Winning the War of Ideas
During my confirmation hearings in January, I said that it seems I have been preparing my whole life for the job of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Even so, seven months ago, when I was nominated, I had not thought deeply or broadly about what would be my primary responsibility in the job: the war of ideas.
In this, I was probably not much different from many, many others -- in and out of government. While I accepted the notion that, in the global war on terror, a war of ideas is at least as important as military action, I wasn't sure what the war of ideas was. Even the term "war of ideas" is broadly disliked, most of all by its practitioners, who, by the way, have no good substitute -- as they will readily admit.
I was sworn in on June 10, six months, almost to the day, from the date I was nominated. One of the advantages to such a long waiting period is that you can take time to get educated about the post you are going to take. And that is what I did. That education included much reading of the work that you do here at The Washington Institute, as well as discussions with those, here and elsewhere, who have thought long and hard about the issues I would face.
Probably more than any other individual, Rob Satloff has helped shape the views on the war of ideas that I presented, in a form of a Strategic Vision Statement, at my first interagency meeting on June 24 -- the launch, or re-launch, of the Policy Coordinating Committee that had met only twice in the preceding 12 months.
The views that I will express today are my own, of course. I take full responsibility. But, on the war of ideas, I would not have arrived where I have arrived without the wisdom and insights expressed by Rob and his colleagues here at The Washington Institute. So let me begin with my thanks. It is no accident that I decided to give my first address in Washington as Under Secretary right here at The Washington Institute.
The under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs has a big portfolio. One part of the portfolio is to be, in the words of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who introduced me at my confirmation hearing, "the supreme allied commander in the war of ideas." I will be concentrating on just that -- the war of ideas -- because I believe the war of ideas needs urgent attention.
In fact, I am convinced that, unless we get the war of ideas right, we will never succeed in meeting the most significant threat of our time. Unless we get the war of ideas right, the safety of Americans and the future of America's way of life will be in continuous peril.
Before I get to the war of ideas, let me start with context. Public diplomacy is diplomacy aimed at publics, as opposed to officials. Public diplomacy, like official diplomacy -- and like kinetic actions, when they become necessary -- has as its mission the achievement of the national interest. Public diplomacy performs this mission by understanding, informing, engaging, and influencing foreign publics. Ultimately, it is the last word, "influencing," that counts most.
Our aim is to influence foreign publics to make it easier to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals -- both short- and long-term. The key goals today are to diminish the threat to Americans and the rest of the world posed by violent extremism and weapons of mass destruction and to help people around the world achieve freedom. These goals are linked, according to our National Security Strategy: "Championing freedom advances our interests because the survival of liberty at home increasingly depends on the success of liberty abroad. Governments that honor their citizens' dignity and desire for freedom tend to uphold responsible conduct toward other nations, while governments that brutalize their people also threaten the peace and stability of other nations."
During the Cold War, after a slow start, we became good at public diplomacy, with such institutions as the Congress of Cultural Freedom and Radio Free Europe. But starting in the early 1990s, the United States, in bipartisan fashion, began to dismantle this arsenal of persuasion. It was an act the Djerejian Group, of which I was a member, called "a process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy." Beginning shortly after 9/11, the tide began to turn again but slowly.
In its 2003 report, the Djerejian Group, which studied U.S. public diplomacy for Arab and Muslim societies, would call, in desperation, for "a new strategic direction -- informed by a seriousness and commitment that matches the gravity of our approach to national defense and traditional state-to-state diplomacy."
Today, the environment has changed. Budgets have risen. Backing is bipartisan. One of the biggest enthusiasts for public diplomacy in government is the secretary of defense. There's a lot of talk -- as usual in Washington -- about restructuring public diplomacy. Structure is important, but two things are far more important: will and strategy.
I can report to you today that the will now exists. Does the seriousness and commitment match that of our approach to national defense and state-to-state diplomacy? No. Not yet, but we're swiftly moving in the right direction. Our intention is to help build a strong foundation for a program of vigorous public diplomacy for the next administration -- a public diplomacy endowed with both adequate resources and with intellectual seriousness. But at the same time, we plan to accomplish a great deal in the six months left in this administration -- real, substantial accomplishments.
As for strategy, you will have to begin to judge from what I have to say to you today -- and, ultimately, from results over the next half-year.
Before getting to the war of ideas, let me talk briefly about the more traditional tools of public diplomacy. Until June 10, I chaired the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises taxpayer-funded U.S. international broadcasting. I still sit on the board as the secretary of state's representative. The state of our broadcasting effort is healthy. Every week, 175 million adults around the world tune in to programming -- in a total of 60 languages -- from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Alhurra, Radio Sawa, Radio and TV Marti and Radio Free Asia. That is a 75 percent increase in audience since 2002. Of the 75 million new listeners and viewers, about half are Arabic speakers. The BBG is having an impact in places like Tibet, Burma, Kenya, North Korea, Cuba, and Iran. In Iran, VOA Persian TV broadcasts seven hours a day and reaches more than one-quarter of adult Iranians by satellite. Alhurra has a bigger audience than al-Jazeera in Iraq and is viewed each week by more than half the adults in Syria. One reason the broacasting effort works is that it has a clear and limited mission. It is effective, but it is only one tool.
Within the State Department itself, the crown jewels of public diplomacy are our educational and cultural exchange programs, where we spend the majority of State's diplomacy funds. To the rest of the world, higher education is America's greatest brand, and, despite tighter visa requirements since 9/11, the school year 2007-08 produced a record number of international students coming to the U.S. to study, about 600,000 of them -- a dramatic recovery. The U.S. is far and away the most desirable destination in the world for learning.
With the leadership of Goli Ameri, the talented Tehran-born American who is assistant secretary for education and cultural affairs, we are focusing on English teaching programs, especially reaching disadvantaged young people in Muslim nations. Other exchanges bring 4,000 international visitors to America, including talented people on the way up. Graduates have included more than 200 heads of state or government, including Tony Blair and Hamid Karzai.
The other traditional public diplomacy effort of the State Department is the information part -- we send 800 American experts in science, public policy, and other key fields abroad every year and hold dozens of video conferences to talk about America and its policies. We maintain multi-lingual websites like America.gov to spread the word, and, more and more, these efforts are becoming interactive and technologically sophisticated. Our aim is not to preach but to encourage interaction that will lead to understanding of American principles and policies. Our credo in information dissemination is summed up in the National Security Strategy: "Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen."
The war of ideas draws on the work of traditional public diplomacy, but it is both broader and narrower.
The under secretary is dual-hatted: I run the part of public diplomacy, as I outlined to you just now, that resides at State, and I run the government-wide effort on the war of ideas -- which includes coordination with the private sector as well.
In April 2006, the president designated the under secretary of state for public diplomacy as the interagency lead in this effort. I head a Policy Coordinating Committee with members from a wide variety of government agencies, but the main ones are State, Defense, the Intelligence Community, Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice, USAID, and BBG.
The focus of today's war of ideas is counterterrorism. As the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism of 2006 puts it: "In the long run, winning the War on Terror means winning the battle of ideas."
So let me be specific. Our mission today in the war of ideas is highly focused. It is to use the tools of ideological engagement -- words, deeds, and images -- to create an environment hostile to violent extremism. We want to break the linkages between groups like al-Qaeda and their target audiences.
The war of ideas is not a radical departure from overall public diplomacy strategy. It is an integral part of that strategy. In fact, the 2007 strategy paper issued last year by my predecessor, Karen Hughes, listed three objectives, among them: "With our partners, we seek to isolate and marginalize violent extremists who threaten . . . freedom and peace." There has been much activity in the war of ideas throughout the government over the past few years, including, at the State Department, the launch of the Rapid Response Unit, Counterterrorism Communications Center, Digital Outreach Team, and media hubs in London, Brussels, and Dubai, plus dozens of specific programs in the field. What has been lacking is focus and emphasis.
Unlike traditional functions of public diplomacy like education and cultural exchanges, the aim of the war of ideas is not to persuade foreign populations to adopt more favorable views of the United States and its policies. Instead, the war of ideas tries to ensure that negative sentiments and day-to-day grievances toward the United States and its allies do not manifest themselves in the form of violent extremism.
Let me put this another way. In the war of ideas, our core task is not how to fix foreigners' perceptions of the United States. Those perceptions are important -- and I would be happy to address the issue of America's image in the question-and-answer period. But America's image -- indeed, the United States itself -- is not at the center of the war of ideas.
Instead, we need to recognize that there is a complex, multisided battle going on in Muslim societies for power. This is a battle in which we cannot be a bystander if we wanted to. We cannot step aside and simply watch Muslims slug it out among themselves. Instead, the battle within the Muslim world for power affects the United States directly and was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people seven years ago. In this battle, our main role is to support constructive alternatives to violent extremism.
Our priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy theirs.
Think of America's values and political system as orange juice; think of the al-Qaeda system of violent extremism as lemonade. Our job for the short term is not to put all of our efforts into getting people to drink orange juice, but to get them not to drink lemonade. They can drink anything else they want: milk, ginger ale, tomato juice, Coke. We are confident that, ultimately, they will come around to orange juice or something close to it, but in the meantime, we want them to stay away from lemonade.
The effort is to help show populations that the ideology and actions of the violent extremists are not in the best interests of those populations. As Rob Satloff wrote in November, "The 'battle of ideas' is not a popularity contest about us; it is a battle for political power among Muslims, in which America's favorability rating is irrelevant."
It is the fact that the battle is going on within Muslim society that makes our role so complicated and that requires that we ourselves not do much of the fighting. The most credible voices in this war of ideas are Muslim.
Here is our ultimate goal:
A world in which the use of violence to achieve political, religious, or social objectives is no longer considered acceptable; efforts to radicalize and recruit new members are no longer successful; and the perpetrators of violent extremism are condemned and isolated.
How do we achieve such a world?
First, by confronting the ideology that justifies and enables the violence. We try to remove the fake veneer on the reputation of extremists and allow publics to see the shame and hostility of life in terrorism. That is what worked in al-Anbar province in Iraq, as well as in Jordan and Morocco. In fact, as David Pollock shows in his Washington Institute report, Slippery Polls, support for suicide bombing throughout the Muslim world has dropped sharply. The proportion of Jordanians with "a lot of confidence in Osama bin Laden" has fallen from 56 percent in 2003 to 20 percent in 2007; in Kuwait, from 20 percent to 13 percent.
This is an effort that requires credible Muslim voices to work effectively -- especially voices of those, like Dr. Fadl, born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, whose story was told recently by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker. Dr. Fadl helped build the al-Qaeda ideology and now repudiates it for its wanton violence. "Oh, you young people," he warns, "do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country. They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons."
Again, let me quote Rob Satloff: "We should focus on identifying, nurturing and supporting anti-Islamist Muslims, from secular liberals to pious believers, who fear the encroachment of radical Islamists and are willing to make a stand."
But we ourselves should not shrink from confidently opposing poisonous ideas -- even if they are rooted in a distorted and twisted interpretation of religious doctrine.
To this end, we are working to develop the contemporary analogue to Problems of Communism, an important journal of the Cold War. The new journal will appear in both electronic and paper form and will also serve as a platform for conferences and discussions.
Second, we achieve our desired goal by offering, often in cooperation with the private sector and using the best technology including Web 2.0 social networking techniques, a full range of productive alternatives to violent extremism.
The shorthand for this policy is diversion -- powerful and lasting diversion, the channeling of potential recruits away from violence with the attractions of entertainment, culture, literature, music technology, sports, education, business and culture, in addition to politics and religion.
While winning hearts and minds would be an admirable feat, the war of ideas adopts the more immediate and realistic goal of diverting impressionable segments of the population from the recruitment process. The war of ideas is really a battle of alternative visions, and our goal is to divert recruits from the violent extremist vision.
Going beyond diversion, we seek to build countermovements by empowering groups and individuals opposed to violent extremism -- movements (using both electronic and physical means) that bring people together with similar, constructive interests, such as mothers opposed to violence (built on the MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, model), believers in democratic Islam, even electronic gaming.
Our role is as a facilitator of choice. Mainly behind the scenes, we help build networks and movements -- put tools in the hands of young people to make their own choices, rather than dictating those choices. Again, in the words of the National Security Strategy: "Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen."
The third means to achieve this safer, freer world is to create a broad awareness of the war of ideas throughout the U.S. government, business, academia. But more than the war of ideas itself. We want to spread a culture of "active understanding," that is, to spread research-based information on the aspirations, frustrations, and perceptions of audiences in areas where violent extremism has taken root.
We have already done a major reorganization -- both at State and the interagency -- to help in the overall effort. I have listed as the five focal points of our programs: Muslim society, especially involving young people, at the grassroots; Middle East elites, who involve themselves in ideology and religious doctrine; foreign fighters, who have poured into Iraq and Afghanistan; Iran; and private sector expertise.
And I want to stress that we are on the lookout for measures that marry the traditional means of public diplomacy with the war of ideas effort. One idea: a far more robust alumni network -- encouraging social networking by Internet among the one million alumni participants in our educational and cultural exchange programs. If they wish to help, these alumni will be credible voices, pushing back against violent extremism and offering alternatives.
In addition, the war of ideas must be broadly international. It has to extend beyond the Middle East. Latin America and Africa and much of East Asia must be an important focus of our attention -- along with Europe, Central Asia, and other areas with high concentrations of Muslims who might be susceptible to the extremist message. This is a long-term effort, and it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the geography of the next threat.
As Sen. Lieberman said, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy is an allied commander. Europeans, especially, are trying to use the tools of the war of ideas to combat an insidious ideology that is an internal as well as external threat. We work as well with partners in the Middle East. While they may disagree with some of our policies in their region, they agree that policies like diversion can make their own nations safer.
In the current issue of Commentary, Max Boot, a military historian, looked at this question: "Are We Winning the War on Terror?" He cites the comments of CIA Michael Hayden: "near strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally . . . as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
Peter Bergen and Marc Sageman are among the analysts who have changed their views and now believe that al-Qaeda has suffered severe setbacks. All true. It is no accident that there has not been an attack on America in nearly seven years. Kinetic action has been working and so, even in its nascent stages, has the war of ideas.
Still, there is no one involved in this battle who thinks the war is close to being won. There is a widespread belief in Muslim nations that the United States and other Western powers want to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. This root belief underlies much of the passive support for the violent extremism of al-Qaeda and similar groups. The flow of new recruits has not stopped. Our work is ahead of us.
In the end, the mission of twenty-first century public diplomacy is to tell the world of a good and compassionate nation and at the same time to engage in the most important ideological contest of our time. This engagement must, by its nature, involve non-Americans that we nurture, support, and encourage. Our goal in this war of ideas is to create an environment hostile to violent extremism. It is an urgent task.
The will, as I said, now exists. As for strategy: I think that, with your help, we have it right. This is a contest that we have now engaged vigorously -- a contest we will win.
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