Does the U.S. Bear ANY Responsibility for the War on Terror?

Among the more fascinating exchanges in last night’s debate was an argument between Ron Paul and Rick Santorum about the root causes of 9/11 and the War on Terror. (You can read a transcript of their exchange here.)

Paul is famous (or infamous) for suggesting that U.S. foreign policy is responsible for these attacks by Al Qaeda and related groups. He believes that American militarism prompted the attacks and that we’ve fallen for a ploy of being lured into areas in which we make easier targets (Afghanistan and Iraq). He stuck to this line on Monday and was perhaps a bit too willing to take Osama bin Laden at his word. In the end, I suspect that Paul’s implication of American responsibility for 9/11 and his fervent isolationism are too much for most voters.

On the other hand, the counter-narrative provided by Santorum seems equally implausible upon closer inspection. Santorum identified the root cause as “a civilization that is antithetical to the civilization of the jihadists. And they want to kill us because of who we are and what we stand for. And we stand for American exceptionalism, we stand for freedom and opportunity for everybody around the world.” In Santorum’s view, this isn’t so much about cause and effect as it is an unavoidable clash of civilizations. This kind of patriotic rhetoric got plenty of applause because it’s comfortable.

But I tend to think neither of them are right. Paul’s isolationism is easy to critique: just because our foreign involvement is imperfect doesn’t mean it is never worthwhile. But Santorum’s ‘clash of civilizations’ view implies that U.S. foreign policy is blameless, that we bear absolutely no responsibility for past actions that may have contributed to the growth of violent anti-American sentiment and actions. How can we have a responsible foreign policy if we start from either premise, that it’s always flawed or always perfect?

2 Responses to Does the U.S. Bear ANY Responsibility for the War on Terror?
  1. Hans
    September 14, 2011 | 4:38 am

    Sounds very much like the question as to who’s to blame for rape, the victim for wearing the wrong clothes and being in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of night; the perpetrator for acting on impulses; or society for encouraging a promiscuous lifestyle. With the rape question it’s pretty clear, or I get the sense that society has settled on an answer. Not sure the analogy is perfect, but it’s set up in the same way.

    • admin
      September 14, 2011 | 4:14 pm

      I think that is a flawed analogy. I didn’t ask, “Do those who died in 9/11 bear some responsibility for their own deaths?” That would have been akin to blaming the rape victim. While we may warn people to avoid dangerous situations, we don’t blame rape victims for what happened to them because we recognize that their actions were not responsible for creating the rapists.

      I asked, “Does the United States bear some responsibility?”

      The modern ideology of violent jihad against the United States did not emerge in a vacuum. Even if men like Osama bin Laden were predisposed toward violence, his particular perspective emerged within a specific historical context. Our foreign policy, dating back at least to the Cold War, has shaped that world historical context. American foreign policy may have contributed to or even promoted the ideology of anti-Western jihad and the ability of leaders like bin Laden to create and finance terrorist networks capable of carrying out attacks on high-level targets.

      Santorum and Paul (and I) agree to this extent: U.S. foreign policy has a unique capacity to shape world events and a level of responsibility commensurate with that capacity. Their disagreement (with each other and me) is over outcome: Paul sees all of our foreign policy actions as harmful while Santorum characterized them as always beneficial. I think we need to recognize the results as mixed. Only then can we evaluate our actions and hope to do better in the future. And part of that assessment will have to include a close look at how our actions may have contributed to the events of 9/11/01.

      (I have some objections to your characterization of rape, but I’ll leave those for another time.)