With the Bush administration’s efforts in this long war against radical extremism grinding to an inconclusive halt, it’s useful to revisit strategic issues that invariably frame our approach.
One of the most basic questions is, What makes a terrorist? Are the drivers primarily political or economic?
Depending on the answer, one could argue that America’s grand strategy should lead with either promoting democracy or encouraging economic growth.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger has made a great study of this question and published his findings earlier this year in a book whose title, “What Makes a Terrorist,” lacks a question mark.
That’s because Krueger, marshaling persuasive statistics and analysis, comes down firmly on the side of politics, pointing out that most terrorists are middle class and well educated.
Krueger wrote his book to counter the prevalent notion that “economic deprivation and a lack of education cause people to adopt extreme views and turn to terrorism.”
The professor doesn’t argue against reducing poverty or raising educational levels. He’s just pointing out that, when it comes to reducing the pool of terrorists, there’s no clear link between such noble efforts and that end goal.
So what makes terrorists? Krueger’s data say most arise in states that suppress civil liberties and deny political rights. In short, dictatorships spawn terrorists because, wherever “nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”
That answer provides a motive and posits that an absence of opportunity drives some toward violence, but here is where things become complex.
Truly strong dictatorships tend not to suffer domestic terrorists, simply because they suppress civil liberties so effectively. These regimes may frequently sponsor terrorists abroad, but that’s an easily explained tactic: Weaker states employ terrorists in asymmetrical warfare against stronger foes, while stronger ones may sponsor terrorists to avoid direct warfare with similar opponents.
When it comes to domestic terrorism, it’s the weaker authoritarian regimes that both spawn terrorists and have a hard time controlling them.
In those situations, potential terrorists are afforded just enough economic opportunity to make them dangerous — namely access to financial, communication and travel networks that facilitate their tactics.
Authoritarian regimes can also push these troublemakers abroad, and therein lies our main interest in this long war. But, since almost 90 percent of attacks occur in the terrorist’s country of origin, 9/11-like strikes remain statistically rare, meaning the average American is far more likely to be killed by lightning than al-Qaida.
Shifting gears, you might argue that, since most predominately Muslim countries feature authoritarian regimes, Islam itself is the real culprit.
I don’t know about you, but asking Muslim societies to become less Muslim strikes me as a nonstarter in a world where globalization’s systematic advance triggers a revival of religious fervor and cultural identity.
But even if we — for the sake of argument — accept that causal link, we’re still left with the question of how to increase civil liberty within the political system, and here’s where Krueger’s argument that economics doesn’t have any direct impact leaves me unsatisfied.
If you want to increase civil liberties, then you must increase the size of the middle class because — historically speaking — nothing predicts the rise of democracy better than a growing middle class.
Indeed, numerous studies today note the same correlation: The bigger the middle class’s share of national income, the greater that country’s civil liberties. In contrast, oligarchic capitalism, or economies in which a small elite controls the vast majority of the wealth, trends overwhelmingly toward authoritarianism — the oil-rich Middle East particularly.
How do you create a middle class? You raise income broadly by fostering individual economic freedom and seeking sufficiently deep economic connectivity with the outside world so those empowered entrepreneurs can access new sources of capital and technology.
If you attempt to short-circuit that historical evolution by imposing democracy upon too small an economic base, you’ll end up with what Fareed Zakaria calls “illiberal democracy,” or elections in which radical extremists prevail.
In the end, it’s true that politics explains terrorism, but likewise that economics explains politics.
This long war requires long efforts, not seductive shortcuts.
The United States should be in the business of applying both its hard and soft power assets toward the same end: defending and extending globalization’s spread. Feed stomachs and wallets first, and then hearts and minds will follow.