0923 GMT March 22, 2018
“Trump’s discriminatory, counterproductive Muslim travel ban targets citizens of six countries with histories of US military or CIA intervention,” Daniel Chard; a lecturer in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told IRNA in an exclusive interview while referring to several cases of US support for terrorist organization or individuals.
The full text of the interview follows:
1- Some observers compare the Watergate investigation with the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign. After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, many analysts claimed that his actions were Nixonian. Do you agree with this historical comparison? Do you expect that President Trump would face the same fate as Nixon?
The Watergate Scandal was the greatest political scandal in US history, and culminated in Republican President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 under threat of impeachment. The scandal centered on the Nixon administration’s use of illegal covert operations against the President’s perceived political enemies, particularly in the antiwar movement and the Democratic Party, as well as on Nixon’s personal efforts to cover-up these crimes. President Trump’s firing of James Comey reminded many observers of a watershed moment in the scandal in October 1973, when Nixon fired special independent Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Trump’s Russia scandal grows by the day, but it is still too early to know whether it will take on Watergate proportions. However, there are other important reasons why Trump can be understood as “Nixonian.”
For one, Trump’s electoral strategy came directly from Nixon’s playbook. Nixon was the first Republican presidential candidate to successfully employ the “Southern Strategy,” which involved using coded language to appeal to white voters’ racial anxieties, particularly in the American South, where white Southern Democrats had traditionally upheld the racist system of “Jim Crow” segregation. While running for president, Nixon appealed to what he called a “Silent Majority” of implied white voters while calling for “law and order” policing to crack down on civil rights protesters, urban rioters, and criminals, all of whom he conflated and implicitly associated with African Americans. Historians now recognize Nixon’s presidency as an important turning point towards the subsequent rise of mass incarceration, which has resulted in the United States being the greatest jailer of its own people the world has ever known, with black, Latino, and Native American communities disproportionally effected.
Every Republican president since Nixon has used the Southern strategy to get elected, but Trump has taken it even further. Not only did Trump directly borrow Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and “law and order” campaign slogans, he went beyond racial code-words by making overtly demeaning comments against Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, and other groups.
Secondly, Trump’s approach to counterterrorism can also be understood as part of Nixon’s legacy. Insurgent violence has existed throughout history, but it was only in the 1970s that certain forms of insurgent violence—particularly bombing, airplane hijacking, and hostage-taking—became widely understood as “terrorism.” Nixon’s Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (CCCT) was America’s first political institution explicitly dedicated to fighting “terrorism,” and it funded much of the research behind what would become known as “counterterrorism.” Nixon founded the CCCT after the Palestinian nationalist group Black September attacked Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but as I explain in my forthcoming book Nixon’s War on Terrorism, the Nixon administration and FBI developed many of the policing tactics now associated with “counterterrorism” during the previous four years of conflict with domestic leftist guerrilla groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army.
Like Nixon, Trump has gained political capital by combining his calls for “law and order” with calls for cracking down on “terrorism.” He dismisses those who seek to address the root causes of violent political conflict, and promises to fight non-state terrorism with increased policing, incarceration, surveillance, and militarism. Although he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes, this strategy helped Trump attract white voters, including in the key swing states that gave him his electoral college victory.
2- Trump administration claims that fighting terrorism is a top foreign policy goal. At the same time, President Trump has turned Saudi Arabia into his number one Arab ally. Given the role of Saudi Arabia in supporting extremist forces and exporting Wahhabism to other countries, do you see a contradiction in the US approach to the issue of terrorism?
US support for Saudi Arabia is not new to Trump. Nor is the United States’ contradictory approach to terrorism.
During the 1980s the CIA worked through Saudi and Pakistani backchannels to fund foreign Wahhabist mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan in an effort to weaken the Soviet Union, whose troops occupied the country. Though we do not have evidence that the US ever supported him directly, Osama bin Laden was one of the many mujahedeen extremists who went on to fill the ranks of al-Qaeda.
According to FBI investigators, the Saudi regime also obstructed US efforts to investigate al-Qaeda throughout the late 1990s and after 9/11. We know this from the 2002 US Joint Congressional Report on 9/11, which included 28 pages on Saudi Arabia that remained classified until 2016. These “28 pages” also included descriptions of evidence suggesting individuals within the Saudi government had connections to the 9/11 attackers, fifteen of whom were Saudi nationals. Though US investigators assert that they have not found evidence to directly implicate Saudi Arabia in 9/11, attorneys for the families of more than 800 9/11 victims found the “28 pages” compelling enough to use as the basis for a lawsuit filed against the regime last March.
Meanwhile, Trump is poised to break President Obama’s 2016 record for the largest ever US arms deal to Saudi Arabia, and Trump’s discriminatory, counterproductive Muslim travel ban targets citizens of six countries with histories of US military or CIA intervention, but not Saudi Arabia. The US also continues to supply Saudi Arabia with intelligence used in its devastating war on Yemen.
3- Trump has labeled national resistance movements such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organizations. What is the US administration definition of terrorism? Is terrorism confined to non-state actors?
The US has no single definition for terrorism. Various federal and state agencies have their own separate definitions. Similarly, there is no international consensus on the definition of terrorism. Academic terrorism experts have been studying the topic since the 1970s, and they too remain unable to agree on a definition. In general terms, most would define terrorism as a form of politically motivated violence carried out by non-state actors for the purpose of inflicting fear in a population beyond the direct target.
Historically, the contexts in which states have applied the term have always been political. The US is no exception. I already mentioned US support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA also funded Nicaragua’s rightwing Contra paramilitaries during this period, while opposing Latin American guerrillas’ and Palestinian nationalists’ use of “terrorism.” Since lobbying to remove the group from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012, several US officials have also recently expressed support for MEK, a cult-like group of Iranian exiles currently based in Iraq with a history of violent attacks, and fighting on the side of Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Iran-Iraq War.
In January, the Trump administration announced that the Department of Homeland Security’s “Countering Violent Extremism” program would no longer target white supremacists and would instead focus exclusively on Muslims. This is despite the fact that between 9/11 and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, white racists killed more people in the US than Islamic extremists. The examples go on and on.
And of course we must acknowledge the existence of state terrorism, even if most states refuse to acknowledge their own violence. State and non-state political violence are related. In many ways, the history of terrorism is a history of non-state actors using violence in response to real or perceived instances of state violence.
4- Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was America First. But last April he ordered a missile attack on a Syrian air base. He is also considering sending more forces to Syria and Afghanistan. How do you explain this shift from his campaign rhetoric of isolationism to his current policy of military intervention?
Trump seems to be trapped within his own anti-terrorist rhetoric. During the presidential campaign he rightly criticized the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libya intervention, both of which Hillary Clinton supported (Trump also supported the Iraq invasion at the time, despite his claims to the contrary). Trump correctly pointed out that both of these interventions created conditions of violent instability that fostered the rise of Daesh terrorist group. Yet while he has promised to end terrorism, he has offered no coherent strategy for doing so. Instead, he has called for reviving extreme forms of state violence, including torture and carpet-bombing. Trump simultaneously criticizes and embraces George W. Bush’s failed War on Terrorism.
5- In the wake of the missile attacks on a Syrian airbase, some of Trump’s supporters expressed their disappointment and questioned his action. What could be the impact of an interventionist foreign policy on Trump’s constituency?
It is hard to say. Depending on the circumstances, foreign military intervention could either erode or bolster Trump’s short-term support.
It is worth noting, however, that a core of Trump’s supporters seem willing to support him no matter what. These individuals are not concerned with facts. They believe Trump’s claims that all news critical of him is “fake news.” Current rightwing conspiracy theories assert that US intelligence agencies, the media, Democrats, and leftists are plotting a “deep state coup” designed to push Trump out of office, and that a second American civil war is on the horizon. One of the individuals peddling this theory is Patrick Buchanan, a longtime rightwing Republican leader who launched his political career as a member of the Nixon administration. Regardless of what happens with the Trump administration, I worry about this constituency’s capacity for political violence.
6- Trump is facing major challenges at home. Some analysts argue that the President may recourse to unilateral military actions in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula to divert attention from problems at home. What do you think?
I hope this does not happen.
Your question reminds me of the fact that we are still living with the disastrous consequences of Bush’s War on Terrorism, and his designation of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil.” As historians and other observers have pointed out, Bush’s War on Terrorism has perpetuated violence and instability while inspiring acts of non-state terrorism against the US, its allies, and others. Trump has alluded to this disastrous cycle of violence without offering a way out. But if we truly wish to reduce terrorism, we must find ways to reduce violence in all of its forms.