It’s Not About Us

The United States need not be Miss Congeniality to win the war of ideas. We just need to make moderates hate extremists more than they dislike us.

Syed Zargham/Getty Images
Syed Zargham/Getty Images

On Aug. 17, Judith McHale, my successor as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, sat down with a Pakistani journalist in a hotel conference room in Karachi. According to a New York Times account, the one-on-one meeting was part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to convince "the Pakistani people that the United States is their friend."

McHale gave a "polite presentation about building bridges between America and the Muslim world." Then, the Pakistani journalist, Ansar Abbasi, told her, "You should know that we hate all Americans. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you."

Winning Abbasi’s heart and mind would be, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking. He is known for his xenophobia, his support for conspiracy theories, and his knee-jerk anti-Americanism. In an article last September, he floated a rumor that the U.S. government was involved in the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. In April, he vigorously defended on television the Taliban’s public flogging of a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, saying, "Those people who are transgressors against God’s law should not be given any mercy."

Reasoning with people like Abbasi is futile, but even more counterproductive is the broader reconciliation strategy, described in the Times as "one message: America cares about Pakistan." Making people like us better is a perfectly decent U.S. goal, but is an image-building strategy the most effective use of public diplomacy’s tools in such a crucial relationship? And should the U.S. public image even be such a priority in the first place?

I don’t think so. Abbasi is right about one thing. Pakistanis don’t like the United States, and they are unlikely to change their minds soon, no matter how many bridge-building meetings we have with them.

Rather than trying to win Pakistanis over, the United States should focus on undercutting support for the mutual enemy — violent extremists — by helping Pakistanis in government and civil society engage their fellow citizens with a powerful narrative about the threat posed by the enemy and how to combat it. This promises to be a better use of U.S. diplomatic resources and a more beneficial mindset for Washington as well.

Although views of the United States have become more positive in most countries since Obama’s inauguration, they have deteriorated in Pakistan. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted this spring and released last month, found that only 16 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of the United States, with 68 percent unfavorably disposed.

But even as U.S. favorability has slipped, support for al Qaeda and the Taliban has plummeted. In spring 2008, some 25 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of al Qaeda, with 34 percent unfavorable — a disturbingly close split. Today, just 9 percent have a favorable opinion, with 61 percent unfavorable.

So too with the Taliban: The ratings shifted from 27 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable in 2008 to 10 percent favorable and 70 percent unfavorable today. In addition, the percentage of Pakistanis concerned about "extremism in our country" rose from 72 to 79 percent in a year.

The State Department and other U.S. agencies — including the broadcasters of Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which have expanded their objective coverage for Pakistanis — helped effect this change. But most of the credit should go to the terrorists themselves.

With their assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, their attacks on innocent civilians in Islamabad and elsewhere, and the Taliban’s bloodthirsty behavior after Pakistan ceded them judicial control in the Swat Valley, the violent extremists have turned a largely complacent Pakistani population against them. Similar shifts in support for terrorism occurred in Arab countries after attacks by terrorists in Amman, Casablanca, and elsewhere.

Until very recently, Pakistanis treated the lawless terrorist havens along the Afghan border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North-West Frontier Province like the American Wild West — outside the control of the central government, anarchic, and on their own. What happened in FATA stayed in FATA, they hoped. Now, Pakistani minds are changing. And the U.S. State Department, military, intelligence community, and private sector should continue to support this change — and can do so with relatively little money.

We should not abandon attempts to make Pakistanis admire and respect us, but we must recognize that those efforts are long-term and expensive. Currently, about $600 million, or about two-thirds of the State Department’s overall public diplomacy budget, goes to efforts such as educational and cultural exchanges. But at a time of violent extremist threats, public diplomacy, as during the Cold War, must be more immediate, countering pernicious ideologies and helping divert young people from following a path that leads to terrorism.

That job is best accomplished not by direct U.S. action but by support for indigenous people and organizations. With what I call Public Diplomacy 2.0, which started toward the end of the George W. Bush administration, we positioned the U.S. government as a facilitator and convener of a broad, informed, and free conversation, often using new social-networking technologies. That conversation brings Pakistan and other Muslim countries the vivid story of terrorism and a potent narrative that leads to action to enhance these societies’ own security.

The Obama administration certainly understands this approach. In his inaugural address, the new president said, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He repeated this powerful phrase in speeches in Istanbul and Cairo.

Americans have a clear mutual interest with the Pakistanis: defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda for the sake of a stable, free Pakistan and a safer America. That interest can be achieved even if Pakistanis harbor an animus toward Americans. The United States has seen the power of mutual interest against terrorism succeed in similar situations with Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, and, yes, Iraqis. They may not like Americans, but they cooperate against a common enemy toward a common goal.

The latest Pew data reinforces this notion. By a margin of 63 percent to 12 percent, Pakistanis support the United States’ "providing intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops fighting extremist groups." And by a margin of 47 percent to 24 percent, Pakistanis even support U.S. "missile strikes against leaders of extremist groups."

Still, the default position in U.S. public diplomacy — getting people to like us better — has an irresistible inertia. When in doubt, policymakers reflexively turn to brand-burnishing. But does likeability actually help achieve the national interest?

Consider the release last month of the "Lockerbie bomber" from a Scottish prison. The government agreed to repatriate Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person sentenced in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, because he has terminal cancer. The U.S. government tried strenuously to prevent it, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally intervening. A State Department spokesman said, "[She] spoke to the justice minister … and expressed again fairly strongly our view that Megrahi should serve out his entire sentence in Scotland."

According to Pew, U.S. favorability in Britain increased from 53 percent in 2008 to 69 percent this spring. Yet, in at least a mild embarrassment, Clinton was rebuffed in her attempts at securing a simple and innocuous policy objective. The Scottish rejection does not bode well for the power of popularity.

Even worse, the quest for foreign approval diverts the United States from more important tasks at hand. I worry, for instance, that the United States’ apparent lack of effort (with the exception of VOA and Radio Farda) in strategic communications in Iran since the protests following the June election is the result, simply, of not knowing what to do if the aim is not improved ratings. After all, most Iranians like the United States, as numerous polls have shown.

"It’s not about telling our story," wrote Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an article about global strategic communications published Aug. 27 in Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal. "We shouldn’t care if people don’t like us; that isn’t the goal."

These are brave words, and needed. But Mullen proceeds in his brief article to imply strongly that, well, maybe it is about us. "Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise," he writes, "we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are." And though likeability isn’t the U.S. objective, the "goal is credibility."

Of course, the United States needs credibility, just as it needs to develop friendships over the long term. What I advocate is change in emphasis. For the war-of-ideas part of public diplomacy (call it "global strategic engagement" if you don’t like the word "war"), the constant admonition to U.S. policymakers should be that it’s not about us. Bite your tongue when you say "we."

The dangerous narrative in Muslim societies is that the United States and the West are out to destroy Islam. The way to counter that narrative is not to protest that the United States has clean hands and that if you really knew us you would love us — but to change the subject entirely. The United States is the scapegoat, the animal on which all cares and hatreds are loaded. We only contribute to that way of thinking when we defend ourselves, or talk about ourselves at all.

The accurate narrative, the one that strategic communications should promote, is that Muslim societies are today in the midst of profound change and upheaval. In general, they are coping with the upheaval well and in the end they will succeed, but the struggle is extremely difficult.

There are three conflicts, and for each of them the West can play a supporting role. Americans are affected by these conflicts (after all, terrorists killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington on a September day eight years ago), and Americans have a stake in their outcomes. But the conflicts are primarily within Muslim societies. They are endogenous, not imposed by the United States or by anyone else on the outside.

The first regards violent extremism. An intolerant, power-hungry minority is trying to wrest control of a great religion from the vast majority of Muslims. The second is freedom. Muslims are trying to determine their own destinies and are being thwarted by authoritarian regimes. Finally, Iran. An aggressive clique, Persian and Shiite, is attempting to control the Middle East, holding sway over Arabs and Sunnis.

The United States could disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow and these conflicts would persist. Muslim societies are undergoing a period of revolutionary ferment, much like the Reformation, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. (The latest Pew survey, by the way, asks about a "modernizer" vs. "fundamentalist" dichotomy and finds that 73 percent of Pakistanis who think a conflict exists identify themselves with the modernizers.)

The resolution of these conflicts cannot be imposed from the outside, but the United States can help. We indeed have a "mutual interest" with the vast majority of Muslims: against violent extremism, in favor of freedom, and against Iranian hegemony. Still, when the conflicts are resolved, the achievement will be a matter of great accomplishment and an occasion of great pride — for Muslims. This is their struggle, just as the American Revolution and the Civil War were ours.

And what does Ansar Abbasi have to do with such a narrative? Nothing at all. Which is why he is exactly the kind of person not worth talking to.

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