Yesterday, Donald Trump responded to a terrorist attack by once again implying the unthinkable: America is losing the War on Terror because we haven’t stooped to the terrorists’ level.
“We have to fight so viciously and violently, because we’re dealing with violent people,” Trump said
“We can’t do waterboarding — which may not be the nicest thing, but it’s peanuts compared to many alternatives. So we can’t do waterboarding but they can do chopping off heads, drowning people in steel cages. They can do whatever they want to do.”
The implication, one he made more explicit as the speech went on, is a common one in debates about terrorism: America can’t fight with one hand tied behind its back. Applied to the War on Terror, this debate started with the Rules of Engagement, the American military’s guidelines for use of force.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, military personnel noted, while America tried to win hearts and minds, the Taliban and al Qaeda used fear. Fear is pretty convincing. As NPR reported in 2009, “[Soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky.] say U.S. troops have many rules to follow, but the Taliban and al-Qaida do not.”
But Trump takes this argument to the extreme. After every terrorist attack large enough to land on his Twitter feed, he has advocated for escalations of force that not only fall well outside of international law, but would also play into terrorists’ hands.
In November, after terror attacks in Paris killed 130, Trump said he would bring back waterboarding, “and I would approve more than that.”
“Believe me, it works. And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing,” he said, presumably referring to suspected terrorists or enemy combatants. Then, as now, Trump used the terrorists’ actions as justification.
“What they’re doing to us, what they did to James Foley when they chopped off his head, that’s a whole different level and I would absolutely bring back interrogation and strong interrogation,” he said
He said it again after the San Bernardino attacks. He added a Muslim ban. His supporters love it.
But, notably, bringing back waterboarding (and more extreme forms of torture) would create a constitutional crisis. Former CIA director Michael Hayden said that Trump “better bring his own bucket, because the CIA is not going to do it again.”
John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has come out strongly and repeatedly against Trump’s proposals. He has said waterboarding is immoral and runs contrary to America’s values. It’s also a war crime. “But perhaps more important than that, if you’re not into academics and history, is it doesn’t work,” McCain said Tuesday. “Because if you inflict enough pain on someone they will tell you whatever they think you want to hear.”
This still accepts Trump’s foundational premise, though: that terrorists attack those nations they see as “weak.” Not so. In fact, responses like Trump’s are exactly what terrorist groups like ISIS want: They want a world war between Muslims and non-Muslims. They want to destroy the “gray zone” between the two groups. They want to create a perception that Western politicians like Trump will never accept Muslims as true Westerners.
It’s no wonder ISIS is most likely, at least according to Richard Clark, rooting for Trump election.