Ian Boyne: Trump, ISIS and paranoia
The widespread and thunderous revulsion, outrage and disgust which met Donald Trump's fascist proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States shows just how much social and ideological progress has been made in that country over the last five decades.
It was revolting and frightening that someone who could be frontrunner for president of the most powerful nation on the earth could be so xenophobic and astonishingly backward; but it was even more refreshing to see the unequivocal condemnation of his idiocy from so many quarters, including conservative circles. That Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayu himself renounced Trump's views, forcing Trump to call off his visit to Israel this month, speaks volumes. Trump's Republican Party, already embarrassed over his many juvenile antics, saw last week that things could, indeed, get worse with his uttering of that grotesque proposal.
But don't believe that Trump does not have significant clandestine support for his fascist views. But the fact that those views cannot be as freely voiced and can't gain public traction is an indication of the evolution in attitudes which has taken place in the United Sates. Ideas do matter, and ideological struggle is worth it, after all.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll published last Thursday showed that six in 10 Americans oppose Trump's Muslim ban proposal. But among Republican primary voters, only 39 per cent oppose it, while 38 per cent support it.
It is the best of times and the worst of times. It is the best of times because the wide coalition of forces that have come together in condemnation of Trump on this matter is heartening. But it is the worst of times because paranoia has been growing in the United States, and a New York Times-CBS poll released on Thursday showed that more Americans are worried about another terrorist attack than at any other time since the immediate weeks after 9/11.
While Trump is seen by many as a loony, a loose cannon, and narcissist on steroids, there are a number of persons who admire his machismo, bravado and 'strength'. They see him as exactly the person America needs now to stand up to these "Islamic terrorists and madmen". He has the testosterone needed to bring the fight to ISIS, unlike Barack Obama, whom one Fox commentator described last week as a "p***y" .
"He'll keep a sharp eye on those Muslims," one farmer in Oregon is quoted in The New York Times on Thursday as saying of Trump. In the article titled 'Fear of terrorism lifts Donald Trump in New York Times-CBS poll', a 66-year-old man from Raleigh, North Carolina, is quoted as stating: "He stands up to people and he tells what's on his mind. Unfortunately, even though people don't want to hear it, because of a lot of what he says is inflammatory toward certain groups, it is the truth, because we have a massive problem."
The New York Times-CBS poll says that in the aftermath of attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and San Bernardino, California, a plurality of the American public now feels the threat of terrorism is the single biggest issue facing America. A month ago, only four per cent of Americans felt so, but now, 19 per cent say it is bigger than every other issue. Forty-four per cent of the American public say a terrorist attack is "very" likely to happen in a few months - the largest percentage since October 2001.
So they want a strong man to deal with this problem. Herein lays the danger. Says The New York Times: "Mr Trump, who has called for monitoring mosques and even barring Muslims from entering the United States, has been the clear beneficiary of this moment of deep anxiety. More than four in 10 Republican primary voters say the quality most important to them in a candidate is strong leadership, which eclipses honesty, empathy, experience or electability. These voters heavily favour Trump."
As much as 57 per cent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of terrorism, despite his spectacular success against al-Qaeda and his post-9/11 record. Says The New York Times: "Republicans expressed confidence in Mr Trump's ability to confront terrorism. Seven in ten voters who said they were likely to vote in a Republican primary said he was well-equipped to respond to the threat."
Obama is acutely aware that Americans' increasing sense of dread and foreboding could work against his party and could lead to negative assessments of his stewardship. In a rare Oval Office address to the nation on Sunday night, he addressed the issue of terrorism and ISIS, trying his best to reassure. "The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organisation that tries to harm us." But that to sounds like whistling in the dark, a kind of hope against hope; a talking things into being, much like the mumbo-jumbo of many motivational speakers.
Obama himself admitted in that address that, "Over the last few years, however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we have become better at preventing multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in society."
And how do you prevent those San Bernardino-type terrorist acts that are also deadly? How do you deter people who are not afraid to die? How do you prevent radicalised, brainwashed fanatics from going inside a building to slaughter people with no intention of coming out alive - the natural fear of death having no hold over them at all? So the fact that they can't get away with it means nothing to them at all.
The tactics and methods of conventional anti-terrorism don't apply to jihadists. Obama again admitted something that should temper his triumphalist talk: "And as groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria, and as the Internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers."
It's not just a matter of bombing and taking out ISIS terrorists from their bases in Iraq and Syria. People are being radicalised all over the world, particularly in Western nations, through social media. News emerged last Thursday that the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a strong network of military bases in Africa, South-West Asia and the Middle East to counter ISIS and Islamic terrorism. This is a ramping up of special operations and counterterrorism. That might be necessary, but not sufficient.
In the latest issue of the highly respected Foreign Affairs journal (November-December), there is an insightful article by Georgetown Professor Daniel Byman titled 'Beyond Counterterrorism'. Says Byman: "The United States should move beyond its standard counterterrorist repertoire and embrace a broader set of strategies ... . By fixating on counterterrorism, the United States overlooks opportunities to prevent or mitigate civil wars and regional conflicts - steps that would address the problem at its core. And it antagonises allies and distorts the public perception of US strengths and vulnerabilities."
Obama is right that defeating ISIS will not come through "tough talk" or "abandoning our values or giving into fear". That plays into the hands of extremists. Donald Trump is good for ISIS and the jihadists. His is precisely the kind of reaction ISIS wants to radicalise alienated young people. Hysteria against Islam only serves to antagonise and isolate the majority of the 1.6 billion decent and peaceful Muslims. America needs its allies in the Muslim world to fight ISIS. Philistines like Donald Trump who know nothing about foreign affairs are dangerous to the civilised world.
America must support moderate Muslims and help them in their propaganda war against extremist Islam. It has to do so covertly, as any open support will only brand those Muslims as traitors. The Central Intelligence Agency did support right-wing Christian groups to combat radical, Marxist-influenced Liberation theologians in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Moderate Muslims must be supported financially to get to the youth before ISIS.
America must also pressure the dictatorial Muslim regimes it supports, regimes that oppress their own peoples. America must press for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. America must not abandon the Middle East now that it is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. Shale oil and fracking have changed the geopolitical landscape, but America has vital interests in the Middle East that go beyond oil. Its own homeland security is wrapped up there. I am convinced that Obama's liberal internationalist perspective is the right strategy, not the reactionary, hawkish stance of the Republicans or the fascism of Donald Trump.
America must not surrender to fear, but must seek to be truly that city on a hill.