have made people more uncomfortable again. President Donald Trump’s occasional drifts into quasi-isolationist talk may have done something to remind people that not all interventions are sunshine and welcomes with flowers. However, his statements so far have been suggestive of someone who wants isolationism in the most dangerous, anti-humanitarian sense; someone who wants to evict majority peaceful immigrants from the country, but still bomb ISIS, and perpetuate the meddling to which the US is addicted. Unless things take a very surprising turn, Trump is unlikely to be the rehab American empire needs. No matter how much the same neocons who believe in the bloody status quo hate Trump, his narcissistic nationalism will lead to the same quests that the so-called globalist agenda of the neo-cons has, and with the same end results. After all, on social conservative footballs such as trans people and bathrooms, and on issues such as the war on drugs, Trump is being influenced by others. What reason is there to believe that he will actually change his people’s minds on intervention, or that he really wishes to?
The only thing that can change America’s mindset is Americans themselves. That never feels likely, no matter how war-tired or war-worried we are supposed to be. Indeed, perhaps the best possible solution to hope for is that we will be too distracted by mass deportation of immigrants, and a reinvigorated drug war to bother being pushed into a fresh conflict. Or Trump will just stick with child-killing Yemen raids, thereby keeping his wars at a low simmer.
Anyone who has spent time arguing the case for peace has probably encountered the loop that develops: they hurt us, we hurt them, sure they hurt us, but how can we just…not respond? It’s an uncomfortable question, with a somewhat unsatisfying answer: we have to stop sometime. The fact that a statement about military responses to terror being ineffective, and even counterproductive got so many people to agree is a very small thing, but an intriguing one. Perhaps it means that if more people were presented with this truth, they might see it for what it is.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.