Matt Palumbo makes an important point about "blowback" as it relates to Islamic terrorism, but in, I think, the wrong way.

The thesis:

The "blowback" explanation for Islamist terrorism is masochistic nonsense.

And the argument:

Why is it that no other group of people "Western imperialism" has harmed has responded in the way that jihadists do? The common tie between these terrorists is not nationality, exposure to Western imperialism, poverty, or anything of that sort. It’s fundamentalist religious ideology.

And of course it’s supported with a list of well-publicised incidents of islamic terrorism that can’t plausibly have anything to do with Western Imperialism. A bombing at a Kenyan shopping mall, an attach on specifically Shia civilians in Iraq, etc. All summed up as:

The "progressives" who believe the narrative that "Islam has nothing to do with terrorism," will often also throw out the fact that most victims of terrorism are Muslim. Apparently, this blatant double-think is lost on them. If Islamist terrorism is motivated by and a response to "Western imperialism", why would the primary targets of the terrorists be other Muslims?

Quite. Also:

Since when does Western Imperialism cause someone to go throw gays off rootops, take sex slaves and kill ethnic and religious minorities?

Quite. Islamic terrorism is clearly motivated by a lot more than just anger over American military action in the Middle East, and even if it weren’t, the character it takes is clearly Made in the Caliphate.

However, while this might be a fair criticism of the way "progressives" use "Blowback Theory" as a rhetorical weapon, it’s worth mentioning here that "Blowback Theory" itself – in its original sense – never made the claims that progressives think it does. It never pretended that radical, fundamentalist Islam started only once the West started interfering in Arab political affairs. Quite the contrary, it was explicitly a claim that the West was responsible for helping pre-existing Islamic groups coordinate.

There’s a really good Atlantic piece from 1996 – crucially well before the War on Terror era – that spells it all out.

"Even today you can sit at the Khyber Pass and see every color, every creed, every nationality, pass," a Western diplomat told me in Peshawar last spring. "These groups, in their wildest imagination, never would have met if there had been no jihad. For a Moro to get a Sting missile! To make contacts with Islamists from North Africa! The United States created a Moscow Central in Peshawar for these groups, and the consequences for all of us are astronomical." The diplomat went on to say that many veterans of the Afghan jihad have set up an informal network of small, loosely organized underground cells, with support centers scattered around the world: in the United States, the Persian Gulf countries, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The days of mule trains like the one Sheikh Omar joined en route to Afghanistan are long gone; now E-mail and faxes drive the jihad.

Another important point the the article makes that progressives typically (conveniently?) forget when making their case is that Blowback isn’t even primarily an American creation necessarily:

Washington’s financial commitment to the jihad was exceeded only by Saudi Arabia’s. At the time the jihad was getting under way there was no significant Islamist opposition movement in Saudi Arabia, and it apparently never occurred to the Saudi rulers, who feared the Soviets as much as Washington did, that the volunteers it sent might be converted by the jihad’s ideology.

And it’s not just Saudi Arabia. The article doesn’t mention it, but the canonical case for "Blowback" is actually Israel. During the height of its struggle against the PLO in the 1970s and 80s, Israel took to looking the other way, and in some cases outright supporting, Palestinian Islamist groups as a counterweight to Arafat. Most Israeli intelligence experts now agree that this policy inadvertently enabled the formation of Hamas. Again, the point is definitely not that radical Islam simply did not exist among Palestinians before Israel began nurturing it. Nor is there any argument that it was somehow brought into existence by Israeli military actions, that it would not exist but for some Israeli attack somewhere. Rather, the argument is that Israel helped a rag-tag fleet of already-existing Islamist groups forge themselves into something effective.

The main point about Blowback among experts was never the Progressive narrative that it is entirely a response to Western agression and/or imperialism. The point about Blowback was that we – meaning the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – released the radical islamist genie from the bottle in attempting to use islamists as a counterweight to Soviet Imperialism and pan-Arab Socialism (Ba’athism). Islamism was always there and it was always worse than Socialism. No one serious is disputing that. "Blowback" just means we did a really stupid thing in helping radical islamists network, and in giving them an original cause, and an original victory (in Afghanistan). We underestimated some people that, to be fair, were really easy to underestimate – but that doesn’t make it any less of a regrettable thing to have done.

Now, maybe radical islam would’ve forged itself into a force to be reckoned with anyway. Maybe they didn’t actually need our help, in the end, to turn into ISIS or Hamas or The Taliban. But that’s ultimately a counterfactual exercise in wishful thinking. The point is that in the actual history that unfolded into the time we currently live in, it is largely a result of US intervention in the Middle East that Radical Islam is a political force. Foreign intervention – especially when it involves cultures you don’t really understand – can have unintended consequences.

It’s important to underscore just how at odds this is with the progressive narrative. If the progressive narrative were true, then solving the radical islam problem would be simple: all we’d need to do would be pack up and go home. Stop supporting Israel, stop supporting Saudi Arabia, remove all troops and be done with it. But the progressive narrative is not true. Radical Islam didn’t come into existence because the US and Saudi Arabia and Israel started bombing people. It was always there, and it was always barbarous. What the US (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) did to midwife it wasn’t to give people grievances. They’re good at finding those on their own. It was rather to bring them together, give them an enemy to fight, train them, fund them, help them network and organize, and then hand them a victory to help build their founding myth. The US didn’t create radical islam, but it might have created ISIS. The problem for progressives is that it really is a "genie out of the bottle" narrative rather than one of starting brushfires and fanning the flames.

There’s a reasonable argument to be had at this point about whether staying on in Arabia makes the situation better or worse. Robert Pape is probably the main propoent of the position that what’s critical to dampening suicide terrorist attacks is avoiding looking like an occupier. There’s something to be said for that view. After all, China certainly financially supports a lot of the same regimes that radical islamists consider their enemies, but it remains more or less free from islamist blowback1. At the same time, it’s difficult to see how Saudi Arabia and Turkey are going to get ISIS under control without US help. So, the case that staying around is the more prudent policy has a lot to be said for it as well.

I think what’s irritating to me about this whole debate, mostly, is that the people I see having it don’t know the first thing about it. What you see in the popular opinion press tends to be a lot of rationalist armchair reasoning, and this just isn’t the kind of thing that lends itself to that. To really know which US bombings cause how much excess terrorism over the historical mean, if indeed any at all, is a question that requires a lot of study and research. And a lot of study and research has in fact been done about it. I appreciate the point that Palumbo is trying to make, and I largely agree with it, but at the end of the day Palumbo doesn’t know what he’s takling about here, and neither do progressives, and neither do I. There’s a common sense plausibility to the idea that "bombing the shit out of the Middle East isn’t making things better." But there’s just as much common sense plausibility to the idea that if we don’t do that things will only get worse.

There’s something to Palumbo’s characterization of the progressive blowback narrative as "masochistic." Not so much in the sense that they actually enjoy pain, but in the sense that they think that by taking pain on themselves they’re asserting control. I think the Noam Chomsky types like to blame the US for everything primarily because they’re cowards: if the US is responsible for every bad thing that happens on the planet, then fixing the planet is not only dead simple, but within our immediate control. And there’s a moral narcissism about it as well: the idea that all the levers to make the world better are essentially right there in progressives’ hands, if only they could get their rube neighbors to realize their fundamental superiority and follow their lead at the ballot box. Somehow it’s all about bored Americans in the suburbs, and has nothing to do with 1600 years of religious and cultural development. The real world, of course, doesn’t work that way. In the real world, there are bad people, and bad cultures, and bad ideologies, and sometimes you have to fight. Progressives aren’t wrong that sometimes fighting makes things worse, but they don’t seem to have a coherent theory of when.

Like so many things, blowback has been badly misrepresented in the wider public debate. Plaumbo is right to call out progressives for having incoherent, wishful views on Middle East policy. But I think his argument would’ve been closer to the truth if, instead of focusing on refuting them head on and accepting their revised definition of "blowback" on their own terms, he’d chosen instead to remind everyone what blowback originally meant in the Middle East context. Because in its original sense, it actually offends none of the major competing ideologies in American political discourse. It’s nothing but a straightforward reminder of the Law of Unintended Consequences – and an acknowledgement that Middle East policy is a complicated topic offering no pat solutions. And if there’s one notion both left and right need to disabuse themselves of, it’s that no problems are complicated, and that one side or the other always has a complete picture.

  1. True, not entirely free – there are the frequent Uyghur uprisings in the west, and much of that is Islamist-tinged. Al-Qaeda has taken up their cause. Terrorist attacks in that conflict with death tolls in the hundreds are not exactly uncommon. But that’s a problematic counterexample, since it seems to remain primarily a secessionist cause. For the most part, Uyghur terrorists aren’t proposing to march to Beijing and forcibly convert its inhabitants – so whether this actually counts as blowback is debatable.

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