March 16, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Fighting the War of Ideas

Not a Job for Sissies

President Bush's appointment of Karen Hughes and Dina Powell to the two top communications jobs in the State Department tells us this: He recognizes that perception is as important as reality — not just in domestic politics but also in the most critical area of foreign policy, the “War of Ideas” against terrorism and the ideologies that drive it.

Hughes is Bush's confidante, a former journalist who has long helped him communicate more effectively with the audience that most matters to any politician: voters.

Powell is 31, Egyptian-born, Arabic-speaking, charming, brainy and beautiful. The fact that she could come to America as a child and rise to a position of such influence speaks volumes about the kind of country America is. 

In the old days, by which I mean until the late 1990s, America's global public relations efforts were handled by the United States Information Agency (USIA). But the end of the Cold War and a desire to cut costly programs for which there were no domestic constituencies prompted politicians of both parties to scrap USIA. Instead, ambassadors were instructed to take on the task of “public diplomacy.”

It was a mistake. “The art of diplomacy,” Churchill once remarked, “is telling plain truths without giving offense.” A War of Ideas requires very different aptitudes and skills.

Bush's first pick for the post that Karen Hughes will fill was Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue advertising executive. Clever as she had been at selling products to consumers, she was unable to figure out how to explain America to skeptical foreigners.

Bush's next pick was Margaret Tutweiler, a seasoned political operative, but  also a member of the “let's-maintain-stability” school of foreign policy who was never enthusiastic about the dramatic changes Bush initiated in response to 9/11. 

By contrast, Hughes and Powell believe in the Bush Doctrine of taking the battle to America's enemies (rather than fighting it in our cities), aggressively promoting freedom and rolling back tyranny – especially in the long-troubled Middle East. 

Even so, fighting a War of Ideas is not for sissies. It requires insight into the target audience, their interests and their values. It involves crafting messages that resonate, penetrate and are remembered. It entails finding ways to deliver those messages, repeatedly, to the ears and eyeballs of those who need to understand.

To assist – and bearing in mind that free advice is worth what it costs – I offer a few modest recommendations.

In this War of Ideas, you are the generals – and the battlefield is the global media which the terrorists and despots have found remarkably easy to manipulate. The good news is that whoever has the most compelling story still wins. 

You have three war aims, in this order of priorities: (1) Defeat the ideologies that justify and drive terrorism; (2) defend the President's policies; (3) sell the inspiring idea of America. Each mission will require its own strategy. 

Resist the urge to see the War of Ideas as a popularity contest. Show confidence but avoid arrogance. Yes, the United States has given more freedom to more people than any nation in history. But, no, in the past we have not enthusiastically championed freedom and democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (We coddled dictators instead.) Our policies have changed. Though we can't do everything we'd like with a snap of the fingers, we now want reform as much as any demonstrator in Beirut, Cairo or Tehran. 

Do not promote your adversaries. For years, the State Department has sent speakers around the world without worrying about what they were saying. Last year, a delegation of Muslim students was in Washington D.C. under a government-sponsored exchange – and their escort thought they might enjoy seeing Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit  9/11.” That's not stupidity, it's sabotage. Don't put up with it. 

During the Cold War, the Voice of America and Radio Liberty informed Russians, Hungarians, Poles and others about what was really happening in their countries. People were eager for the information because they didn't believe the news in Pravda. Similarly, in most of the Arab world, government censors constrain the media from reporting on the most controversial domestic issues. That is a need we can help fill. 

Finally and most importantly, there are many eloquent Arab and Muslim advocates of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Help them to be heard in their own societies — by publishing their books, funding their media and organizations, bringing them to the United States. Deploy them, work them to a frazzle. They're eager for it. Don't waste any more time with apologists for dictators and terrorists – or with those who tell you the apologists are more “authentic.”

America won the Cold War largely by winning a War of Ideas, by demonstrating that democratic capitalism, for all its imperfections in reality, was superior to Communism, a system that was perfect in theory. There are people from Cairo to Baghdad to Kabul and beyond who already understand that freedom and tolerance trump totalitarianism and hate. Because of them, this new War of Ideas can be won, too.

– 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.