How to deal with the complexities of terrorism

Military responses rarely bring an end to an ideology

I RETURNED FROM a recent business/pleasure trip to Europe to observe a nation nearly unhinged by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  The reaction to the Paris events, based in part upon misinformation (the attacks were not perpetrated by Syrian refugees, but rather were homegrown in nature), and accentuated by the ongoing presidential campaign, has led to a level of political jingoism I’ve not seen in my lifetime.

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and their ilk want to build walls across the border with Mexico, while it may be more likely that a terrorist intent on doing us harm will come across the Canadian border, or from someone in this nation legally. A frenzied cable television media demands more action and “passion” from the president, although it isn’t clear what exactly they would have him do.  People talk about being “at war” with the Islamic State, without any understanding of what being “at war” really means.  Others call for boots on the ground – a tactic that, if we stopped a minute and recalled recent history, bore only rotten fruit in Iraq.


This business about being “at war” with ISIL is perhaps the best example of knee-jerk rhetoric that pumps up armchair hawks but bears little relation to the truth. The idea that we are at war is utter nonsense.  If we were at war, we’d have a national draft that sent all eligible young men and women – the sons and daughters of the wealthy and the well-educated, not just the poor and lower middle-class kids who make up a disproportionately large number of our military force – into harm’s way.  If we were at war, we’d hike the federal gas tax to push people away from their addiction to the low-cost fossil fuels that flow from our “allies” in the Middle East. If we were at war we would be asking every American citizen to sacrifice something for the common cause, and yet we are asked to sacrifice nothing. The only sacrificing taking place is in the homes of those whose sons, daughters, husbands, and wives are deployed in military service.

President Obama is reviled for his lack of passion.  It was once the case that we admired presidents for their ability to be cool and calm under pressure.  JFK famously sought to demonstrate what was called “grace under pressure.”  Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, was leader of the D-Day invasion, but warned as president about being in the thrall of a military industrial complex.  His words, in his last speech as president, bear repeating here:

“Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties . . . But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped-for advantage . . . balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

President Obama, reviled by those who believe he lacks passion and should be more aggressive in his response to the Paris attacks, has kept his cool and exercised the good judgment that Eisenhower spoke of.  I’m glad we have a president who doesn’t pander or bow to the public’s apparent need for red-meat rhetoric. I’m glad we have a president who isn’t trigger-happy and who is committed to not repeating the mistakes of the recent past. I’m glad we have a president who won’t use the passions of the moment to manipulate the American people into yet another futile entanglement in the Middle East.

It’s not as if Obama hasn’t taken military action – our bombing strikes and drone activities have accelerated.  But I have the sense that this president takes a more measured approach to action, what Eisenhower advised when he counseled that “each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration.” There is strength and power in taking that approach to decision-making, and I’m glad that we are being led by someone who understands that, in JFK’s words, “civility is not a sign of weakness.”

A complex problem like terrorism – a phenomenon that has no specific ties to any one place or people – requires a nuanced, carefully calibrated response.  Military solutions might be useful to bring a nation to its knees, but they are less effective bringing an ideology to an end.  The mutually assured destruction of the Cold War was an effective way to keep relative peace among nations whose leaders were logical and who cared about their national economies, cultures, and futures.  We ended World War II by exploding nuclear bombs, because the leaders of Japan actually cared about their nation and culture and understood that they needed to surrender and end hostilities in order to preserve them.

When it comes to terrorism, there is no nation or culture to preserve. It is a global infection that attacks from anywhere, perpetrated by a legion of young disaffected people who have been radicalized to a point where logic and self-preservation have no meaning.  The military solutions that logical people and nations respond to have no utility in an environment where terrorists are neither logical nor predictable.

Given these harsh and vexing realities, we are wisely led by a president who is unwilling to prove his mettle by turning to useless tough-guy rhetoric, or military tactics that haven’t worked and won’t work to end the plague of terrorism. It is likely that terrorism will continue for years to come, because the root causes of radicalism – the poverty, the religious extremism, the lack of hope, and feelings of disrespect and alienation that seem to frequently drive the irrational and destructive behavior of terrorists – will take time and money to cure.  We may be lucky to have the time to do it, but we, as a nation, will need to confront the urgency to start spending money on building things again (both at home and abroad).

Approaching our national day of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful to have a president who follows a principled, measured, calm approach to what is perhaps the most unfathomable and intractable foreign policy challenge in our nation’s history.  And if, on Thanksgiving Day, you are tempted to talk around the dinner table about the need to “do more” about the threat of terrorism, ask yourself and your dinner companions: what are you prepared to sacrifice?

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

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