Last summer, President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was ridiculed for making the contradictory claim that “truth isn’t truth” during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. Giuliani made this assertion while discussing his fears of a so-called perjury trap if the president were to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller. This absurd statement earned Giuliani widespread mockery, yet it was reminiscent of another episode from over a decade prior when Giuliani displayed a similar disregard for truth but was met with applause rather than derision.
In May 2007, during a primary debate for the 2008 Republican nomination for president, the discussion turned to American foreign policy and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Candidate Ron Paul asked fellow candidate Giuliani, “Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there,” referring to the United States’ decades-long history of interventions in the Middle East.
This explanation, unpopular as it may be, is not mere hypothesis, but largely fact. The vile extremists who attacked our country specifically cited among their motives the continued U.S military presence on the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf War, as well as U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq that precipitated a humanitarian crisis in that country. While it would be a duplicitous simplification to claim that U.S. foreign policy alone led to the attacks – the attackers’ motives were multifaceted – it is simply wrong to deny that it was one contributing factor.
Nevertheless, Giuliani was quick to assert that this truth isn’t …well … truth. In response to Paul’s comments, he angrily retorted, “That’s really an extraordinary statement… I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations.” Clearly, Giuliani was being either willfully ignorant or disingenuous, as these motives have been publicly and explicitly stated and are even discussed in the 9/11 Commission Report. Even had he been unfamiliar with these specific statements, one need not be a counterterrorism expert to understand how intervening abroad with troops and crippling sanctions might not leave the people there feeling warm and fuzzy toward the United States.
Yet even today, nearly 18 years after 9/11, it is largely taboo to discuss the role that U.S. interventionism plays in fomenting terrorism. It goes without saying that nothing can ever justify the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent individuals, or any other act of terror for that matter. Virtually nobody, however, is actually making that outrageous claim. Nonetheless, anyone who suggests that we examine the unintended consequences of our foreign policy is almost invariably accused of harboring terrorist sympathies, disrespecting the military, or blaming America for violent extremism.
This strawman argument of impugning others’ patriotism is not limited to the discourse on terrorism. When the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election, individuals across the political spectrum rightly condemned Russia’s assault on our democratic process. Notably, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon scholar Dov Levin, the United States also meddled in foreign elections 81 times between 1946 and 2000. An acknowledgement of this fact is by no means a justification of Russia’s actions. Yet anyone who dares contribute this additional context to the conversation on Russian meddling is preposterously accused of being a “Russian stooge” or defending Putin over the United States.
This refusal to acknowledge unpalatable truths about our own policies is not only dishonest, but also deleterious to our national security. Understanding the motivations behind extremist ideologies and tactics is essential to pursuing a counterterrorism strategy that actually protects the American people. When those who shape our national security strategy fail to recognize the risks of intervening in every Middle Eastern civil war and promote misleading clichés like the classic “they hate us for our freedoms,” we end up continuing policies that ultimately make the country less safe.
Over the past 18 years, the United States has – on highly questionable legal grounds – used the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to justify repeated military intervention across the Middle East, from regime change war in Libya to airstrikes in Somalia to assisting Saudi Arabia in their horrific war in Yemen. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how these interventions may actually harm rather than protect our national security. Following the U.S.-led intervention to topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has devolved into a failed state that is a breeding ground for terrorism. In Yemen, school buses, weddings, and funeral processions have been struck by “Made in America” bombs, undoubtedly engendering extremism.
Still, this strategy is supported by a pro-war bipartisan alliance and sold to the public in a star-spangled rhetorical package in the name of protecting our very freedom itself. Only a courageous few on both sides of the aisle have challenged the taboo and spoken the seemingly unspeakable truth: our neoconservative interventionism is not only a needless waste of dollars and a needless risk of lives but is dangerously counterproductive. No matter the abundance of explicit and implicit statements to the contrary, truth is in fact truth. We disregard it at our own risk.