Trump Hypes a New ‘War on Terror’

Donald Trump has urged a new “war on terror” that brings back torture and seeks revenge on terrorists’ families, but another problem with the Republican nominee’s approach is his exaggeration of the danger, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Much of Donald Trump’s recent speech on terrorism left one to wonder how what he was proposing would differ from current practices he supposedly was criticizing.

Working on counterterrorism with other states including Russia, for example, sounds like what the Obama administration is doing now, including discussing with the Russians ways of combating terrorist groups in Syria. And it is hard to see how Trump’s “extreme vetting” would differ from the existing and already extensive review process for visa applications.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Other parts of what Trump was proposing were just too vague for us to get a good idea of how they would be supposed to work. This is true of his proposal to suspend immigration from unnamed regions that either — depending on which sentence in the speech one looks at — are “some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism” or “where adequate screening cannot take place.”

If any such list of regions were broad enough to stop a terrorist group trying to infiltrate operators into the United States, it would be so broad as to end immigration into the United States altogether.

If there was any one theme that tended to unify what was in the speech about terrorism and that distinguishes it clearly from current policy, it was in explicitly invoking comparisons with the hot and cold wars of the Twentieth Century. In likening current counterterrorism to the Cold War, Trump even added a dose of McCarthyism with his proposal for a “Commission on Radical Islam” that would “expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.”

Setting aside this McCarthyite twist, the overall theme is one that — as with several other aspects of Trump’s candidacy — unfortunately manifests destructive attitudes and habits that go well beyond Trump and his campaign, and that were having debilitating effects on policy debates before his campaign even began.

We have seen this with references to “World War IV” (the idea being that the Cold War was number III) and “Islamofascism”. The same pattern crops up in numerous other ways. The recent memoir of a former deputy director of the CIA (Michael Morell), for example, is grandiosely titled The Great War of Our Time.

Several things are fundamentally wrong with framing counterterrorism this way. One is that this badly misrepresents the nature of the threat from international terrorism in suggesting a foe with a degree of unity and organization comparable to the enemy powers in the Twentieth Century world wars or to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If terrorism is what we are worried about, then we need to remember that terrorism is not a foe or an organization or an ideology but instead a tactic used by many different perpetrators with many different ideologies. Even focusing just on the radical Islamist variety of terrorism, there is neither this kind of organizational unity (as indicated by several of the very attacks Trump mentions in his speech, in which the perpetrators had no organizational ties to any larger group) or even ideological unity (as reflected in the Sunni-vs.-Shia conflicts that dominate much of the current strife in the Middle East).

The Great War Myth

The framing of current counterterrorism as some kind of great war also grossly overstates the overall seriousness of the threat. Nothing the United States is combating today is comparable to the challenges that were posed by — quoting from the comparison made in Trump’s speech — “Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.”

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

The Axis powers in World War II not only threatened to, but did, overrun major portions of the globe. The USSR of the Cold War was a superpower. All of this is way out of the league of anything that comes under the label of radical Islam today. Overstating of the threat does a major part of the terrorists’ job for them by making people more scared than they ought to be.

To the extent that there are organizational manifestations of radical Islam in the form of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, the “great war” kind of framing does another part of the terrorists’ job for them. A grand, religiously defined struggle between a U.S.-led West and a Muslim adversary such as one of those groups is exactly the way such groups want to depict world politics. It elevates their stature beyond what it otherwise would be and enables them to appeal more effectively to a religiously defined constituency that otherwise would have little sympathy for their methods.

The heavy emphasis on a religious definition of the adversary in this postulated “war” makes many members of that constituency more receptive to such appeals and more inclined to see the United States as their enemy. Particularly stupid is the insistence on “naming” Islamic terrorism. Not only President Obama but also President George W. Bush understood that such “naming” has nothing to do with understanding threats and instead only alienates more Muslims.

The Cold War mindset that is involved here wasn’t even an entirely appropriate way of looking at the Cold War itself. It saw global communism as more monolithic than it really was, a misconception that led to such misdirections as the Vietnam War. But at least there really was a USSR, which was a nuclear power and had a global policy of expanding its influence. Applying the mindset to current policy challenges is even less appropriate than it was during the Cold War. And it’s not only Donald Trump we have to blame for corruption of public thinking about such challenges.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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5 comments for “Trump Hypes a New ‘War on Terror’

  1. Exiled off mainstreet
    August 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    We all know that Hillary’s plan for a no-fly zone to be enforced against nuclear armed Russians and others in Syria is a lunatic threat to our survival, and we know that Clinton’s plan involves providing aid and comfort to jihadis, up to this insane level. Trump’s plan may be bad and barbaric, partly since he is relying on the votes of rank and file republicans, but it is certainly less immediately dangerous. I also don’t see it partcicularly as “McCarthyism” to target salafist fundamentalists. What is more reminiscent of McCarthyism is to say Trump is “soft on Putin” and poses a far more direct threat to our survival.

  2. Christie Mayo
    August 21, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    I listened to Trump’s talk about going after ISIS. I heard no talk of torture.

    Morell says he would be part of Clinton’s national security team. Here are some of his plans.

    “Morell continued, “I want to go after those things that Assad sees as his personal power base, right, I want to scare Assad. So I want to go after his presidential guard. I want to bomb his offices in the middle of the night. I want to destroy his presidential aircraft on the ground. I want to destroy his presidential helicopters. I want to make him think we’re coming after him.”

    “Isn’t that terrorism?

    Morell would appear to fit right in with Clinton, who, according to former US Army Psychological Warfare Officer Scott Bennett, is “a psychopathic war hawk, is obsessed with war with Russia, is obsessed with war with Iran and she is going to do everything she can to enable it.”
    (A Terrorist Endorses Hillary Clinton | OpEdNews)

    http://www.opednews.com/articles/A-Terrorist-Endorses-Hilla-by-Chris-Ernesto-Assad_Clinton-Campaign_Hillary-Clinton-Foreign-Policy_Hillary-Clinton-Supporter-160817-743.html

  3. RPDC
    August 21, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Establishment commenters refuse to believe virtually everything that Trump says, but take as gospel his comments that are the most likely to be puffery. Given the indoctrinated nature of the electorate, Trump has to appear “tough on terrorism,” which is difficult when running a decidedly anti-interventionist campaign.

    The media (aka the PR division of the War Party) is dying to attack Trump for refusing to back wars, wars, and more wars, but he cut them off by making outrageous statements about torture and going after families. He’s the negative image of every other candidate in the last 40 years: a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

    If anything, Trump’s comments are the best guarantee we could have that none of that will ever occur; if he wins the election, the great disinfectant known as “sunshine” will now be shining throughout a Trump Presidency.

    If nothing else, it is remarkably amusing to see the CIA pretending otherwise. They certainly know better than anyone that the indispensable ingredient for torture is “secrecy.”

  4. Vincent Castigliola
    August 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Should I feel reassured by Mr. Pilar’s analysis that our current president is now sincerely “working with” Russia on counterterrorism? Is Pilar correct and Daniel McAdams in error when he reported on Lewrockwell.com that the US commander in Iraq has threatened Syria ( and Russia ) not to conduct military actions in Syria which might cause US troops located (illegally) in Syria to feel “threatened” lest the US respond militarily against Syria.

    Am I in error to think that Mr. Pilar might be more concerned with disparaging Donald Trump than accurately presenting the facts?

  5. Evangelista
    August 22, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    I would suggest that we need a new ‘war on terror’. The current one is not only not working, it has been, from its inception, escalating responsive terrorisings and inducing violent reactions, which have been used to excuse increasing of terrorist activities, and escalating to new ones, which have increased the terror reactions by the terrified terrorized, which have been used to excuse, and justify, increasing the numbers of terror incidents and the scales of the terrorizings,which have, again, icreased the counter-terrorizing, and so on, and so on, until, today, we have other nations stepping in to provide aid to the terrorized, bringing the scopes and the real natures of our terrorizings to light, and providing legal context that highlights the international illegality of our terrorizings, and ‘provides’ ‘need’ for us to increase our terrorizing, to threaten the intervenors and, our terrorists hope, deflect attention from the illegality of our terrorizing activities.

    The Syrian-Russian (and now China) coalition, or alliance, formed to oppose our terrorizing activities in Syria and ‘the Levant’ stand as signal examples, with our attention-deflecting’ supposed-to-terrorize military muscle-flexing in Eastern Europe response, while we are losing ground and losing allies (Turkey, who was in for a territory-grab, whose leadership is now frantically back-peddling and seeking scapegoats to blame the changed from policies on, comes to mind). The terrorization of Afghanistan, to safeguard the opium crops important to the world-wide gangster network home-based in Israel, which launders its profits through banking in that nation, exempt from scrutiny and regulation (which gangster-run nation also wanted a chunk of Syria, and has been using our international gangster-controlled national government for the goon-squads to do its dirty-work) is another example.

    So, yes, we need a new ‘war on terror’. One that focuses domestically, to our own problems, within our own borders, that fences out the counter-terrorists the old ‘war on terror’ carried on for the international gangsters created. That stops our exporting of terror. That ends our gangster activities, such as murder-incorporated drone attacks.

    As part of the new ‘war on terror’ we need to end the duplicitous ‘political correctness’ fabrication that has been used as a weapon in the old terror-war-for-the-gangsters. If terrorizing is tied to the word ‘muslim’, as the gambling-gaming tied to the word ‘capitalism’ has become that by convention, then, in both cases, we need to condemn the abused word along with the activity rather than let some warped construct of ‘fairness’ prevent recognizing the abusive activity. Moslems whose interest is to devote themselves to religious self-control, not terrorizing others, can call themselves something else, as persons who want to capitalize efforts and activities, instead of gamble, can. We have to cut the confusions first. Until we have the problems under control niceties are distractions.

    In any case, and in all cases, the first step to a real war against terror will be to stop being terrorists, ourselves. To stop and to roll back our own terrorizing activities. To turn our attention to resolving our own problems and ceasing to be aggressors causing problems to others.

    If Trump’s definition of a new ‘war on terror’ begins with war on our own terrorists, within our own borders, and within our own government, and within our own policing, investigating, paranoia-exploiting agencies, getting those and the gangsters they represent and work for under control, I am all for, and will be all for, his ‘New War On Terror.

    We need

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