As reactions to the Orlando massacre pour in, every political faction is eager to impose its own narrative on the tragedy: if that seems vulgar, then politics is inherently vulgar, and there’s no way to prettify it. And since politics is about hate, blame, and vengeance – whom to hate, and why – two very different scapegoats emerged from the ruckus, and we can see this in the speeches both major party candidates made in response to the tragedy.
For Donald Trump, the enemy is within the gates, a conclusion that will resonate with many voters: after all, Omar Mateen was an American citizen, born in New York and living in Florida. And so most of Trump’s peroration was about how he would limit this internal threat, which in his view is summarized by Mateen’s biography: a second generation son of immigrants from war-torn Afghanistan. Trump’s solution – widely albeit inaccurately described in the media as imposing a religious test on would-be immigrants – is to “suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies, until we understand how to end these threats.”
This is almost identical to a bill proposed by none other than the libertarian-ish Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, which would have suspended “visa issuance for countries with a high risk of terrorism and impose a waiting period for background checks on visa issuance from other countries until the American people can be assured terrorists cannot enter the country through our immigration and visa system.” Sen. Paul’s proposal was a bit more extreme in that it wasn’t limited to “high-risk” countries but also imposed a waiting period on “other countries,” while the Trump proposal doesn’t go quite that far.
The problem with both proposals is that they would be next to impossible to implement: the Paul bill would have practically halted all travel between the US and “other countries.” Both the Paul bill and the Trump proposal would presumably include diplomatic and military personnel from “high risk” countries, virtually ending relations with every nation in the Middle East. And what about Britain, France, and other European countries with large Muslim populations, which we know are riddled with terrorist networks?
What is significant about the Trump speech, however, is what wasn’t in it: there is no mention of ratcheting up the bombing of ISIS in Syria, escalating the renewed conflict in Iraq, or, indeed, any overseas military action. And so in addition to restricting immigration from “high risk” countries, says Trump,
“It also means we must change our foreign policy. The decision to overthrow the regime in Libya, then pushing for the overthrow of the regime in Syria, among other things, without plans for the day after, have created space for ISIS to expand and grow. These actions, along with our disastrous Iran deal, have also reduced our ability to work in partnership with our Muslim allies in the region.
“That is why our new goal must be to defeat Islamic terrorism, not nation-building. No nation-building!
“For instance, the last major NATO mission was Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya. That mission helped unleash ISIS on a new continent.
“I’ve said NATO needs to change its focus to stopping terrorism. Since I’ve raised that criticism, NATO has since announced a new initiative focused on just that.
“America must unite the whole civilized world in the fight against Islamic terrorism, just like we did against communism in the Cold War.”
Here is the “new nationalism” that has defeated the neoconservative foreign policy orthodoxy once dominant in the GOP, its virtues and flaws on full display. First, the virtues:
The “No nation-building!” phrase isn’t in the official transcript: that was Trump ad libbing, and I think it shows where his heart truly lies. He’s spent a lot of time attacking what he calls “Hillary’s war” in Libya, and her attempts to recruit Islamist rebels in Syria in an effort to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And of course there’s his famous declaration, at a Republican presidential debate, that the Bush administration lied us into the Iraq war. Even his belligerent outbursts directed at ISIS are tinged with a distaste for overseas interventions: in his most recent statement, in an interview on Fox News, he says “we have to be fast and furious for a short period of time.”
This is typical of the classic “isolationist” elevation of air power as a military panacea: avoidance of putting troops on the ground has always been the hallmark of this tendency, and now that the “isolationists” have made a comeback in the GOP, Trump is resurrecting this “quick victory” trope.
Which brings us to the flaws inherent in the traditional “isolationist” position:
Air power alone is not going to defeat ISIS. The Pentagon knows this, and so does Hillary Clinton. It’s conceivable that some combination of local allies could pull it off, but that has not worked so far – the problem being that the Saudis and the Turks are to some degree enabling ISIS, and the other actors, the Kurds and the Iraqis, don’t have the military capacity or the desire. The only other regional actors capable of taking on ISIS, the Iranians, are unlikely to cooperate, even if Washington would permit it. Trump says he’s open to cooperating with the Russians, who have been aiding Assad, but Vladimir Putin is too smart to inject large numbers of Russian ground troops into Syria. And then there’s the problem Trump himself has pointed out in his critique of the Libyan intervention: what about “the day after”?
Another broader problem with Trump’s stance is the same problem that arose out of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “anti-communist” crusade in the 1950s. Indeed, the similarities between Trump and McCarthy are quite striking: both McCarthyism and Trumpism point to the danger of internal subversion, as opposed to an external military threat that calls out for overseas intervention. In the McCarthyite/Trumpist worldview, the main danger is at home.
This was one major reason why so many right-wing anti-interventionists of the 1940s and 50s – the Old Right – were enthusiastic backers of McCarthy. (Another reason was that they had been subjected to a left-wing witch-hunt for opposing US entry into World War II, revenge being a major motivation in politics.)
Yet the “isolationists” of the Old Right, in embracing McCarthyism uncritically, soon began to undermine their own cause. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in The Betrayal of the American Right, his history of the Old Right, “It was in fact McCarthy and ‘McCarthyism’ that was the main catalyst for transforming the mass base of the right-wing from isolationism and quasi-libertarianism to simple anti-Communism.” Aside from altering the mass base of the rightist movement from small-town Midwesterners to Eastern seaboard Catholics whose interests were limited to “stamping out blasphemy and pornography at home and killing Communists at home and abroad,” the anti-Communist crusade soon set its sights overseas. It’s no accident that one of Bill Buckley’s earliest books, McCarthy and his Enemies, was a full-throated defense of “Tail-gunner Joe” – and that Buckley’s magazine, National Review, purged the Old Right from the ranks of the “new” conservative movement, excluding veteran America Firsters like John T. Flynn.
And so there are dangers, as well as opportunities for anti-interventionists, in Trumpism, but they pale in comparison to those posed by Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton’s speech, like most of her public pronouncements, is awash in bromides. Most of it is taken up with hailing “first responders,” praising “diversity,” and the like. But when it comes to how the Orlando incident impacts her foreign policy thinking, she has this to say:
“The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months.
“So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.
“We also need continued American leadership to help resolve the political conflicts that fuel ISIS recruitment efforts.
“But as ISIS loses actual ground in Iraq and Syria, it will seek to stage more attacks and gain stronger footholds wherever it can, from Afghanistan, to Libya, to Europe.
“The threat is metastasizing….”
To begin with, there is no “coalition effort” in Iraq and Syria. There is just the US and its relatively powerless local proxies: a hapless Iraqi military and the Kurds, who have no desire to “liberate” non-Kurdish towns and villages. “Ramping up the air campaign” – a militaristic note absent from Trump’s speech – is central to her plan: and as for our “partners,” these surely do not include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which Mrs. Clinton acknowledges (for the first time) have been funding terrorism all along.
The Clintonian solution to the problem of terrorism is, for the most part, external: it is to be solved militarily, and the battleground is primarily overseas. And in what is a blatant appeal to the neoconservatives, she references the Bush years as some kind of golden age of “unity”:
“Finally let me remind us all, I remember, I remember how it felt, on the day after 9/11, and I bet many of you do as well. Americans from all walks of life rallied together with a sense of common purpose on September the 12th and in the days and weeks and months that followed. We had each others’ backs. I was a senator from New York. There was a Republican president, a Republican governor, and a Republican mayor. We did not attack each other. We worked with each other to protect our country and to rebuild our city.”
This bizarre retelling of history has no relationship to what actually occurred. I well remember those days, when Antiwar.com was on the receiving end of hundreds of death threats directed at our staff – and when the war hysteria was so intense that only a few dared speak out against the war plans of the administration and its neoconservative cheerleaders. Attacks on Muslims were a daily occurrence, and both “left” and right united in demanding a war of vengeance, one that is still going on even as I write. “You’re either with us,” averred President Bush, “or you’re with the terrorists.” That’s when the Bush administration inaugurated an illegal program of mass surveillance of Americans, and the “Patriot” Act was pushed through Congress without being read or understood by those who voted “Aye.”
It was, in short, a dark time – and Hillary Clinton wants to bring it back!
In the end, we are left with a choice between two dangers, one imminent and the other potential: one a known quantity and the other a roll of the dice. What’s significant about this is that the parties seem to have switched roles insofar as foreign policy is concerned: it’s the presumptive Republican candidate who is more reluctant to intervene abroad, while the Democrat is the more hawkish of the two.
This role reversal opens up new possibilities: the GOP, wrenched from the grasping arms of the neoconservatives, is no longer enemy territory. The “America First” foreign policy of Trump leaves plenty of room for anti-interventionists to carve out a niche within the party. On the other hand, as I pointed out above, there is the danger that Trump’s anti-Muslim crusade, for the moment aimed at the home front, could easily be redirected overseas. Not to mention the threat to the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.
In any case, what we are witnessing is a fundamental realignment that is shaking the American political landscape with seismic force. The task of libertarians, and anti-interventionists in general, is to seize the opportunities presented by the new reality, while avoiding the many pitfalls – over-adaptation to Trumpism, or, conversely, joining in the liberal-left anti-Trump hysteria.
In short, this means walking a tightrope without plunging to the ground. That is what I have tried to do over the past six months or so. I’ll leave it to you, the readers, to decide how successful I’ve been.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN