So the image that statements like Obama’s and Bush’s conjure up of terrorists as uneducated and desperately poor people born into hopeless circumstances may be misleading. But there also may be some link between economic opportunity — among many other factors — and political violence.
In his book, The Finish, journalist Mark Bowden refers to the Hyde Park Herald column as an example of Obama’s earlier liberal worldview, which was challenged by the events of 9/11, and would eventually evolve into the hard-hearted realism of the man who ordered the Abottabad raid. Obama was “working his way toward a personal definition of evil,” Bowden writes.
That may be true, and it’s certainly hard to imagine Obama phrasing his remarks quite the same way today, but the same argument still appears in his rhetoric. In his address on counterterrorism last May, for instance, Obama argued that “foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security and it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.” Such aid, he argued, would create “reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.”
The reason why the more simplistic argument is popular among politicians of both parties is obvious. It links an unpopular idea — spending taxpayer money to help poor people abroad — to a popular one: protecting the United States from terrorists. The link to do may be tough to prove and more nuanced than generally understood, but helping poor people just for the sake of helping them is not a political winner.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.