February 18, 2015
President Obama came to office promising to draw a sharp distinction between himself and the way George W. Bush fought terrorism. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slow-rolled designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist group so as not to offend Nigeria. A blogger for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “Progressive Change Campaign,” praised Hezbollah as a force for social progress. Presumptive Republican candidates are all over the map on terrorism. Govenor Jeb Bush’s embrace of former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, for example, suggests a willingness at least to pivot back to pre-9/11 policies. Too often, candidates are imprecise with their rhetoric. Of course they will oppose terrorism, but how do they actually understand it? Answers to these five questions, however, would give clarity to any would-be president’s counterterrorism policy whether they want it or not.
1. How do you define terrorism?
There are more than 250 definitions of terrorism in use today just among Western police and security agencies. Too often, countries adopt an à la carte approach which condemns all terrorism as bad, except for those causes with which a particular country agrees. Hence, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group, but embraces and supports Hamas; and the Iranian regime condemns the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MEK, MKO) as a terrorist organization, but donates hundreds of millions of dollars to “resistance groups” like Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. The United Nations has yet to settle on a definition, and there is no single definition in use among US government agencies. No president of the free world should have a free pass to talk about terrorism without actually defining precisely what he or she means by it.
2. Do you believe terrorism to be primarily motivated by grievance or ideology?
Policymakers and analysts generally place the motivation for terrorism along a spectrum which, on one pole, sees terrorism motivated by grievance and, on the other pole, by ideology. Often, diplomats favor the idea that grievance is the root of terrorism. This can be comforting for policymakers because it suggests that offering incentives or forcing allies to make concessions to terror can resolve the problem, hence the almost manic efforts by successive administrations to focus efforts on resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, but does it miss the boat? Conversely, if terrorism is motivated by ideology—for example, Islamic radicalism, how does that impact policy prescriptions?
Read the full article at the American Enterprise Institute: 5 questions every presidential candidate should answer: Terrorism Edition