Editor’s Note: Ivan Eland is a senior fellow and the director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. The views expressed are his own.
Ivan Eland: It's unfortunate that Trump's personal attacks regularly obscure legitimate issues that he raises
Attack on Khan family has obscured momentous comments about terrorism at Republican convention, Eland says
Although the intense criticism over Donald Trump’s personal, intolerant, and wrongful criticism of the family of a fallen American soldier in Iraq has taken center stage, the media coverage – typically focusing on the sensational – misses important issues that only Trump has had the political courage to bring forward to the American people.
The reality is that by injecting themselves into the American presidential campaign by criticizing a candidate in the highly political arena of the Democratic National Convention, the Khan family opened itself up to some pushback from the target of their criticism.
As usual, where Trump erred was by going personal in his criticism, bringing up the irrelevant and stereotypic criticism of Ghazala Khan that she had to let her husband, Khizr Khan, do all the talking during the convention speech. This line of attack compounded his previous misstep – an ill-conceived and downright un-American proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. (A religious test not only violates the First Amendment’s protection from government intervention in the free exercise of religious belief, but is also counterproductive because it gives anti-American Islamist terrorists a propaganda tool for recruiting more fighters and may make peaceful Muslim communities in the United States so fearful that they will not report to the government the very few bad apples in their midst.)
So while the Khans themselves first politicized the death of their own son by wading into political waters, Trump should have resisted his usual propensity to go for the jugular and personally attack those who have criticized him politically.
All this said, it should not be forgotten that the tragic loss of the Khans’ son in the Iraq invasion and occupation was not Trump’s fault. It was George W. Bush’s for launching an aggressive and unnecessary invasion of Iraq, which killed about 4,500 American soldiers and vastly more innocent Iraqis.
And while the way in which Trump launched his counterattack against the Khans can be legitimately criticized, we should not consider it taboo to criticize people who have lost a son or daughter in military action – especially when those parents are essentially leveraging that death to take a political stance on an unrelated issue.
After all, unlike during the Vietnam War period, the United States does not have a conscription law that involuntarily drags young Americans against their will to fight in faraway hellholes. Humayun Khan, the Khans’ son, volunteered to serve in a U.S. military that since World War II has spent its time on conducting distant imperial adventures rather than simply defending the country, its people, and its freedoms.
The blowback from those unneeded overseas military adventures came home to roost on 9/11. The diabolical terrorist Osama bin Laden was always clear that he and al Qaeda were attacking the United States because of decades of U.S. meddling in Muslim lands. He dismissed George W. Bush’s argument to the American people that he was attacking us because of our freedoms.
The anger and excessive panic among the American people after the 9/11 attacks allowed the Bush administration to violate the Constitution – by detaining people indefinitely without trial, conducting expanded and warrantless surveillance, authorizing torture and kangaroo military tribunals, and claiming dictatorial powers far beyond what the Constitution gave the president.
For example, Bush’s team disregarded parts of congressionally passed laws in the name of national security. Ironically, in an effort to allegedly protect our freedoms, the administration took measures that actually eroded American freedoms.
Fast forward to today, and the overblown furor over Trump’s inartful counterpunch has obscured the candidate’s momentous comments about terrorism at the Republican National Convention. Although Trump’s anti-terrorism policy needs some work (like repudiating his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, which he has already watered down), he has been the first major American politician to seemingly reach the impolitic (but true) conclusion that the United States would have less blowback from terrorism if it refrained from trying to meddle in other nations’ affairs by a policy of regime change and nation building.
Even setting aside 9/11, some of the recent homegrown attackers on American targets – the Orlando nightclub shooter and the Boston Marathon bombers, for example – have mentioned U.S. interventions in Islamic countries among their stated reasons for committing these heinous acts.
ISIS has had to resort to inspiring attacks because they have difficulty reaching the faraway United States, which in any event has fewer unintegrated and radicalized Muslims. In contrast, countries in Europe – France, Germany, and Belgium – are a lot closer to Middle Eastern and African zones of conflict and have more directly felt the consequences of U.S.-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria, in which they are also participating.
France has had the biggest problem with blowback terrorism, which has led French President Francois Hollande to self-servingly attribute the attacks to France’s reputation as a cradle of human rights and democracy. Yet the reality is that France, like the United States, has an interventionist policy in Islamic countries. Under Hollande, France’s military effort or presence has increased in former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa that are threatened by Islamist militants. So it is no coincidence that the majority of the terrorist attackers in France have had family ties to North and West Africa.
It is, of course, unfortunate that Trump regularly obscures the legitimate issues he raises by using personal attacks that invoke unfavorable stereotypes. But that should not overshadow the fact that sometimes, including in his wariness of foreign intervention, he has a point.