Coming up short on the war of ideas
By Peter Feaver Continuing with the Bush administration post mortem, what did the administration get wrong? Undeniably, lots of things, though perhaps not as many things as the blogosphere claims. I would mention two, one because it qualifies something I listed on the credit side in my other blog post on what the Bush Administration got ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
Continuing with the Bush administration post mortem, what did the administration get wrong?
Undeniably, lots of things, though perhaps not as many things as the blogosphere claims. I would mention two, one because it qualifies something I listed on the credit side in my other blog post on what the Bush Administration got right and the other because of its direct relevance to this blog and the incoming Obama Administration.
Uneven progress in the war of ideas. While the Bush Administration deserves credit for seeking the struggle against Al Qaeda and the related terrorist network in a holistic sense, and not narrowly in military or in non-military terms, it is a sad fact that there was only modest progress in the war of ideas portion of the struggle. The President and many of his advisors rightly understood the problem and worked hard to advance the effort. (At the risk of forgetting to give credit where credit is due, I would mention favorably in dispatches the NSC team of Juan Zarate, Elliot Abrams, Mark Pfeifle, Will Inboden, Michael Doran, Farah Pandith, and my own successor Mary Habeck.)
But we never overcame interagency stove-piping and organizational culture barriers – a legacy of the first Cold War – and so we were not able to do things that should have been done. The war of ideas requires playing offense and defense, on both "our" ideas and the enemy’s ideas. Yes, this leads to academic political science’s favorite totem: a 2 x 2 table.
We must do:
Offense on our ideas: promoting a better understanding of American values and what we stand for. This is the traditional bailiwick of public diplomacy and the State Department’s public diplomats did this fairly well. It also requires explaining U.S. (read: Bush Administration) policy, and this came less naturally to State culture.
Defense on our ideas: defending, rapidly and decisively, against attacks on our policies. Unfortunately, there was never enough effort devoted to this part of the strategy, though it must be admitted that the task was enormous, and it was not what the lead agency, State, does well because it can be construed as "divisive."
Offense on the enemy’s ideas: even more divisive, this requires exploiting the schisms within militant Islamism and in particular exploiting the many ways that the terrorists undermined their own cause through their own barbarism. This seemed to be an entirely alien approach to the traditional public diplomacy culture, and it has only been very lately that the Administration, as a whole, has done this in a concerted fashion.
Defense on the enemy’s ideas:this means identifying reasonable grievances that the enemy exploits and channeling legitimate aspirations into more constructive directions. This is the core insight behind the "promotion of effective democracies" portion of the freedom agenda. To do it well requires identifying and bolstering moderate Muslim voices. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration identified this as a priority, but it proved exceptionally difficult to pull off.
For whatever reason – and I would argue that the reason was not lack of understanding – we have left too much on the to-do list in this area for the Obama team.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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