Washington Post writer David Ignatius drew attention in his column yesterday to a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman. The book (Leaderless Jihad) apparently argues that the current threat posed by terrorism is being vastly overstated. Based on his experience running spies in Pakistan and as a forensic pschologist who has studied information on over 500 terrorists, Sageman concludes the terrorists we have these days are not your father's terrorists. He argues that the first generation terrorists (like Osama bin Laden) are greatly reduced in number and hiding out. The second generation of terrorists (those who trained in Al Queda camps in the 1990s) have suffered a similar fate. That leaves the third generation who are drawn to terrorism more the way urban youth are drawn to street gangs than the way fanatics are drawn waging Jihad against the west.
Undeniably, it's an intriguing argument. Let's even assume for a moment that Sageman's research is impeccable, that his logic is sound, and that his argument is substantively correct. Even then, you're not going to hear anyone talking about it this campaign.
For obvious reasons, Republican John McCain is not going to come on TV and say that the whole War on Terror is overblown. He's essentially running his campaign on the premise that he's ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world at war. What good is military background, years of experience on foreign policy issues, and being correct about the surge if there's no war to command? (For an interesting take on the surge, read Michael Kinsley's Slate column from a few days ago.) Undermining the war on terror undermines the rationale for McCain's campaign as it currently stands. So don't look for him to be opening his mouth on the issue.
Likewise, you can't expect either Democrat to say anything about it either. They're already being portrayed as barely one step above white-flag-waving surrender monkeys. What Democrat is going to come up on the stage and say, "You know, I don't think this whole terror thing is that big of a deal after all." The mind boggles at what a Republican campaign would do with that. So don't look for the Democrats to raise the issue either.
What we're stuck with - at least for the time being - is a situation where neither political party can blink on the issue for fear of being called weak, while the essential reality of the threat we're fighting may have changed.