Are terrorists rational?

That’s the idea put forward in several new books by military analysts, writes Nick Lemann in a fascinating review in The New Yorker. The idea, of course, seems to fly in the face of eight years of our “global war on terror,” concocted by the Bush administration. What’s worthwhile about these new books is that they give real hard reasons—backed up by copious research, evidence, and analysis—to re-think America’s, and perhaps even Israel’s, fight against terrorists.

A few keepers from the review might give you pause. Here’s some:

1) According to Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, terrorists may be far outside the realm of normal diplomacy, but they are rational actors. In fact, according to the many terrorist groups Pape has studied since the early-80s, from Hezbollah and Hamas, to Al Qaeda, “What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common,” Pape says, “is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

That’s important, since it means that, contrary to our assumption that people who willing blow themselves up in the name of God, while certainly deluded theologically, are acting quite rationally, politically at least. The problem is that we let the religious yakking dictate our policy. We cannot change their theology, but we can change the underlying political conditions that, perhaps, make their theology such a powerful, dangerous force.

2) Of course, we know that some of the political claims terrorist groups make are outrageous, non-starters. But, according to Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College, that is not a reason to ignore the underlying logic that informs their actions. For if terrorists are logical, then perhaps there are means other than capture-and-kill policies that will work better to stop them. As Lemann summarizes her view: “Negotiating with terrorists—a practice usually forsworn, often done—can work in the long term, Cronin says, not because it is likely to produce a peace treaty but because it enables a state to gain intelligence about its opponents, exploit differences and hive off factions, and stall while time works its erosive wonders.”

What’s more, Cronin points out, as one example, that the Peruvian government had better luck imprisoning Shining Path terrorists, rather than killing or torturing them, since the latter usually caused sympathizers to turn them into martyrs.

3) Eli Berman, an economist at UC-San Diego, who Lemann notes “has done field work among ultra-orthodox religious groups in Israel,” writes in a new book that terrorist sympathizers are attracted to religiously fanatically groups primarily because of the social services they provide. Terrorist groups “appeal to recruits in part because they are able to offer very high levels of benefits—not just spiritual ones but real services,” Lemann writes.

So how do with put this knowledge to use? Lemann suggests that we start making strong legitimate governments—or “nation-building”—the centerpiece of any counter-terrorism strategy. Of course, Bush had this idea too; the problem was that he made zero effort to deduce which states actually supported terrorists and which one’s didn’t.

And Lemann isn’t just speaking as an armchair professor (or journalist) either: he’s getting it from Gen. David Petraeus, our man in Iraq, who was responsible for re-writing Bush’s war strategy back in 2006. His manual, “Counterinsurgeny,” Lemann says, was “written in dry management-ese, punctuated by charts and tables, the manual stands as a rebuke of the excesses of Bush’s global war on terror. … ‘Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors,’ the introduction to the manual declares.”

Obviously, this does not make our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan—or Israel’s in the Palestinian territories—look any simpler. If you have no taste for the long, steady commitment needed to get functioning governments up and running, then you had better come up with a better solution. Because based on the latest military-based research, terrorism isn’t the problem—poorly run governments are.

Fixing that, Lemann notes, “makes fighting terrorism look easy.”