The Bush administration’s effort to wage a war of ideas against terrorism is hampered by divisions among agencies and by a lack of focus on winning Muslim support.
“On the battle of ideas, we have unilaterally disarmed,” said Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco. “We have abandoned the playing field to the [Islamist] radicals and we have failed to empower our allies in the region with the tools they need to confront the radicals by themselves.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in an interview last week with The Washington Times that the United States is not doing enough to counter extremist ideas, and polls have shown that public support for America has declined sharply in the Middle East since 2000.
“We are in a war of ideas, as well as a global war on terror,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, noting that “ideas are important, and they need to be marshaled, and they need to be communicated in ways that are persuasive to the listeners.”
“In many instances, we’re not the best messengers,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that the Bush administration should consider setting up a “21st-century information agency.”
In Iraq, the Pentagon has spent about $30 million on a ground-based television system known as the Iraq Media Network, but little on programming, or on satellite television, which is the province of anti-U.S. networks.
Arabs in large numbers are watching the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television network, to which Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network have sent tapes and messages for broadcast. Another major satellite network is Tehran-based Al Alam, which U.S. officials view as anti-American.
“Most Muslims think the global war on terrorism is a war against Islam,” said Mr. Ginsberg, adding that more should be done to get Arabic-speaking Americans on Middle East television and radio.
Several recent studies by the Congress and academic institutions have stated that the State Department, the lead agency for promoting American ideas, lacks direction for influencing foreign and especially Muslim publics in ways favorable to the United States.
“Despite the best efforts of American officials, [Iraqi] media are not getting the U.S. story,” according to a State Department report on public diplomacy in the Muslim world. It also said that the White House “should provide for more coherent messaging and better overall coordination.”
The report, issued Oct. 1 by an outside advisory group, said the department spends about $600 million annually in promoting the United States and $540 million on broadcasting, but only $25 million on attempting to influence the estimated 1.5 billion people in the Muslim world.
The key to defeating terrorism is to “isolate and ultimately defeat al Qaeda” by uniting people of all cultures by informing and educating them that the war against terrorism is aimed at killers and not Muslims, said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution scholar who was a member of the advisory group.
“Most people in the Arab and Muslim world like most of our basic values and in particular democracy and freedom and our technology,” Mr. Telhami said. “But they are clearly frustrated with our policies.”
Mr. Telhami said recent comments by Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a senior Pentagon intelligence official, reinforced stereotypes about Americans among the publics in the Middle East and undermined U.S. efforts to gain support among Muslims for the war on terrorism.
“We’re saying that we’re fighting a war of ideas against horrible killers, and we’re trying to dissuade people from joining terrorist groups, and [saying] that this is not a religious clash,” Mr. Telhami said.
The U.S. government plans to set up an Arabic satellite television network in December, and has set up a radio station known as Radio Sawa, Arabic for “together.” Radio Sawa, however, has been overwhelmed on the airwaves by scores of overt and clandestine anti-U.S. radio stations beaming into Iraq and the region.
Tucker Eskew, director of the White House’s Office of Global Communications, set up to conduct tactical counter-propaganda, said the president agrees with Mr. Rumsfeld that “we have to continue to improve our message delivery to the rest of the world.”
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday on the nomination of Margaret Tutwiler to be the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and panel chairman, said he is “deeply concerned” that U.S. efforts to promote American ideas and values are poorly organized and funded.
Mrs. Tutwiler, a former State Department spokeswoman, told the committee that “we all know that we as a nation have a problem.” The administration is “trying to figure out how to best fix the situation we find ourselves in,” she said.
The CIA, for its part, is engaged in some covert propaganda to counter pro-terrorist propaganda and activities. But Bush administration officials said the efforts have been far short of what the agency did during the Cold War to counter anti-American ideological attacks by communists and their supporters.
The Bush administration needs to open lines of communications to people in the Muslim world, Mr. Telhami said.
“The silent majority in the Arab world have no interest in being indoctrinated into bin Ladenism, but they are shocked that the United States is not prepared to engage in a dialogue,” Mr. Ginsberg said.
Mr. Ginsberg said that among the methods that would help counter Islamist ideas would be to reorient the Peace Corps to work in the slums of major Middle East capitals, where extremist Muslim groups, working through some charities, have succeeded in recruiting terrorists.
He added that Middle Eastern governments need to reform education systems to counteract the Islamist madrassas, which are teaching anti-U.S. lessons.
According to Mr. Ginsberg, tighter immigration policies for Arabs also have hurt by making it more difficult for Middle Eastern students to come to the United States and be exposed to its society directly, rather than through hostile media images.