November 26, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Losing the War of Ideas; Why America Doesn’t Need To

Immediately following 9/11, much of the world expressed great sympathy for the United States. That sympathy probably would have persisted – if a victimized America had been willing to continue playing the victim.

But Americans decided not to do that. Instead, Americans decided to fight back against terrorists, those who harbor terrorists, and those who conspire with terrorists.

American military action in Afghanistan angered many people around the world. But 9/11 had clearly demonstrated the capabilities and intentions of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

American military action in Iraq angered many more. But whatever questions may linger about Saddam Hussein's capabilities, his intentions are beyond dispute. As Sabah Khodada, an Iraqi military officer who worked at Saddam's Salman Pak terrorist training camp said in a May 2001 interview with PBS: “[W]e all met with Saddam personally. And he told us we have to take revenge from America. Our duty is to attack and hit American targets in the Gulf, in the Arab world, and all over the world. …That's how Saddam was able to attract those [foreign] Arabs and Muslims who came to train, because that's exactly what they want to do.”

Nations that defend themselves tend not to win popularity contests. But that does not imply that the United States has no need to make the case for itself and its policies. For too long, Washington has failed to do that effectively.

The United States was probably most adept at driving its messages during the Cold War. In 1961, Edward R. Murrow, the most respected journalist in America, was named director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) for the new Kennedy Administration. In those days, promoting American ideals abroad was a fitting job for the best and the brightest.

But after we won the Cold War, it was pretty much downhill for the USIA. And, four years ago last month, the agency was “integrated into the Department of State” — a diplomatic way of saying it was given a lethal injection. This killing had bipartisan support. In 1999, Americans were looking for as many “peace dividends” as they could get.

With the Soviet Union gone the way of the Roman Empire, official Washington saw no reason to trouble its collective head too much over international public relations or propaganda or whatever it was that those people at USIA had been doing. Surely, everyone knew that liberal democracy and free markets were the only rational ways to organize a nation. Surely, those strange characters blowing up our embassies could be dealt with by erecting a few more concrete barriers.

With the demise of USIA, most of what remained of the US communications-and-advocacy effort became known as “public diplomacy.” Thus renamed, it became a specialty that State Department diplomats presumed they were competent to handle.

But professional diplomats, by inclination and training, tend to be atrocious public communicators – and hopeless propagandists. They speak in a kind of code that, like all code, is meant to disguise meaning and camouflage distinctions.  They are always “expressing concern” and having “frank and constructive” discussions – phrases that have to be translated even for native English speakers. The goal of effective communications is to clarify and persuade – not to mollify and fudge.

Meanwhile, just as the US was filling its mouth with marbles, al Jazeera, al Arabiya, al Manar and other well-funded Militant Islamist media outlets were finding their voices, driving cleverly crafted anti-American messages to the Muslim world. The dominant left-wing press in Europe, re-energized by the anti-globalization movement, also was promoting themes designed to undercut the US. The predictable result: In the international War of Ideas, the US has been losing battle after battle.

The only hopeful news is that a number of recent studies have focused on these issues, including, last month, a report by the congressionally funded “Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World.” The Advisory Group at least recognized that “a process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety.”

Disappointingly, that bold analysis wasn't followed by bold recommendations. Ironically, the Advisory Group was too diplomatic to say that deep-sixing USIA was a mistake. And they refrained from proposing what is so clearly needed now: an agency that is strong and independent, and staffed with skilled strategic communicators — not career diplomats worried about maintaining cordial government-to-government relationships.

The mission of such an agency would be threefold: (1) to challenge the lies being told about America, (2) to report truthfully on countries that don't have a free press of their own, and (3) to make the case for freedom, human rights and democracy.

Were we to do that now, in our 21st century war against Islamist totalitarianism, with as much conviction as Edward R. Murrow did during the 20th century war against Communist totalitarianism, Americans wouldn't need sympathy. We might get support instead.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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