Dealing with terrorism in the name of Islam will be one of the most difficult challneges for the next president. What should we ask of him or her?

Image Credit: The Haggani Fellowship.
Image Credit: The Haggani Fellowship.

With the Donald’s chest-thumping entry last Tuesday, the cage match for leadership of the free world is almost set. I count 12 heavyweight Republicans and four Democrats in the ring with the possibility that, as the body count starts to rise, your stray Chris Christie or Jim Webb may leap from the audience waiving a chair over his head. For those of us who enjoy the theater of politics, the pay-per-view will surely be worth the price. Ma, bring me the popcorn.

Lest we forget though, the reward for the survivor of the cage match is the right and the responsibility to steer the ship of state. That job divides into three primary components: pretending to manage the economy; pretending to solve social problems and actually implementing the country’s foreign policy.  The “pretend” comments are not pejorative, but reflect the fact that no one person can control the economy or the social climate. For instance, within the next few weeks it may be legal for gay and lesbian couples across the United States to marry (and divorce); Barack Obama had little to do with that sea change. To accomplish tax reform or anything of the sort, the president must gain the cooperation of 218 representatives and 60 senators; even at that Janet Yellin may have more to say about how much will be in your next paycheck.

Foreign policy is not truly autonomous, of course. Much of the subject is reactive. The question of what the United States should do when Vladimir Putin starts harassing one of the KGB’s former republics depends quite a bit on Vladimir Putin’s enormous but fragile ego. Still, those decisions are made quickly and with little  consultation. Beyond that, the rest of the world does not practice democracy quite like we do; they seem to invest the president with the will of the American people to a much greater degree than the American people. What the president says matters to them maybe more than it matters to us. All to say that when you vote for a president you are most directly deciding how the United States will act in the world.

So as we move into  caucus and primary season with their endless debates, I will be trying to understand what sort of actor the United States will be under President ????.  In that arena, I understand that the Russians and the Chinese present substantial challenges but they are state actors who respond to economic and political incentives. Diplomacy with other world powers is important but at least somewhat predictable. Not so the question of terrorism in the name of Islam. The specifics of how a candidate wants to approach this problem will go a long way towards defining the 45th President of the United States.

On the far right and particularly among the evangelicals so adept at driving the national conversation, there seems to be a desire for war. Nobody pitches the concept using that word, but when you hear candidates lament the fact that the current administration “created” ISIS/ISIL by completing the troop withdrawal from Iraq; will not bomb Iran out of the nuclear club or lacks a robust intervention in Syria, you are hearing code words for putting U.S. troops in harm’s way. The far left emphasizes the billions of peaceful Muslims, a noble sentiment  but a strategy that minimizes the problems that can be created by millions of Muslims who do not share peaceful sentiments. In the middle we hear…well, there really is no middle at this point.

The problem bears a blunt restatement. The West must deal with groups who are religiously motivated, irrational and sadistic. Our solution needs to minimize casualties to military and civilians but maximize the security of people at home and abroad. Conducting a holy war to eradicate the jihadists satisfies our sense of justice but violates the “minimize casualties” part of the equation and probably will end up creating more jihadists. Propping up moderate Muslims from afar does too little to increase our security and freedom levels. Is there anyone running who might strike the right balance between the two extremes? In other words, I am looking for a president who can win a holy war without actually fighting one.

That request is a tall order and, in a strange admission for an opinionated blogger, I admit I have little idea how to accomplish the goal. Perhaps the thing Americans could do that would best serve the country is to demand an answer without demanding a specific answer. Politicians are first and foremost vote counters. In today’s politics and particularly in a crowded field, the votes the contenders count are the ones they will lose by taking certain positions. Dealing with non-state actors, however, is too novel and difficult of a question for us to preclude imaginative solutions. So I am going to start by listening–if you want my vote, tell me how you are going to make the world a safer place.

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