Over the past week, Americans experienced a breathtaking barrage from top politicians and news commentators about “who we are” or “what we as a country stand for.” Using the phrase identifies the speaker as one of the virtuous “we” who shuns Donald Trump and rejects his recommendation, post San Bernardino terror attacks, that Muslim immigration to the United States be halted until the government can “figure out what is going on.”
The breadth and scope of reaction against Trump’s comment was stunning. Politicians from House speaker Paul Ryan to Hillary Clinton, the major neoconservative columnists at the country’s largest papers, along with every liberal or left wing opinion outlet one could imagine, rushed to express contempt for Trump and his suggestion. What passes for the foreign policy establishment chimed in too. General Wesley Clark labeled Trump’s remarks “un-American”. David Cameron to Benjamin Netanyahu added their own denunciations. An ACLU official recommended that Trump supporters be shot. For several days, America experienced the kind of bipartisan power elite unanimity which one thought could happen only in the wake of national tragedy.
Much of the reaction was somewhat Islamophilic: America needed larger numbers of Muslim immigrants to help win hearts and minds versus ISIS. An immigration pause would alienate them. As evidence, the Times highlighted a story of Trump luxury brand items being removed from the shelves in rich Arab Gulf states.
But no one has yet measured how the prospect of an immigrant visa, or lack of it, weighs compared to other policies through which the United States makes an impression on the Muslim world. For instance, one way in which the U.S states “who we are” to Arab and Muslim audiences is by killing a lot of Muslims. Several years ago Harvard Professor Stephen Walt came up with an estimate of how many Muslims have been killed by the United States in the past 30 years, estimating conservatively that it was slightly less than 300,000. His count did not include the early 1980s shelling of Lebanon by the battleship New Jersey but included the skirmishes in Somalia, as well as the campaigns against Iraq. There are few reliable Iraqi casualty totals from the first Iraq war, which closed with American warplanes attacking defenseless columns of retreating Iraqi troops in the desert. Even the Irving Kristol-published National Interest, a supporter of that war like virtually everyone in America, was troubled by Washington’s seeming abandonment of standards of just war and proportionality.
The 1991 ceasefire was followed by a regime of U.S. organized sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s government and the Iraqi economy, which picked up speed under Bill Clinton’s presidency and continued until the U.S. invaded Iraq for a second time in 2003. There may be no undisputed estimate of how many Iraqis—Muslims and of course Christians too—were killed by the American organized sanctions, which inevitably harmed most the weakest, children and the sick. A UNICEF report calculated that the sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. President Clinton’s UN ambassador and later secretary of state Madeleine Albright told CBS that the “price was worth it” though she later disputed the number of deaths. Walt’s estimate divides this figure by five, coming up with a conservative 100,000. Whichever number is closer, the economic and social devastation caused by the sanctions was universally acknowledged, and accepted as a legitimate outcome by the entire American foreign policy community. The recently deceased Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, proudly called the blockade “unprecedented for its severity in all of world history.”
The point is not to revisit the debate over sanctions, which Democratic and Republican policy makers considered better than alternative policies. It is more to note that few Americans cared if Iraqi children were dying en masse as a direct consequence of American policies. During the 1990s there was no national debate about it; it was almost a complete nonissue. If someone thought to ask do “Muslim Lives Matter,” Washington’s answer was not very much.
The second Iraq war did become politically contentious when American casualty levels began to reach significant numbers. But no American politician concerned him or herself with the Iraqi deaths, (estimated by Walt at 116,000: other estimates are three or four times greater) whether they be from combat, or from the destruction of what was once a viable national state, admired throughout the developing world for its infrastructure and public health system.
This is not the place to dwell on Afghanistan, though Afghan civilian casualties have also been substantial. But part of “who we are” as it regards Muslims and Arabs inevitably touches on Israel, a country routinely treated by American politicians as an object of reverence. At its founding Israel ethnically displaced about 400,000 Palestinians, half the population, Christian and Muslim, from their native towns and cities. No one in America apart from the odd intellectual—Virginia Gildersleeve, Dorothy Thompson, (arguably) Hannah Arendt, Alfred Lilenthal—much cared. The man routinely celebrated as the moral tutor of the American establishment during that period, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, both anticipated the ethnic cleansing and justified it. Israel today carries out unabashedly the kind of ethnically discriminatory policies that not even Trump is accused of favoring, while leading American politicians of both parties can’t say enough how much they admire the country. When Israel assaults Gaza and kills 500 children, Congress almost unanimously applauds the action.
Again, the point is not to debate American support for Israel. It is to note that there is something odd about a political culture which goes into a kind of panic when a candidate suggests a moratorium on Muslim immigration visas, but considers the killing or uprooting of Muslims by the hundreds of thousands a matter of no concern. TAC‘s Noah Millman may have been the only commentator in the country to contrast the hysteria which followed Trump’s immigration comment with the indifference which greeted Sen. Ted Cruz’s (number two in the GOP polls) suggestion that nuclear weapons—in this context weapons of mass murder—be used against cities controlled by ISIS.
What explains the juxtaposition? Are we in the realm of some Freudian theory by which the American establishment seeks to to compensate for its guilt about the destruction of Iraq and Palestine? It might make sense. Guilt as a factor in national policy is not to be underestimated, as any observer of Angela Merkel’s attitudes towards refugees would attest. But few prominent Americans express remorse at all over their country’s policies in the Mideast, which are at least partially ongoing.
Alternatively, is calling Donald Trump a hateful bigot a kind of psychological projection? It should probably not be ignored that on the right, at least, neoconservative hawks are among Trumps most strident opponents. Perhaps they sense that Trump is not reliably bellicose, and that he, alone among leading candidates to have opposed the Iraq war, would be the president least likely to start new wars against Muslim countries.
In any case, Trump has mounted a full-bore challenge to the seldom expressed but rapidly congealing elite consensus that borders and nationhood are obsolete—a view long held by the international business establishment and gradually working its way down the power chain. Past generations of American politicians, Democrats and Republicans, would have found it common-sensical if not obvious to put a pause on immigration from a certain country or group of countries. (Trump might well have named countries or regions, instead of a broad religious category, but that wouldn’t bar Muslim terrorists who possess European passports.) Now that’s a response neoliberals and neoconservatives reflexively abhor.
We have a responsibility to protect, we are the indispensable nation, we are the world’s benevolent hegemon, we are exceptional, we lead, others follow: this is the power language of today’s Washington. It is a discourse both extremely nationalist and post-nationalist: seeking to dissolve America’s borders and lead a global empire are different expressions of the same impulse. The idea that immigration to America is some kind of global constitutional “right” is part of the package.
Few of these issues are really straightforward. I have written several times of my belief that Muslim immigration is good for America: that Muslim students at top universities have played an admirable role in opening up debate on the Palestinian issue; that Iranian-American lobbying in favor of negotiating with (rather than bombing) Iran may have tipped the balance in favor of diplomacy. I still believe that. But immigration is plainly not an unalloyed good, and there are other sides of the ledger to consider. Donald Trump does not talk about “blowback”—a theory which posits the great likelihood that interventionist polices will yield negative and violent and unforeseeable consequences, sometimes decades after the fact. Radical Islam is a product of many factors, not simply, or primarily, American policies. But one should probably best interpret Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration pause as a relatively measured attempt to shield Americans from the blowback to policies implemented by a bipartisan Washington consensus over two generations, for which he (as a private sector figure) bears little responsibility.
It’s been a stunning week. We’ve seen a panicked establishment outburst against a proposal that the United States (temporarily) restrict immigration, a kind of riot of the elites—asserting that such a suggestion is completely beyond the pale, fascist, unthinkable. And in response, in the polls at least, a swelling popular tide asserting, in the face of everything they are told by their politicians and dominant media, that such a suggestion is quite reasonable. And in this case, carrying out the popular will wouldn’t result in the death or imprisonment of a single person.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.