As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump campaigned to become a war criminal. He protested the Geneva Conventions, vowed to “bomb the shit” out of the Middle East, and insisted the US had to kill the family members of terrorists. Though he’s reneged on plenty of promises so far, he has stuck to these frighteningly well. But this is far from a legitimate strategy to fight terrorism. In fact, Trump’s presidency is sure to create more of it.
For one thing, Trump himself is an enthusiastic participant in the terror. In March alone, bombing raids authorized by Trump killed an estimated 1,484 civilians in Iraq and Syria. Drone strikes have increased nearly five-fold since President Obama. Perhaps most frightening of all, Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat.
When he accused President Obama and Secretary Clinton of being the “founders of ISIS,” Trump was tapping into something with a hint of truth. Not that they were literally the founders, as he idiotically insisted, but that their foreign policy – and the foreign policy of predecessor George W. Bush – destabilized the Middle East and created power vacuums in which groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS flourished.
Despite criticizing that neoliberal foreign policy as a candidate, President Trump has committed himself to it whole-hog. Just days after announcing a hands-off policy toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Trump attacked a Syrian airbase. The administration’s rhetoric flipped and they announced the need for Assad’s removal. This is no different than the position taken by Hillary Clinton, and it’s exactly what ISIS wants.
By now the tale is a familiar one: the US topples a regime, attempts to install a business-friendly “democratic” replacement, the people resent it, and political strife envelops the region. It happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, Secretary Clinton’s great foreign policy achievement was the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi; since then, the power vacuum has allowed a robust slave trade to thrive there.
Terrorism is often a response to intolerable political conditions. As George Carlin once said, “You can’t fight City Hall, but you can goddamn sure blow it up.” This explains, in large part, the blowback response to US imperial policy over the last several decades. It doesn’t explain the more deranged strains of terrorism – like white supremacist terror, for instance – but it does illustrate that if you oppress and degrade a population, it might take violent action against you.
Islamic terror is too complex to pinpoint any one cause. But it’s not the case that thousands of Muslims have been deluded into violence solely because of religion. The Koran has been around for 14 centuries and Islamic terror has only recently become a global crisis. What’s changed in the last few decades is an all-out imperial assault on the Middle East, entailing brutal bombing campaigns, uranium bullets, millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.
Added to that is Trump’s domestic attack on Islam. His Muslim ban was widely seen as playing into ISIS and Steve Bannon’s visions of a global civilizational clash between the West/Christianity and the East/Islam. There is debate over whether Trump’s marginalization of Muslims will lead to more radicalization, but it could still get worse than a simple immigration ban. Trump, taking a play straight from Nazi Germany, has supported surveillance of mosques and a nationwide registry of all Muslims.
There’s no way to predict the blowback from Trump’s other domestic activities. His escalation of ICE raids and his loosening of deportation rules are tearing apart immigrant families. The rollback of environmental protections will disproportionately impact low-income communities of color, which are more likely to be near industrialized zones and can be polluted with little consequence. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled an escalation of the War on Drugs, a policy that has ravaged communities and criminalized nonviolent offenders.
Just as 9/11 was for George Bush, the only consequence of increased terrorism for Trump will be expanded presidential powers. In fact, for this reason – and to resuscitate his plummeting approval rating – a terror attack may be the best thing for Trump. This has led some to speculate whether the administration may stage a terror attack. But it doesn’t take any wild speculation to recognize that the destabilization wrought by Trump will foster more terrorism and, with it, an increasingly authoritarian style of government.