National Security & Defense

The Slander of ‘Blowback’

Yes, Ron Paul et al. are blaming the victims.

Ron Paul is feeling some blowback of his own. He was roundly criticized — notably by a number of high-profile libertarians normally inclined to sympathize with many of the views he has helped to popularize — for arguing that the Charlie Hebdo murders were the result of “blowback,” i.e., that French jihadists murdered the staff of a satirical magazine in Paris infamous for its cartoons of Islamic figures in retaliation for U.S. and French foreign policy, rather than in retaliation for the contents of the publication. His argument is absurd on its face — the editors of Charlie Hebdo are not what you would call major players in the foreign-policy world — but Paul rushed to his own defense, which is for him an increasingly lonely task. “Those who do not understand blowback made the ridiculous claim that I was excusing the attack or even blaming the victims,” he wrote.

Is that claim actually ridiculous?

Perhaps Ron Paul should read more of the work published by the Ron Paul Institute, an organization to which he has, if I am not misinformed, some meaningful formal connection. In an article on Wednesday bearing the headline “France Under the Influence” — no points for guessing whose influence — Diana Johnstone did precisely that: blame the victims. “The Charlie Hebdo humorists were a bit like irresponsible children playing with matches who burned the house down,” she wrote. “Or perhaps several houses.” That is not ambiguous. If Ron Paul rejects these ideas, why is he publishing them?

It gets worse: Johnstone suggested that certain nefarious forces — Jews prominent among them — might have intended to provoke such an attack. (Do read the whole ugly illiterate mess of an article in case you think I’m taking her words unfairly out of context.) She wrote:

The insult could be a provocation intended precisely to make the believers come out in the open, so that they can be attacked. This may be a secret motive for promoting such caricatures. Provoke Muslims into defending their religion, in a way that strikes the majority of our population as totally absurd, so that you can ridicule them still more and perhaps take measures against them — war in the Middle East (alongside Israel).

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: 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. The favorite libertarian (and left-wing) foreign-policy example is the encouragement and assistance the United States gave to Afghan fighters resisting the Soviet occupation of their country, beginning in 1979 as a project of President Jimmy Carter and national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and later intensified under the Reagan administration. While the link between the Afghan mujahedeen and al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist movements is not nearly so straightforward as many in the anti-war movement portray it, it is nonetheless a real and sobering example of the fact that our enemies’ enemies might be ours soon enough, something that we should consider carefully before getting into bed with them. But to draw any larger conclusion than that — the scandalous libel that al-Qaeda is in effect a CIA creation, that X, Y, or Z act of terrorism would not have occurred but for U.S. actions A, B, or C — is intellectually indefensible. And of course no one of Ron Paul’s persuasion ever bothers to seriously consider the broader implications of their counterfactuals: What would have happened in world affairs if the United States had failed to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

If the lesson of the blowback theory is “be careful,” then that’s all to the good, though one wishes that our friends on the left would apply that understanding of unintentional outcomes more broadly. (E.g., when the nation’s banking and securities regulators are doing their magic of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities while the economy-stimulators at the Fed are slashing interest rates, the blowback might look like a housing bubble and a worldwide credit crisis that nobody intended to create.)

But that isn’t really the lesson.

“Blowback” is about the apportionment of blame and opprobrium, and nothing more. Consider the cracked analysis of Justin Raimondo, a tireless defender of the Paulite worldview who does indeed want to blame the French — long-dead French — for the Paris attack:

None of the individual terrorists who struck that fateful day would’ve even been in the country but for the fact that France established an African empire in the 19th century.

That is the historical version of a just-so story. A great many things might have happened to France between the 19th century and the 21st — but he believes himself to be quite sure that this act of terror could never have happened but for French foreign policy in 1830.

Raimondo, who is an intelligent man, knows full well that there have been many other sources of Islamic immigration beyond European colonial projects, prominent among them Islamic colonial projects. If we’re going to go back to the 19th century in our blame game, why stop there? There wouldn’t have been any Muslims in Algeria for the French to conquer in the 19th century — or Muslims to be annoyed with us in Iran, or much of the rest of the world — if not for a fairly brutal campaign of conquest launched under the caliphate of Umar ibn Al-Khattāb. Hell, there wouldn’t be any Frenchmen in France if H. sap. hadn’t cruelly driven the Neanderthals to extinction. Raimondo insists that Islamic militants would not be able to recruit violent jihadists “without pointing to Western intervention in the Middle East,” which ignores the history of Islam in most of the world. India has a problem with Islamic extremism, and it’s not because Mohandas K. Gandhi wasn’t a nice enough guy.

Ron Paul is more of a traditional political thinker than he lets on, in the sense that every story must have a villain in a black hat, and that villain is the United States and/or Israel. For example, he wrote:

The mainstream media immediately decided that the shooting was an attack on free speech. Many in the U.S. preferred this version of “they hate us because we are free,” which is the claim that President Bush made after 9/11. They expressed solidarity with the French and vowed to fight for free speech. But have these people not noticed that the First Amendment is routinely violated by the U.S. government?

True enough, and also a complete non sequitur in this context. But Ron Paul would have nowhere to go intellectually without tu quoque. He’s a surgeon with one instrument in his bag, what The Economist used to call “whataboutism.”  

Does U.S. and European foreign policy — bad policy and good — play a role in provoking the enemies of the United States and Europe? Of course — how could it possibly be otherwise? But what is the conclusion to be drawn? Never do anything that might rub Mullah Mohammed Omar or like-minded men the wrong way? Give any entity willing to bomb pizza shops as a mode of political discourse effective veto power over U.S. policy?

While we should not underestimate the role of foreign policy in motivating jihadists, we should not exaggerate it, either.

As Roger Cukierman of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France says: “They are not screaming ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris — they are screaming ‘Death to Jews.’”

They aren’t writing “Death to Jews” over at the Ron Paul Institute. But what they are writing is simple-minded, dishonest, and, in the case of Johnstone’s hand-wringing over French leaders who are “closely attached personally to the Jewish community,” despicable.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.