On March 22, 2016, terrorists affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) attacked public targets in Brussels, Belgium. Thirty-five people lost their lives. The American response was one of outrage of shock, and the major presidential candidates made public statements. While the responses of the two main Democratic contenders (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) as well as Republican John Kasich (governor of Ohio) were what would be traditionally expect of public officials, the same cannot be said of the other two main candidates for the GOP nomination – Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. This edition of The History Rhyme will examine their reactions to the tragedy and then offer cautionary thoughts on the way we fight our immediate foes and how that can have consequences that reach well beyond the battle of the day.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, Donald Trump fell back to his now typical responses to a dangerous world (prevent Muslims from entering the United States and increase the use of torture to extract information about future attacks). He also questioned whether the United States should remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ted Cruz responded to the attacks with a call to give law enforcement on all levels the ability to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods to prevent future radicalization. He then accused those who oppose such tactics of “ostrich, head in the sand political correctness that refuses to acknowledge our enemy, the identify it, or do what’s necessary to defeat it.” In response, Commissioner Bill Bratton of the New York Police Department stated that his department does not target specific groups “nor will we use the police as an occupying force to intimidate a populace or religion to appease the provocative chatter of politicians seeking to exploit fear.”
During the week of the Brussels attacks, this History Rhymer was reading Kissinger’s Shadow – Greg Grandin’s examination of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his influence on American foreign policy and on the wider world. In a passing comment, Grandin mentioned a 1999 interview in the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had served as American President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser. During a discussion of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Brzezinski revealed that the United States had secretly started aiding the radically anti-Communist Mujaheddin six months before the December 1979 invasion. Brzezinski informed Carter, in the summer of 1979, that he felt such a move would help draw the USSR into the notoriously hard to control Central Asian country. The end result was a ten year occupation that killed many Soviet soldiers and countless more Afghans, drained the Soviet Union of resources, and played a role in its eventual end of the Cold War. The interviewer then asked Brzezinski if he regretted giving arms to Islamic fundamentalists as a means of drawing the USSR into their own version of the Vietnam War. With leading Republican presidential candidates in 2016 calling for extreme measures to prevent future terrorist attacks, Brzezinski’s response seventeen years earlier is quite interesting. He asked the interviewer: “what is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
To many modern eyes, there is no greater threat than global terrorist groups like ISIS. From such a perspective, the comments of Brzezinski may seem foolish and short-sighted. Yet, such a dismissive response by modern observers to his views is myopic as well. As with all things, we must consider the speaker’s background and the context of his decisions. Brzezinski was born in 1928 to an aristocratic Polish family whose ancestral home was in what was then southeast Poland. That area was taken from Poland (with the approval of the Americans and British at the Yalta conference) during World War II and given to the Soviet Union (and is now a part of Ukraine). Brzezinski’s father was a Polish diplomat who was stationed in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party, in Moscow during Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, and in the West during World War II. His family was unable to return to Poland after the Red Army occupied Easter Europe after the war. He then spent his public career viewing the USSR as the greatest threat to world peace and (as we have seen) taking steps to contain and constrict Soviet power and influence. To someone like him, “some stirred-up Moslems” were definitely a minor price to pay.
The question we have to ask ourselves before taking the provocative actions suggested by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is whether those options are really best. What are the future issues that we may be facing because we were too focused on the threat at hand? We can only begin to guess at this point. Does that mean that we should do nothing to protect ourselves and others from groups like ISIS? No, but we also cannot let fear and hatred drive us to be something other than what many of us aspire to be – a people that defends freedom, peace, and the rights of the all. When we act, we must remember the advice of nineteenth century American philosopher and psychologist William James who urged us to “act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” Let us hope that we choose our actions and leaders wisely.