Perhaps Iraq best epitomizes the dilemmas terrorism poses. If the U.S. provides air support or puts troops on the ground to defend Bagdad, it may halt the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but it can't defeat it.
The ISIS is a curious hybrid of a terror organization and a brutal organized army that can hold territory and potentially topple a government, but does not regularly mass forces that can be destroyed in the field by a Western army. If stymied, its fighters will simply move to other conflicts, like the civil war in Syria.
Western democracies long ago assigned religion a subordinate role. The state claims sovereignty from citizen consent, not by appealing to divine right. For many Muslims, religion and state legitimacy are inseparable, and throughout the Middle East and Africa, many are willing to die to destroy democratic governments that could subordinate the authority of Islam to secular governments.
And ethnic rivalries are often cast in terms of religion. Without democratic institutions that place individual freedoms above religion, it is hard to see how competing claims of historically conflicting ethnic groups can be resolved and civil wars ended, and animus toward the West and acts of terror stopped. Neither economic engagement by the West nor American foreign aid can change those facts on the ground.
Radical Islam is premised on widely held ideas, and ideas are tough to destroy with armies. In the end, the U.S. must recognize it is in for a long slog fighting terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. No amount of national building and economic aid will change that, but sometimes it can make matters worse.
Sadly, armies and navies still trump economics. Americans will have to pay the price or face menacing threats to their security at home and interests abroad
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.