- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2016

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. | A spate of lone-wolf attacks has thrust terrorism to the fore of another presidential election, but the candidates are deeply conflicted over the nature of the threat and voters are unsure whether any politician has the answers after 15 years of active war.

Fear of a massive Sept. 11-style attack has dissipated, but instability and failed states in the Middle East have instead sparked a wave of lower-scale shootings and bombings carried out by self-proclaimed jihadis that have killed more people in the U.S. over the last year than in the previous 14 years combined.

That’s also changed the nature of the political debate, from the weighty issues of invasion and nation-building that dominated in 2004 and 2008 to the instability of Libya and the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack to the growth of the Islamic State network in Syria and Iraq, and its inspired followers launching attacks across the west.

The New York bombing and mass stabbing at a Minnesota mall earlier this month were only the latest.

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump says the attacks are the result of a weak U.S. hand abroad, and an overly generous immigration system at home that allows dangerous foreigners easy access.

“Yet, my opponent won’t even say the words ‘radical Islamic terror,’” Mr. Trump says. “In fact, Hillary Clinton talks tougher about my supporters than she does about Islamic terrorists.”

Mrs. Clinton, Democrats’ presidential nominee and Mr. Obama’s chief diplomat during the Arab Spring and the subsequent collapse, says she’s not afraid of the words “radical Islam,” but says they’re a distraction. She argues Mr. Trump’s immigration plans and tough talk, far from being a solution, are actually a recruiting tool in the hands of the Islamic State.

“We know that a lot of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Donald Trump has been seized on by terrorists, in particular ISIS,” Mrs. Clinton said after that September weekend of attacks, going on to say Mr. Trump has no anti-terror plan for voters to evaluate.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said terrorism is not playing as dominant a role as it has in recent presidential cycles, where it helped define the race.

“It is kind of interesting considering the number of different incidents that have occurred in this campaign cycle,” he said. “So every time we poll on it, even after these big events, it doesn’t seem to move the needle.”

While Mr. Trump has won legions of supporters with his vows to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and expand the screening of immigrants, Mr. Murray said voters are responding less to issues than they are to a visceral sense of what is wrong.

“All this goes to say that issues are not the driving factor here,” he said. “Whether it is terrorism or the economy, it is something much bigger than that in the sense of this is more about an overarching dissatisfaction with Washington.”

Monmouth’s latest national survey gives Mrs. Clinton a 48-45 lead over Mr. Trump when voters are asked who they trust to deal with the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Other polling earlier this year, after the Orlando shooting spree by a man who pledged fealty to the Islamic State as he fired upon a gay club, found an increasing number of Americans thought they were losing the war on terror. A Fox News survey found just 44 percent thought the U.S. was winning, compared to 41 percent who said the terrorists were succeeding.

And a CNN/ORC poll taken in June found Americans’ concerns over terrorism were at their highest level since just after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

But the nature of the threat has evolved, and Americans are keeping up with it. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said lone wolf attacks inspired by terrorists were the bigger threat, dwarfing the 23 percent who said operations by organized cells, such as the Sept. 11 airplane attack, were the chief danger.

“Americans are generally at least as smart on these things as their candidates,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. O’Hanlon said the 2016 election will be voters’ latest chance to weigh in on the pace and progress of the fight.

“In 2004 Iraq was going badly, but Kerry didn’t have a cogent alternative proposal, and Bush at least seemed tough on terror. In 2008 Iraq looked better, but people were even more tired of it and of U.S. unpopularity around the world,” he said.

“In 2012 things were indeed worsening, but we didn’t fully understand the situation yet, plus Republicans seized on the wrong issue (Benghazi). In 2016 we know the world is chaotic even if not profoundly perilous to our nation. Tonight we may start to decide who can best fix it,” he said ahead of Monday’s first presidential debate.

The election comes as some analysts are beginning to call for normalization of the terror threat, saying it may be impossible to eradicate. Some suggest the U.S. should instead pursue an adaptation strategy.

Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, penned a column for BU Today earlier this month arguing that terrorism is chiefly a problem for other parts of the world, but the spate of small-scale attacks here has elevated the issue in voters’ minds.

“Compared with the 9/11 strikes, the sophistication of these strikes was low, and the death count also relatively low. But the lack of sophistication in many ways made the attacks even more frightening, making us feel that terrorists could strike at any of us, anytime, even with motor vehicles,” wrote Ms. Stern, who worked on President Clinton’s National Security Council.

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