MORE TERRORISM….Every time I write a post like the previous one (“reducing the tolerance for al-Qaeda and likeminded jihadist groups in the Middle East is the only way we’ll ever permanently reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism”) I get an email from a conservative reader who’s distinctly unimpressed with my non-militaristic ways. His question, basically, is: Where’s the beef? How exactly are we going to reach this terrorist-free nirvana of yours?

It’s worth answering this directly: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else does either. But there’s a simple reason for this: foreign policy isn’t like domestic policy. Domestic policy, in the best case, may be based on underlying principles, but it’s expressed by big concrete policies. No Child Left Behind. Healthy Forests. The Patriot Act. Tax cuts. Social Security privatization. Etc. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t, but that’s how the game is played.

But with a few high profile exceptions (arms treaties, for example), foreign policy just doesn’t have very many big, concrete programs at its core. Rather, it has some underlying principles that depend on the president’s worldview, and instead of inspiring legislative programs these principles mostly guide the president’s reaction to events that unfold on his or her watch.

So that’s the spirit in which I suggest that our foreign policy needs to be grounded in an effort to reduce the tolerance for violent jihadism within the Muslim world. It’s not that this is something that’s quick or easy to do, but that it’s the only long-term strategy with any chance of succeeding. A foreign policy grounded in militarism not only won’t work, since we can’t kill terrorists fast enough to defeat them by main force, but is actually likely to make the problem demonstrably worse by spawning greater terrorist sympathy than we had in the first place.

Working to dry up the pool of jihadist sympathy, then, isn’t a program, it’s a principle. Every action we take should be guided by the question: Is this likely to increase or decrease the pool of people who tolerate or actively sympathize with violent jihadism, and without whom the jihadists can’t operate effectively? This question should apply to military action, regime support, democracy promotion, economic engagement, trade agreements, public diplomacy, institution building, anti-corruption initiatives, multilateral vs. unilateral action, peacekeeping activities, and practically anything else that that affects anyone beyond our borders. Occasionally, even if we take this seriously, we’ll end up using military action anyway because we don’t have any choice. The world is messy. But if we ever want to put an end to terrorist violence, that better be our choice pretty infrequently. After all, we don’t have a big enough army to occupy the entire world.

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