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The “War on Terror” Is the Ghost Haunting This Year’s Election

Trumpism is the war on terror coming home. Meanwhile, Biden’s war on terror mentality is distorting his policy on Gaza.

The grim tragedy of the 2024 election is that both Biden and Trump are in different ways trapped in the mental debris of the war on terror.

No one ever announced that the “war on terror” was over. But the rushed withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in 2021 was the closest the U.S. came to an official end point.

There was no release of prisoners of war; instead “enemy combatants” continued to be caged at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Nor was the geographical spread of the U.S.’s counterterrorism operations much reduced, with the U.S. engaged in 78 countries between 2021 and 2023. But direct military occupation of entire countries seemed to be no more.

Unlike the end of the Cold War, which spawned an ugly and delusional triumphalism, the war on terror’s ending was marked by embarrassment and an awkward silence. In Washington, there was little interest in asking why the war on terror went so badly wrong. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” That meaning — the lesson to be learned — was that political problems in the Middle East (or anywhere else) cannot be solved by “regime change,” the intentionally bland phrase used to describe the bombing and invasion of a country in order to overthrow its government. That belief in military “solutions” survived the defeats of the war on terror largely unscathed.

Cut to 2024 and the war on terror is the ghost haunting this year’s election. President Joe Biden has given financial, diplomatic and military support to another war of regime change: Israel’s attempt to dismantle Hamas in Gaza and replace it with a governing authority that it finds more palatable.

Defending his Israel policy last October, Biden declared that “history has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror … they cause more chaos and death and more destruction.” In fact, that is exactly the opposite of what the history of the war on terror shows.

The post-9/11 attempts to fight terrorism led to many times more deaths than al-Qaeda or ISIS could ever hope to cause. It is likely that more than 3 million lives were lost directly and indirectly in the post-9/11 war zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. And this mass slaughter did not even reduce terrorism. The number of people worldwide who died from terrorist activity increased ninefold between 2000 and 2015, according to a mainstream definition of terrorism.

The Iraqi and Afghan people did not wish to be ruled by the U.S. military and the puppet leaders it installed. The more the U.S. used force to impose its will, the more its presence appeared as a new form of colonialism, and the more support flowed to the insurgents fighting the occupations. Thus, the war on terror fueled the very process of radicalization it ostensibly aimed to counter.

The utter devastation that Israel has unleashed against Palestinians in Gaza will likewise fail to achieve the pacification Israeli leaders hope for. Irrespective of whether Hamas survives, Palestinians have shown they do not consent to Israel’s suppressing of their national aspirations. Military force will only postpone the political negotiations, including with Hamas, that are needed to achieve a just and therefore peaceful settlement of the underlying question of sovereignty. Describing Hamas as a “terrorist group” that “unleashed pure unadulterated evil in the world,” as Biden put it last year, obscures this fact. In relation to the question of openness to political negotiations regarding Israel and Palestine, all the evidence points to the likelihood that Hamas would agree to a two-state solution along the green line of the 1948 armistice — it is Israel that refuses this possibility.

If Biden’s calls for a “rule-based international order” were serious, his diplomatic, financial and military support for Israel’s current war on terror would immediately cease. But the invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the liberal international order which in the 1990s the U.S. could plausibly claim to be upholding.

Washington liberals do indeed dream of a return to the 1990s. But what they are nostalgic for is the unchallenged geopolitical sway that the U.S. enjoyed in that decade; they have no wish to cultivate a new set of shared rules to govern international relations. The war on terror was a product of the post-Cold War belief in the omnipotence of the U.S.; its failures revealed that belief to be an illusion.

The crumbling of that illusion is also at the root of Donald Trump’s far right politics. His is a movement that thrives in the vengeful backwashes of the U.S.’s military defeats. Trumpism is the war on terror coming home.

For 15 years, the military personnel who carried out the war on terror’s foreign operations were trained to believe that the U.S. needed to surveil, track and violently dominate a nebulous, global enemy called “radical Islam.” But these military personnel also knew, better than everyone else, that the reality of the war on terror bore little resemblance to the pieties circulated in Washington. For them, the image of the U.S. as all-powerful and virtuous died on the battlefields of Helmand and Haditha.

In the search to give meaning to their experiences, these veterans began to ask fundamental questions about why the war on terror happened and why it failed. They concluded that the blame for the war on terror’s failures lay with elites lost in the illusion that the U.S. should dedicate itself to managing the entire world.

For some, this led to an understanding of histories of U.S. colonial violence. In 2016, for example, 4,000 veterans came to Standing Rock in North Dakota, where Indigenous people were fighting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. The veterans met with a group of Sioux leaders to apologize for the colonial violence of their military units and offered their political solidarity in the struggle against the pipeline.

But many other veterans, while questioning the war on terror’s global footprint, accepted the idea that Muslims should be suspected of extremism by virtue of their religious identity. These veterans embraced white supremacist conspiracy theories about “globalist” elites deliberately fostering Muslim immigration to bring about a “great replacement” of whites by others. They demanded no more foreign wars, but did so on the basis of racist conspiracy theories. The real war, they argued, was at home and the enemies were the liberal elites and the Brown immigrants supposedly welcomed by “globalist” politicians.

This was the entry point for Donald Trump to find a political base. His path to the White House began in 2011 when he mainstreamed the false theory that President Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. Four years later, two-thirds of Trump supporters told pollsters that Obama is a Muslim. After he announced his Muslim ban policy in late 2015, Trump’s campaign soared. His attacks on what he called “the false song of globalism” were the key to his winning the 2016 election.

Just over four years later, on January 6, 2021, the Trump movement attempted a regime change at the seat of power responsible for so many regime changes elsewhere in the world: Washington, D.C. It was a remarkable example of Aimé Césaire’s “boomerang effect” dictum that imperialist violence inflicted abroad always returns to corrupt the homeland.

Today, the grim tragedy of the 2024 election is that both Biden and Trump are in different ways trapped in the mental debris of the war on terror. Biden may well lose the election by alienating a part of his own base with his decision to support what Israel has framed as its own “war on terror” — the ongoing genocide of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the rage unleashed by the U.S. war on terror’s failures, but never properly acknowledged or addressed, has fueled Trump’s molding of the Republican Party and allied conservative institutions into a neofascist movement.

To free ourselves from the damage the war on terror did to our collective psyche means coming together to organize for a peaceful future. That hope is currently embodied in the over 1.2 million people, including many veterans, who have participated in around 6,000 protests in the U.S. calling for an Israeli ceasefire since October 7. But, at a deeper level, only when we fully absorb the lessons of our recent past will we be able to escape its terrifying consequences.

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