The George W. Bush administration is badly losing the so-called "war of ideas" in the Middle East, suggested a group of foreign policy experts in Washington last Wednesday, by failing to grasp that persuasion is just as important as the more heavy-handed tactics of its "war on terror."
At the Brookings Institution event, "Opportunity ’08: The Long War on Terrorism and Struggle Against Extremism," a panel of speakers representing the views of three U.S. presidential candidates and four of the institute’s fellows laid out their thoughts on how to best address the long-term goals of the "war on terror."
"In this battle scholarships can be as important as smart bombs," said Randy Scheunemann, foreign policy aide to Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and a board member of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, who argued that this was a struggle for the soul of Islam.
The focus of the war of ideas, or fighting for the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim nations and their citizens, aims to curtail the recruitment abilities of extremist organizations by reducing hostility toward the United States.
In the six years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the current administration has shown a marked inability to make any significant headway in this area; according to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 80% of citizens of Muslim countries hold negative views of the United States.
"That we are on the losing side of a PR campaign against a mass murderer is astonishing," said Anthony Blinken, an adviser to 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, citing a poll in Pakistan that showed greater support for the reported al-Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden than for Bush.
"Getting our message out to people is fundamentally different from state diplomacy," said Scheunemann, referring to an important part of McCain’s approach to filling the gap in understanding between Muslim nations and the United States—the creation of something similar to the U.S. Information Agency, defunct since 1999, which was responsible for public diplomacy and charged with handling foreign broadcasts as well as cultural and educational exchanges such as the Fulbright Scholarship Program.
The broadcasts, which continue under the independent authority of the Broadcast Board of Governors and now include the Arabic-language television station Al Hurra and the Farsi Radio Farda, are a potent marker of the Bush administration’s continuing failures.
"No credible study has found them to be influential among the populace," wrote Brookings fellows Hady Amr and P.W. Singer in their paper "Engaging the Muslim World: A Communication Strategy to Win the War of Ideas."
The low audience numbers are made up mostly of people already sympathetic to the United States, and all but the fringes of that group are likely to be further alienated by the more ideologically rigid programming coming over the airwaves. Meanwhile, neoconservatives have been working to co-opt the already-fledgling public diplomacy apparatus, forcing out an experienced producer working toward a broader audience share, Larry Register.
Amr suggests abandoning the idea of better communications through these information resources and that what the people of the region really want is a dialogue with the United States. Despite widespread agreement about the importance of the war of ideas, there continues to be disagreement as to how this should be carried out in terms of engaging Middle Eastern and Muslim citizenries.
The largest rifts come in the Iraq discussion. Blinken, for example, argues that in order to restore global faith in the United States, Washington must "end the war in Iraq responsibly," while Scheunemann warns that if the United States were to "choose" defeat in Iraq, "there will be another surge—a surge in al-Qaida."
Tamara Cofman Wittes, another Brookings fellow, bolsters the Biden and Blinken view by suggesting that the negative effect of the ongoing Iraq conflict goes beyond diminishing U.S. influence into actively helping the rise of Iranian influence. This raises another major gap in the various strategies to gain the trust of Muslim countries—how to deal with Iran.
The major theme with Iran is containment of Tehran’s influence in the region. Wittes suggests that the United States use the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as an opportunity to build a coalition to counter Iranian clout that would include Israel and moderate Arab states allied or friendly with the United States. The current administration’s bumbling efforts to hastily set up a meeting for mid-November between Israel and some Arab states is already mired in doubt about what specific progress will be made, dimming hopes for a lasting and effective coalition.
"There is no better way to alienate people than by not inviting them to the dialogue," Amr notes, and as a result the United States may need to evaluate its tough standards for partnerships in the region; perhaps it is time to engage some of the more conservative elements.
"If our goals are democratic processes," says Amr, "then we need to encourage those processes. We need to encourage and engage groups no matter how conservative they are—if they are willing to play by the rules in a war of ideas, not a war of arms."
However, a focus on beefing up relations with countries that are already allied to Washington—some of which, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are autocracies—may stifle growth of the democratic process in the region. Wittes insists that there is still value in the "freedom agenda" and that coalitions can be built while simultaneously meeting the needs of the "domestic radical opposition in these countries with some governance reforms."
Scheunemann referenced the lack of commitment to the war of ideas by noting that only three U.S. institutions were involved in the "long war" on terror—the Defense Department, the State Department, and limited involvement by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He called for the further involvement of the Department of Commerce, Department of Education, and other agencies.
This increased and more varied involvement, contended Blinken, can benefit predominantly Muslim nations, by "building up democratic institutions, not just holding elections." Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan said that an important part of reaching citizens in the target countries was to stress that "in nation-building the key ingredient is local involvement."
Naturally, the Bush administration appears to be falling short of these standards as well—Brookings senior fellow Phillip H. Gordon noted that of all U.S. substantial foreign assistance to Pakistan since 9/11, only 10% has made it to civilian hands.
Also notably, the budget of USAID—a potentially useful entity with ground-level implementation experience—has been slashed by 27% for foreign aid and a staggering 15% of its operational budget.
"If we don’t dedicate significantly higher resources to this hearts and minds thing, we’re going to fail," Amr concluded.
Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service.