In the hyper-charged atmosphere following the 9/11 attacks, anyone who suggested that U.S. policies or behavior played any — any — part in the spread of extremism was denounced for “blaming America” or “excusing terrorism” or some such. The Terrorists hated us for who we are, we were told, and that was that, and any further attempt to understand the conditions that produced terrorism was strictly for hippies and appeasers.
In the intervening years, though, and especially with the implementation of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, that view has been largely discredited. Not only is it no longer seen as “excusing terrorism” to try and understand what activates and motivates extremists, or to explore whether and what U.S. policies and behavior have played a part in that, it’s seen as necessary for U.S. national security.
In the wake of the failed Christmas attack, though, and the discussion over what motivated Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab to become a violent jihadist, a few neoconservatives seem to have been emboldened to exhume some of this “they only hate us for our freedom” nonsense that so many Americans, Iraqis and others died to debunk over the past years. Sounding this tired note last night on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer scoffed at Al Qaeda’s grievances, saying, “These are excuses and not actual grievances”:
KRAUTHAMMER: When you hear Gibbs talk about Guantanamo as a recruiting tool, this is what we hear over and over again, I mean it’s as if he knows no history at all. The list of grievances that Al Qaeda has is endless and replenishing. […]
The reason the war is on is because Al-Qaeda hates our way of life, our independence, our tolerance, our respect of women and the threat it poses to the fanatical kind of Islam that they are advocating.
Apparently, General David Petraeus is also one of those who Krauthammer thinks “knows no history at all.” Here’s what Petraus said about Gitmo last May:
PETRAEUS: Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has indeed been used by the enemy against us. We have not been without missteps or mistakes in our activities since 9/11. And again, Gitmo is a lingering reminder for the use of some in that regard.
It’s really hard to believe that we even still need to have this debate. The point, again, is not whether Charles Krauthammer buys Al Qaeda’s grievances, or whether he thinks that they’re merely “excuses,” it’s whether the next guy that Al Qaeda tries to recruit as a suicide bomber buys them. And it’s simply no longer a matter of serious debate that a significant number of potential recruits buys Guantanamo as a grievance.
Then here’s Hugh Hewitt and Victor Davis Hanson:
HEWITT: I want to play for you a segment of his remarks today, Professor Hanson, because he talks about Guantanamo Bay as a causative agent for the Christmas attack, and I’ll pick up on it after we hear it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Some have suggested that the events on Christmas Day should cause us to revisit the decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So let me be clear. It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected. With respect to Yemen in particular, there’s an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time along with our Yemeni partner. Given the unsettled situation, I’ve spoken to the Attorney General, and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time. But make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests, and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
HEWITT: Now Victor Hanson, this seems to me to be his argument Bush made the Christmas bomber do it, the underpants bomber, because no Gitmo, no bomber. This is absurd, and it’s dangerous.
HANSON: Yes, I think it’s shameful, because we…nobody listens to what the grievances are of an enemy. That’s like saying Hitler went into Poland because he had grievances from Versailles. Every aggressor always dreams up rationalizations, but anybody who’s sober and judicious doesn’t believe them. And if he doesn’t think Guantanamo serves a purpose, then he should close it. There’s no need to delay. But the very fact that it’s been open one year under his administration, shows that it has some utility, otherwise he would have closed it. But he has this very strange, schizophrenic attitude that I’m going to trash Bush on tribunals, Guantanamo, renditions, predator attacks, when I’m demagoguing as a candidate, but as a president, when I’m responsible for governance, I’m going to keep them open, and keep them useful. And it’s not sustainable. It’s going to get people very, very angry.
First, as Greg Carlstrom noted, the president did overstate the explicit impact of Gitmo on the formation of AQAP. But you’ll notice that nowhere did Obama say anything about “Guantanamo Bay as a causative agent for the Christmas attack.” This is a strawman. No one’s saying that Gitmo, and only Gitmo, caused the Christmas attack. What we — “we” as in the overwhelming majority of people who actually study Islamic extremism — are saying is that the existence of Gitmo is and has been a source of hatred and resentment which has effectively enlarged the pool of young recruits willing to attempt attacks like the failed one on Christmas. If you can’t recognize the distinction there, then I suspect you’re either extremely dim or extremely a hack.
Hanson’s attempted point about Hitler is also instructive, but in precisely the opposite way that he supposes. Hitler may not have gone into Poland “because he had grievances from Versailles,” but it’s a pretty firmly established historical fact that German grievances regarding the Treaty of Versailles (regardless of whether “anybody who’s sober and judicious” thinks those grievances were silly) are part of what made it possible for the Nazis to mobilize popular support, and that the successful exploitation of those grievances is thus a part of what got Hitler into Poland. This is not that complicated.