Not because I don’t think foreign policy plays a role in radicalizing French Muslims or fomenting geopolitical hatred more generally. But let’s not make it our version of “They hate us for our freedoms,” an ideologically satisfying all-purpose explanation for everything bad that happens in the world.
Pointing out that the Mohammad cartoons were a motivating factor in the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the obvious free-speech implications of murdering cartoonists isn’t simply “They hate us for our freedoms.”
Libertarians and other intervention skeptics also need to make the blowback argument more effectively and sensitively. It’s important to make clear that this is about unintended consequences of government policy, like a capital-gains tax increase reducing revenue, and not blaming the victim. It’s also important to be sensitive to public mourning and other perfectly normal human reactions in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks.
But I don’t think we should more or less dismiss the idea of blowback altogether.
“There is a slightly more respectable version of the ‘blowback’ theory, although it is so general as to be useless as anything beyond a counsel of prudence,” writes Kevin Williamson in National Review. “The world is complex, and there is no way of knowing what the long-term effects of any given government policy are going to be.”
Such an observation would be true, as far as it goes, and applicable to both foreign and domestic policy. But it’s not sufficient.
Even though military interventions are often justified as a means to liberate oppressed citizens from tyrannical governments, governments and the people they govern seldom live in hermetically sealed containers. Try as we might to act with surgical precision, the bombs we drop, the drones we dispatch and the sanctions we impose often have an adverse impact on the citizens too.
If you are harmed by a foreign government’s actions, or you witness your friends, relatives and neighbors suffering harms, you will not have a favorable view of that government. Some percentage of people so injured will want to take up arms. Others will rally to the flag and government of their own country, no matter how oppressive. Others still will simply look the other way when others want to commit terrorism.
People of normal patriotic instincts frequently dislike being occupied by foreign governments or even alien-seeming local populations. On top of that, during the course of war or stabilizing a population after a war is over, mistakes are often made. Innocent people accidentally get rounded up alongside terrorists. Doors get kicked in, property gets damaged, people get maimed or killed.
Finally, if the past teaches us anything, groups of people hang on to historical grievances far longer than the lifetimes of the perpetrators or victims. Across the globe, great-great-great-great grandsons are still paying for the sins of their great-great-great-great grandfathers. Conflicts continue that stretch back to Biblical times.
The more of all of the above things happen, the more it widens the pool for terrorist recruits. It also increases the number of people who might not ever commit terrorism themselves, but nevertheless have just enough sympathy to make catching terrorists more difficult.
How radical is this really? How many Americans cared about Afghanistan before 9/11? For the record, I am not comparing the war in Afghanistan, which I supported, to a terrorist attack. But when violence comes to your hearth and home, the natural tendency is to want to strike back — sometimes in ways that are justified, often in ways that are not.
Just like government stimulus spending might end up hurting the economy, Obamacare might cancel your health insurance, welfare policies might prolong a cycle of poverty, military interventions aimed at killing terrorists might actually create them.
That doesn’t mean that the United States can avoid all wars or that a less interventionist foreign policy would make all problems go away. The entirety of the Muslim world wouldn’t turn into an Episcopalian church social, there would still be people hankering for a clash of civilizations on both sides.
“While we should not underestimate the role of foreign policy in motivating jihadists,” Williamson writes, “we should not exaggerate it, either.”
Absolutely. But for foreign policy’s role to be neither underestimated nor exaggerated, conservatives must first start accounting for it in the first place.