Preventing terrorism is an extremely difficult challenge that no country has fully mastered. Unlike in a conventional war, the enemy can blend in with the civilian population, and terrorists’ willingness to die neutralizes the effectiveness of many traditional defenses. At the same time, for American conservatives, it is both self-evident and a political necessity to believe that terrorism springs from liberal weakness that they can overcome. And so, Thursday night, the Republican presidential nominee and his hoped-for running mates expressed the solutions that they propose to carry out.
Donald Trump, speaking last night to Bill O’Reilly, solemnly stated that he would declare war on ISIS. Newt Gingrich, perhaps still hoping to land a spot on Trump’s ticket, proposed to “test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in shariah they should be deported.” General Michael Flynn, who has previously been floated as a vice-presidential prospect, proposed the following, via Twitter: “In next 24 hours, I dare Arab & Persian world ‘leaders’ to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick and must B healed.”
Let us consider these strategies. A declaration of war is a traditional tool of international diplomacy to signal armed conflict between nations. ISIS is not a nation, and though it aspires to be one, its opponents very much want to deny it such a status. In lieu of recognizing ISIS as a legitimate nation, the United States and its allies are in a state of armed conflict with it. A declaration of war would not expand the potential military options for this conflict.
Gingrich’s idea identifies the crux of the problem without solving it. The problem is that it is impossible to know which people are harboring murderous aims. Gingrich’s plan is a two-step method of first identifying every American of “Muslim background,” and then applying a test to see if that person believes in sharia law. The first element of the plan is unconstitutional — the government does not formally register Americans by their religious affiliation, an especially comforting protection for members of minority religions (who might appreciate not having their passport stamped, say, “Jew”). The second element of the plan involves devising a test that would catch anybody who believes in sharia law. Of course, an actual terrorist has no incentive to admit the truth. The “test” is simply wishing into existence the solution to the entire problem, a method for detecting terrorists among the civilian population.
Flynn’s plan is to “dare” Arab and Persian leaders to “declare their Islamic ideology sick.” The good news is that Flynn issued his dare on Thursday night, at 9:04 p.m. EST time, and gave it a 24-hour period, so we will know very quickly whether it worked. The bad news is that it is highly unlikely to succeed. Political leaders are traditionally very hesitant to pronounce their own religion “sick.” It is true that sometimes you can get a person to do something they know to be unwise by daring them, but usually this technique works on young boys rather than adults who hold political power.
In the wake of 9/11, the Republican Party’s leaders rallied around an idea to stop terrorism. The idea was to democratize the Middle East by toppling its autocrats, setting off a wave of liberalization that would ripple through the region’s culture. It is not clear if this strategy would have succeeded if they were able to carry out the democratization. And in any case, as we now know, they could not execute the initial steps, because the administration was incompetent and deluded by its own ideology. Still, it was an idea that had some internal coherence and superficial appeal. Donald Trump’s Republican Party could not even dream of attaining the level of seriousness of George W. Bush’s.