On 10 August 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accused president Barak Hussein Obama and Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton of co-founding the jihadist rebel organization ISIS (Islamic State) operating mainly in Syria and Iraq but with operative in many Middle Eastern countries and around the world. Trump used Obama’s full name to provoke a racist-xenophobic response from the public about the Arabic-sounding name rooted in East Africa. Immediately, critics insisted that Trump made outrageous and ignorant comments about complex foreign affairs matters he does not fully comprehend.
The following day Trump clarified that he meant exactly what he said and not that Obama’s foreign policy inadvertently led to the creation of ISIS. Did Obama and Clinton create ISIS, or is this more of Trump right-wing populist hyperbole intended to rise in polls where is far behind Clinton? Considering that Trump has neo-isolationist tendencies, do such comments about Obama and Clinton creating ISIS make sense, or is he indeed an ignorant wealthy right wing populist appealing to the fears and prejudice of many citizens bombarded by media foreign policy distortions on a daily basis?
On the day that Trump accused Obama and Clinton of creating ISIS, Turkish President Erdogan accused the US of protecting Turkish billionaire Fethullah Gulen who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan considers Gullen and his ‘movement’ a terrorist organization that was behind the attempted military coup in July 2016. Moreover, the Turkish president considers the US a protector and promoter of terrorism, unless it hands Gulen over to Turkish authorities. Turkey is a NATO member, committed to the same goal as the US of regime change in Syria, and a frontline state to combat ISIS and terrorism; but what is terrorism and who is a terrorist? If Turkey and the US agree on publicly stated policy goals, despite the reality that Turkey itself has had a long-standing backdoor collaborator with ISIS and considers terrorist the Kurdish political organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which the US does not.
Beyond the obvious reality that terrorism is a very subjective political reality that means something very different to each country, there remains the massive confusion within the US political arena because Trump’s accusation is one usually uttered by critics of US foreign policy around the world. Only critics of US foreign policy have been advancing the thesis that ISIS and other jihadist groups would not exist if it were not for the financing, diplomatic, military and logistical support by the US and its European and Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey. I know of no serious critic rooted in scholarly arguments that would argue what Trump did. In a number of articles, I have pointed out that the US goal of regime change in Syria led the US and its allies to back various rebel groups from which ISIS emerged in the last five years.
The US plan was to gain greater leverage in the Middle East and deny Russia the geopolitical leverage it has historically enjoyed in Syria. This became important especially amid negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran and the reality that Iran emerged as the dominant player in the Middle East largely because of US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan where the results have been an unmitigated disaster measured by the criteria and goals that the US set out to accomplish.
Why then did the US pursue policies that in fact create terrorism through destabilization policies of anti-jihadist regimes, a policy replete with contradictions and one ultimately backfiring? Why support jihadist groups in a number of countries from Libya to Yemen, from Syria to Iraq when the result is greater jihadist activity throughout the Middle East and random hits against innocent targets in the West? Post-Cold War US has a need to keep feeding the military industrial complex whose presence in Washington is strong given their lobbying efforts among elected officials. However, that does not explain fully the war on terror on the one hand, and policies that promote terrorism on the other.
Besides the pressure from the defense industries for more government contracts to meet the dangers of our times, which includes ‘Islamic terrorism’, and besides the regional balance of power argument that diplomats advance, there is the question of using the war on terror to maintain the status quo at home in the face of external threats. Conformity to the status quo, especially amid a declining middle class and massive gap between the very rich and the rest of the citizens becomes paramount for the two political parties. This may actually be the biggest argument for creating terrorism than feeding more contracts to the defense industry and various parasitic consulting firms repeating what the hawkish elements in both political parties want to hear about a strong defense as a panacea to all of society’s problems.
The lesson here is not that the term terrorism is generic and meaningless. Now that the Republican presidential candidate has given legitimacy to the theme that the US creates terrorism, a theme that is hardly new among serious analysts of the war on terror, the argument takes center stage no matter how much both Republicans and Democrats try to dismiss it. Trump’s comments reflect a populist frustration with a wayward government pursuing destabilization policies filled with contradictions and lack of clarity both in terms of procedure and outcomes. The lesson here is not just the lengths to which a presidential candidate would go to secure more popular support using rhetoric one would associate with politicians in less developed countries where political opponents have no qualms suggesting it may not be a bad idea to eliminate the other. The lesson is that no matter the propaganda by the media, pundits, politicians, academics, and all who pretend that terrorism came like the blob from another planet are now unable to hide behind this enemy.
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.