On Wednesday on CNN, Marco Rubio said the Islamic State, which Turkish officials believe carried out this week’s attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, had two motivations. First, “they ultimately want them to be a part of the caliphate.” Sure, but “ultimately,” ISIS wants every place on earth to be part of its caliphate. That doesn’t explain why the organization struck Turkey now. Rubio’s second explanation was more convincing: “They’re looking to punish Turkey for allowing U.S. airstrikes to be conducted from an airbase within Turkey. … They’ve made that abundantly clear.”
Yes, they have. ISIS may eventually wish to conquer the entire world. But in the here and now, it generally attacks countries that are attacking it. The Georgetown University terrorism expert Daniel Byman has noted that until the U.S. and its allies began bombing the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, the group “focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations” in Iraq and Syria. A study by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment detected only four ISIS-related plots in the West from January 2011 to May 2014. Then, between July 2014 and June 2015, the number spiked to 26.
Which raises a question: Why do Rubio and his fellow conservatives keep claiming that ISIS attacks the West because it “hates our freedom?” If this week’s attack in Istanbul constituted clear retaliation against Turkish participation in the anti-ISIS war, the motivation for the Islamic State’s attack in Paris last November was equally straightforward. Two months before the attacks, France had expanded its anti-ISIS airstrikes into Syria. One week before, France had announced it was sending an aircraft carrier to launch raids against the organization from the Persian Gulf. After the Paris attacks, ISIS declared, “Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake part in the crusader campaign … and boast about their war against Islam in France, and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.”
Yet when ISIS attacked Paris, Rubio said nothing about retaliation against French bombing in Iraq and Syria. To the contrary, he insisted that, “[T]hey do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”
After the Orlando shooting, Rubio responded similarly. He blamed the shooter’s “warped view of his religion” and “the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community.” For his part, Ted Cruz said ISIS attacked Orlando because “their objective, which they broadcast worldwide, is to murder or forcibly convert every single American.” Donald Trump explained the attack by observing that, “radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American.” None of these GOP poobahs even mentioned the motivation Rubio offered for the Istanbul attack: that ISIS was retaliating against America for its military intervention in Syria and Iraq. They didn’t mention it even though Omar Mateen had told a 911 operator during the shooting that America’s bombing in Iraq and Syria was the reason he was “out here right now.”
Don’t get me wrong. Mateen was clearly a pathological homophobe and ISIS clearly loathes gay rights and many other freedoms that people in America and France enjoy. But if ISIS attacked countries out of antipathy towards “tolerant society,” why last October did it down an airliner from Vladimir Putin’s distinctly intolerant Russia? Why this week did it strike Turkey, a country whose government is so intolerant than it responded to the attack by blocking access to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? And why hasn’t it struck Sweden, New Zealand, Costa Rica, or any number of liberal democracies that aren’t at war in Syria and Iraq?
When it comes to Turkey, Rubio sees ISIS terrorism as a geopolitical act, a way of striking back at a country with which the organization is at war. But when it comes to the United States and its Western European allies, he shuns that logic in favor of a purely ideological explanation: ISIS terrorists are motivated by “radical Islam.” Thus, he and other conservatives pretend that America is innocent. Turkey gets attacked because America is bombing Syria and Iraq from its territory. But America itself gets attacked because it’s the land of the free.
The mid-20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that, “America was menaced as much by its own pretensions to virtue as it was by world disorder.” Niebuhr was no pacifist, nor did he draw a moral equivalence between the U.S. and Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR. But he urged American leaders to acknowledge that even in just wars, “tyranny [is] defeated with instruments tainted by evil.”
The United States has intervened militarily to prevent ISIS from conquering Iraq and Syria. In that effort, it has carried out more than 10,000 air strikes—strikes that kill many people but go largely unnoticed in the American press. America’s current war may be justified. But America is not innocent. By pretending it is, Rubio and other politicians mislead Americans about the reasons for ISIS terrorism. And they prevent an honest debate about the costs and benefits of America’s war.