Whatever happened to “blowback”?

Readers probably remember hearing about “blowback,” a favorite concept of Bush administration anti-terrorism policy critics. Blowback, we were told, occurs when those aggrieved (or even just offended) by assertive American action abroad respond by attacking American interests and killing Americans. Some on the left considered 9/11 itself a case of blowback. More commonly, opportunistic liberals insisted that our intervention in Iraq and our interrogations at Gitmo were producing blowback. Think back, for example, to those bogus estimates of the number of new terrorists being generated by Bush administration policies.

These claims of blowback always struck me as weak, but it’s not my purpose here to discuss their merit. Rather, I want to consider whether the liberals who advanced the concept during the Bush administration will entertain it now that Islamic extremists are attacking U.S. interests in Egypt, Libyan, Tunisia, Europe, etc.

After all, if blowback is a viable concept, recent developments fit it nicely. Obama is systematically killing terrorists through drone attacks. And Islamic militants in Libya warned that they would take revenge on America for the killing by drone of al Qaeda’s No. 2 commander Abu Yahya al-Lib, a citizen of Libya and a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. That sounds like blowback to me.

If Obama were a Republican, the left, en masse, would long ago have denounced him as a coward (drone attacks are so antiseptic) and a tyranical denier of due process (there’s no time to lawyer up ahead of a drone attack). And though few left-wing politicians would have the courage to denounce successful drone attacks directly, they would be quick to pounce once Arab mobs cite our anti-terrorism tactics as a basis for attacking our embassies.

But because Obama is a Democrat, we see little of this criticism.

To be fair, some on the left were fretting about blowback from Obama’s policies even before the recent events in Libya, etc. Nicolas J.S. Davies did so in August at the Huffington Post, but one need only glance at his screed to realize how extreme Davies’ views are (to put it kindly). And Conor Friedersdorf, in a far more thoughtful piece for The Atlantic, speculated about likely blowback from President Obama’s conduct of the war on terror.

Towards the end of his piece, Friedersdorf wrote:

I fear we’ll look back on President Obama’s policies with the same chagrin [with which many look back on the Iraq war]. Or perhaps we ought to do so, but we won’t, because so many on the left who used to be incisive critics of short-term foreign policy thinking — a faction once led by candidate Barack Obama — have followed him down the rabbit hole.

Just so. While some on the left are crying “blowback,” the prevailing view is that the recent attacks in Libya are a response not to Obama’s policies but to a movie trailer.

The “movie trailer” theory is so absurd as to make blowback look plausible. But only by comparison.

In my view, radical Islamists see themselves as in a permanent state of war against the U.S., the West generally, and indeed non-Muslims everywhere who refuse to submit. The extent to which radical Islamists actively prosecute that war against U.S. interests depends on how weak they consider the U.S. at a given time. Right now, with the U.S. out of Iraq, leaving Afghanistan, and led by a president who whispers sweet nothings in the ears of Muslims, we appear quite weak indeed.

But again, the point here isn’t the merit, or lack thereof, of blowback theory. The point is the hypocrisy and opportunism of liberal politicians who blame America first when a Republican is in charge and not all when we are led by a Democrat.

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