9/11 And ‘Blowback’

On the eve of the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Danielle Pletka, vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, writes, “It’s time to lay waste to a special calumny that has gained prominence and entered the main stream from the fringes where it once resided: The notion of American guilt.”

The notion that U.S. foreign policy shapes “invitations” for terrorists to attack on our soil — and the concomitant idea that if we had no foreign policy, there would be no attacks — is entirely mindless.

It’s time to put Ron Paul, truthers, blowbackers, and all the adherents of such ideas back where they belong… on the fringes of American life, wearing tin foil hats, writing irate letters to the White House, exchanging newsletters, and building shelters in their moms’ basements.

Understandably, Pletka trains most of her fire on Ron and Rand Paul. As my colleague Brian Katulis wrote in the New York Times last month, the conservative movement is more deeply divided over foreign policy than it has been in decades, with neoconservatives like Pletka struggling to hold ground against neo-isolationist Tea Partiers, for whom the Pauls are standard bearers.


But neocons have their own version of “blowback” theory, perhaps most clearly articulated by Sen. John McCain in a May 2008 foreign policy address, during his presidential run: “For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability”:

We relied on the Shah of Iran, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family, and even, for a time, on Saddam Hussein. In the late 1970s that strategy began to unravel. The Shah was overthrown by the radical Islamic revolution that now rules in Tehran. The ensuing ferment in the Muslim world produced increasing instability. The autocrats clamped down with ever greater repression, while also surreptitiously aiding Islamic radicalism abroad in the hopes that they would not become its victims. It was a toxic and explosive mixture. The oppression of the autocrats blended with the radical Islamists’ dogmatic theology to produce a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred.

And here’s neocon don Bill Kristol at a 2005 Tel Aviv University symposium (pdf), defending the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11: “Bush decided that, for reasons both good and bad, we had made too many accommodations with dictators”:

We had turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahabbi Islam; we had made deals with dictators who seemed to be pro-American for various reasons and who seemed to be keeping the peace with Israel in some cases, and for various reasons. The price we were paying was too great; too many of these dictators were in bed with terrorists; too many of these dictators were exporting terror and extremism as a way of keeping themselves safe at home. The reaction to these dictators was, in many cases, leading to greater anti-Americanism, greater extremism and greater terrorism.

There’s really no way to read these statements that doesn’t have McCain and Kristol holding past U.S. policy at least partially responsible for the September 11 attacks. But you won’t hear Pletka condemning their diagnosis, because, among other reasons, she strongly agrees with their prescription: More foreign military interventions, not fewer. I happen to think that McCain and Kristol’s diagnosis is more correct than Ron and Rand Paul’s ultra-simplistic “bad things happen when we don’t just mind our own business” take on things, but I also think that attempts to declare certain critiques verboten makes for a dumber, more boring foreign policy debate, not a smarter, more rigorous one.