- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

Nabibullah Rabbani, a recently dispossessed officer of the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, said earlier this month that "people understand we are the righteous ones and they know we could come back to power soon." Welcome to the war of ideas.

Coming from a member of an organization that has just been militarily crushed, Mr. Rabbani's remark may seem startling, but it points to the true nature of the struggle one of moral legitimacy in the hearts and minds of people, not of military power. Wars are fought, and won or lost, in the minds of men long before they reach their conclusion on some distant battlefield.

The Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda portray the United States as morally illegitimate and, even worse, as the source of all evil in the world. Thus, they say, the United States must be destroyed. As bin Laden pronounced in his latest video, "Our terrorism against America is commendable. It seeks to make the unjust stop making injustice."

As we engage in this struggle, we need to keep in mind that today's war of ideas is not new. On our side, it has its provenance in the American Founding, at which time our Founding Fathers explicitly declared the source of our moral legitimacy a set of universal and self-evident truths valid at all times and for everyone.

Since 1776, the nature of the war of ideas has changed because of changes in the character of the enemy opposing these truths. For a large part of the 20th century, totalitarian ideologies dehumanized people either because of their race or their class. Now, this process is being continued through a perverted deformation of a great religion, Islam.

As we engage this new totalitarian challenge, we need to recall that it is the same self-evident truths that have upheld this nation that remain our greatest weapons against this latest hateful lie about humanity.

Everything we do in U.S. public diplomacy the effort to speak directly to the peoples of other nations is simply an elaboration of this great pronouncement.

For instance, the Voice of America (VOA), one of the U.S. government's radio and TV broadcasting arms, is an outgrowth of the Declaration of Independence in its continuing effort to address the world concerning the moral legitimacy of America's cause. In VOA's global broadcasts to nearly 100 million listeners, we are addressing people who have these rights no less than we, and that is why we speak to them with respect and without condescension.

I like to think that President Bush was referring to VOA's mission when he said in his inaugural address, "Our democratic faith is more than a creed of our country. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations." The wind of which the president spoke is the airwaves on which we broadcast in 53 languages. The content of our programs is the seed. The message is one of hope and freedom. That is the true Voice of America.

This message has inspired and given hope to millions of people around the world. But those who hate the United States understand it as well and deeply fear it. The last thing tyrants wish their subjects to hear is that they, too, possess these same God-given, inalienable rights and ought to have the free exercise thereof. The enemies of freedom find this truth to be the most dangerous weapon we employ.

The VOA deploys this weapon in a variety of ways in its over 1,000 hours of weekly radio and TV broadcasts. Sometimes, we explicitly state the principles upon which this great country stands, but more often we try to show them through features of American institutions, rather than tell about them.

One of our key responsibilities is to promote and provide the free flow of information by broadcasting comprehensive, objective and balanced news. Why should we do this when commercial and other international networks offer much the same service? Because it is critically important that the people of the world see that the U.S. government is capable of presenting this kind of news. By so doing, VOA inevitably provokes its listeners to ask: "What kind of people is this that even its government will tell the truth when it might not appear to be to its temporary advantage to do so?"

But delivering the news is not enough. And that is why the VOA was never envisaged as simply a news organization. We also have the duty to reveal the character of the American people in such a way that the underlying principles of American life are revealed. We owe it to our listeners to show them how free people live and to correct the image of the United States that our own popular culture has sometimes created in their minds, a false image that has often helped fuel anti-Americanism.

And equally important, we present and explain the policies of the U.S. government through what is, in effect, our "editorial page." Such editorials and programming offer the most direct means we have to ensure that both America's friends and America's enemies know precisely what our government is doing and why.

Sixty years ago, at the time of its first broadcast, VOA's announcer told his audience that "the news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell the truth." That may not sound like what some people think of as public diplomacy. But in fact, it has proved to be the very best kind something America's friends and America's enemies are discovering again now.

Robert Reilly is the director of Voice of America.

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