Fighting Terrorism

FIGHTING TERRORISM….Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, asked about Barack Obama yesterday, said: “I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal.” Mark Kleiman agrees, but James Joyner doesn’t:

I disagree strongly with Kerrey and Kleiman about the value of having a president with a Muslim middle name. Indeed, the idea that religious nuts who are willing to murder thousands of Americans would think “Hey, they elected a guy with a Muslim middle name! They must be okay!” is absurd. Hell, they kill plenty of people named Hussein who actually are Muslims; the only thing they hate more than American infidels is Arab apostates.

I think this is badly wrong. And it’s badly wrong in an important way. In fact, it gets straight to the heart of perhaps the most serious, most durable misunderstanding held by conservatives about how to fight terrorism.

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn’t. But terrorists can’t function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao’s sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don’t have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It’s why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today’s jihadists, the answer is hard power. There’s no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow’s jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we’ll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn’t been for the past six years — that, in fact, we’ve gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror.

UPDATE: James responds here, and I pretty much agree with him. I don’t think the mere fact of having Obama as president would make a huge difference in the fight for Muslim world opinion. Other things are far more important. But it might help.