In the wake of the recent death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, some shared on social media his sentiments during the 2008 presidential election in which he condemned what he saw as rising Islamophobia within the Republican Party, particularly directed toward then Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama.
“I’m also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say,” Powell said at the time. “And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”
“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” Powell added. “He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”
Powell then asked, “Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists.’”
“This is not the way we should be doing it in America,” Powell lamented.
Islamophobia was a key ingredient in George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “War on Terror” Republican Party. While Bush himself publicly went out of his way to frame Islam as a religion of peace, the anti-Muslim sentiment described by Powell was constantly stirred up by right-leaning politicians and pundits long before Obama became a national player. Warnings of “Islamofascism” energized talk radio and a GOP base that declared for many years that the Iraq War was righteous and Muslims were not.
Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol and their friends may wag their fingers today at Trump and his supporters’ red meat rhetoric, but the anti-Islamic speech and conspiracy theories that plagued the Republican base throughout the aughts were never denounced by the neoconservative establishment at the time.
Such behavior was more often encouraged or at least ignored because it helped the war cause. Don’t forget Dick Cheney, before he was denouncing Trump’s Muslim ban when it was politically convenient, was telling fellow Republicans that Obama was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. His daughter Liz, before she was denouncing MAGA conspiratorialists, was on “Larry King” defending the so called “Birthers” who didn’t believe Obama was born in this country:
“I think the Democrats have got more crazies than the Republicans do,” Cheney said at the time. “But setting that aside, one of the reasons you see people so concerned about this, I think this issue is, people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas …”
Kristol carried himself as being above the anti-Muslim fray, but rarely criticized the rampant, xenophobic Bush-era hate in the way that he goes after Trump today on a regular basis. Joseph Leone at Harvard’s Progressive Policy Review noted of Kristol in February, “The war, and the jingoistic propaganda Kristol peddled to support it, have also contributed to the rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence within the United States and globally. Although Kristol now opposes Donald Trump, the former president’s Muslim ban and frequent incitement of violence against Muslims are the product of the war drums Kristol played for years.”
When Kristol finally stated in 2010 — for the record — that he didn’t believe Obama was a Muslim, it was in a sort of backhanded away, and in the context of the infamous Ground Zero Mosque protest, which he supported. In fact, in the same editorial he said his now-defunct magazine, the Weekly Standard, “spoke for” the mosque protesters.
If today, Trump and his supporters are a threat to the world according to Kristol, the neoconservative leader did not have this concern when the Republican base’s rightwing fever dreams gave electoral support to the United States actually militarily threatening the world.
In this light, history should not forget that when Trump first got his political feet wet, it was precisely the neocon-friendly ‘Obama is a Muslim’ nonsense that the New York billionaire gravitated to. Give Trump this much: he knows how to read a room. At the time, Islamophobia was his ticket to so many Republican hearts and minds and he knew it. Trump said of Obama to Fox News in 2011, “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim.”
The neocons’ complicity in creating today’s populist right that so many historically Republican war hawks now denounce was sharply laid out by Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute’s Scott Horton during his October foreign policy debate with neoconservative guru Bill Kristol.
“The backlash from Bush’s disastrous wars and the devastating economic crash of 2008, a direct result of the Fed’s militarism friendly easy money policy in the preceding decade led to the disruptive and destabilizing presidency of Barack Obama. (Obama’s) disastrous wars (and economic policies)… led directly to the election of Donald J. Trump, running as an economic populist and war skeptic over ‘W’ Bush’s brother and Barack Obama’s secretary of state,” Horton exclaimed.
While Trump’s election was a reaction against the legacy of the failed Bush war policies, Horton pointed out the one thing he did embrace was the idea that the country had a “Muslim problem.”
“In other words, your nemesis Trump (Horton nodded toward Kristol) was exploiting your movement’s previous cultivation of this sort of illiberal sentiment among Republican voters, back when it was still useful to your ends. Building support for the wars.” He continued, “Now that the anti-Muslim chauvinism of the American right is no longer useful, you claim the right itself is now the greatest threat to democracy.”
Many believe that Kristol was determined to bring Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on as Sen. John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election in part because she could cement the base’s support for the long war in the Middle East. This war had been promulgated by McCain with big assists from the neoconservatives on Capitol Hill and the White House.
Some readers will recall that when Palin entered the race she was immediately paired with neoconservative advisers Randy Scheunemann and Michael Goldfarb. Kristol has long been credited with launching Palin’s national career.
Meanwhile, anti-Islamic sentiment had long been churned out for the base by neoconservative bomb throwers like David Horowitz and John Podhoretz. Chief among them was Frank Gaffney, a sometimes Kristol “coalition” partner. Think Progress reported in 2010 that the figures behind the website dedicated to opposing the so-called Ground Zero Mosque at the time included “a who’s who of far-right pundits, politicians, and neo-conservative advocacy groups, such as Keep America Safe, the attack group formed by Liz Cheney and hawkish Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.”
“This deliberately deceptive campaign did much to make the right worse” Horton concluded.
Yes it did.
For his part, Kristol did not rebuff these charges during the debate. He largely ignored them. The first words out of Kristol’s mouth in response were “The Middle East is a very difficult part of the world and we’ve obviously made many mistakes there and I think one of the mistakes we’ve made was not pushing democracy hard enough.”
No lessons learned.
Neoconservatives understood that xenophobia and stoking hatred were part of the cost of getting support after 9/11 for wars they had long wanted prior to that tragic day.
If Trump shared the foreign policy views of Liz Cheney, and the Republican Party was still thoroughly neoconservative in its geo-strategic world view, I have little doubt that Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, and other GOP hawks would have been Trump’s greatest allies — even despite the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Neoconservatives can complain about Donald Trump forever, but they now literally reap what they sowed.