Terror on the Campaign Trail

The foreign-policy discourse in the ongoing presidential election is not exactly inspiring.

The foreign-policy discourse in the ongoing presidential election is not exactly inspiring.

John Edwards generated some media buzz recently when he castigated usage of the term "War on Terror." He later told Time that the term has "created a frame that is not accurate and that Bush and his gang have used [it] to justify anything they want to do." The nefarious "gang" Bush leads-not to be confused with the Cheney posse-remains unnamed.

Edwards continued: "I also think it suggests that there's a fixed enemy that we can defeat with just a military campaign. I just don't think that's true."

This might seem like a rather obvious conclusion almost six years after September 11, but the composition of the enemy in the War on Terror is far from a settled point-just look at two of the Republican presidential candidates.

Fred Thompson's recent speech at The Policy Exchange in London delivered two earth-shattering observations on the War on Terror:

· "We have learned that geography, history, and ethnicity are important factors to consider in making decisions regarding today's enemies."

· "We've also been reminded of the importance of preparation, of alliances, and the continuing support of our people."

One would hope that it did not take half a decade, two wars and hundreds of thousands of lives for anyone, much less a presidential candidate, to recognize the relevance of people, preparation, domestic support and allies in making foreign policy decisions.

Mitt Romney has a more all-encompassing view of the enemy.Like Karl Rove's view of the Republican Party, Romney sees the War on Terror as a "Big Tent" war. He recently said:

Jihadists are among Sunni and Shia, promoted by Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, financed by knowing and unknowing Muslim governments, and preached to hundreds of millions in many nations. Their goal is the overthrow of moderate, modern Muslim nations and their replacement by caliphate. Their strategy is the collapse of our economy, our government, and the military of our nations.

He apparently did not read National Interest executive editor Justine Rosenthal's "Jigsaw Jihadism" in the Jan/Feb issue of TNI, in which she writes:

The goal for groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Chechen rebels is "a nation of their own" with tactics reminiscent of the ethnic violence erupting after abandoned colonialism. Groups with traditional nation-state aims-even if they use Islamic rhetoric-have little interest, if any, in the United States. Their goals remain narrow and less fearsome.
On the other end of the spectrum are groups like Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and Al-Qaeda with its various offshoots, who indeed are looking to rearrange the global order, instigate the now-infamous clash of civilizations and create a Muslim caliphate that spans continents, all the while bringing the West to its knees.

Obviously, rhetoric has a role to play in campaigns and leadership, and much can be taken out of context. Not every speech on the stump will be the Long Telegram reincarnated. But on fundamental issues of American strategy-in this case understanding the enemy-Occam's razor should not be our weapon of choice.