How to Win the War of Ideas

What the Obama administration needs to understand about Muslims, extremism, and America's image.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama entered the Oval Office implicitly promising to single-handedly reinvent America’s image in the world. And if his administration had a strategy for reducing the long-term threat of violent extremism, it boiled down to this: Put the president in front of a microphone, and let his natural charisma do the work.

This approach has paid some dividends; multiple surveys show that views of the United States have noticeably improved over the last year. But winning the war of ideas means making progress on a much wider, and arguably more important, set of indicators. It means putting together carefully calibrated actions and initiatives that together make up public diplomacy, which is often wrongly conflated with old-fashioned public relations. It’s not the same thing.

The future of public diplomacy, in my view, is in doubt. It is not currently being taken seriously  by policymakers as a tool of national security. Furthermore, when officials do focus on strategic communication, they often turn to American brand-burnishing, which ignores the unresolved question of whether a better-liked America can more easily achieve its national security goals.

There is a better way. Public diplomacy needs to be sharp, not flaccid. It needs to focus on key foreign-policy problems, not merely on vague, feel-good improvements in the far-off future. It needs to be primarily an activity of national security, not of public relations. It needs to be mobilized and sent into battle to win the ideological conflicts of our time.

When I served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, we tried to achieve our war-of-ideas goals in two ways: first, by pushing back and undermining the ideology behind violent extremism while at the same time explaining and advocating free alternatives and, second, by diverting young people from following a path that leads to violent extremism. What all terrorist groups have in common, in fact, is the exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are isolated and indoctrinated and become the shock troops of these movements.

In both of these endeavors — undermining and diverting — Americans themselves are rarely the most credible actors and voices. Much of what we did was encourage others. For example, we supported a global organization of female family members of victims of violent extremism and supported another network, based in Europe, of Muslim entrepreneurs.

In Afghanistan, with the most meager resources, we helped stand up an Afghan-led media center in Kabul. In October 2008, the Taliban stopped a bus in the town of Maiwand, pulled off 50 passengers, and beheaded 30 of them. The media center’s leaders immediately brought together 300 Afghan religious leaders who issued a statement condemning the action and calling it anti-Islamic. The effort led to widespread anti-Taliban protests.

What do these efforts in strategic public diplomacy have to do with improving America’s image abroad? Very little, in an immediate sense. The United States  is not at the center of the war of ideas. Rather, the United States is being affected by conflicts within Muslim societies, which themselves are ground zero for this enormous struggle.

On the threat of violent extremism, the United States is absolutely on the same page as Muslim societies. As a result, even in countries where vast majorities say, even today, that they view the United States unfavorably — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to name a few — the mutual interest in defeating the terrorist threat and, I should add, in constraining the Iranian threat, means that the United States can work cooperatively, using public diplomacy methods, to reach mutually shared goals.

Americans, for example, have a clear mutual interest with Pakistanis, who, according to recent Pew Research Center surveys, view Americans more unfavorably than practically any other people (in fact, favorability dropped, to just 16 percent, between 2008 and 2009). Both want to defeat 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 animus toward Americans.

The latest Pew data reinforce this notion. By a margin of 63 percent to 12 percent, Pakistanis support America’s "providing intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops fighting extremist groups." By 47 percent to 24 percent, Pakistanis even support U.S. "missile strikes against leaders of extremist groups." What can public diplomacy do in Pakistan? Working quietly, it can help the Pakistani government reinforce the notion that the violent extremist threat is real and that "this is Pakistan’s war."

Much of the public diplomacy effort in the past has focused on America’s own image, on how Americans are seen by others. But today, in the war of ideas, our core task is not how to fix foreigners’ perceptions of the United States but how to isolate and reduce the threat of violent extremism. In other words, it’s not about us.

We began to develop such an approach during my tenure in government, calling it Public Diplomacy 2.0. The approach begins with research on America’s image. We found three reasons for low favorability — differences with U.S. policies, a lack of understanding of those policies and beliefs, and a perception that the United States does not respect the views of others, does not listen to them, or take them seriously. These last two subjects — lack of understanding by foreigners and lack of respect by the United States — cannot be addressed by preaching or by telling the world how wonderful America is. In fact, the technique of standing in one place and spraying a message widely to others is not very effective in today’s world.

A better way to communicate is through the generation of a wide and deep conversation. The U.S. role in that conversation is as facilitator and convener. We generate this conversation in the belief that our views will be heard — even if U.S. government actors are not always the authors of those views.

The most urgent task confronting this new concept of public diplomacy is to dispel the pernicious idea in Muslim societies is that the United States wants to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. Vast majorities in many countries believe this narrative, and it is the prism through which they view almost all U.S. activities. But to try to refute this narrative head-on is not easy. A better approach is to promote a different narrative — one that reflects the truth.

The indispensable narrative is the real story of what is happening in Muslim societies. It is a narrative of two conflicts that are within Muslim societies. Yes, the United States is deeply affected by them, but they are intra-Muslim conflicts and need to be understood that way.

The first conflict involves a small group of violent reactionaries — led by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups — that is trying, through horrifying brutality, to bring more than 1 billion Muslims into line with a sweeping totalitarian doctrine, inconsistent with the tenets of Islam.

Growing numbers of Muslims are waking up to this threat and are opposing and ostracizing the violent extremists in their midst — even in Pakistan, where a terrible threat had been widely ignored. Even as U.S. favorability has slipped, support for al Qaeda and the Taliban has plummeted. In the spring of 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. Our job in public diplomacy should be to help spread information about these reactionary groups trying to destroy Islam.

The second, much broader conflict involves the battle between Muslim societies and their governments over democracy and human rights, especially the rights of women. Many Arab governments have denied their citizens what Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has called "the infrastructure of democracy": rule of law, an independent judiciary, free media, gender equality, and autonomous civil society. These necessities of liberty are more important than ballots dropped in a box, as Americans have seen by the actions of the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.

A widespread criticism among Muslims is that the United States has not pressed authoritarian allies to democratize. For both moral and strategic reasons, we have a stake in supporting free societies with accountable governments. The reality of democracies thriving in Muslim societies — such as Turkey and Indonesia — is a powerful counterweight to the canard that Islam and political freedom can’t coexist. Here, public diplomacy can remind those advancing freedom and democracy that they aren’t alone and that history, including our own, is replete with examples of brave advocates.

For the immediate future, our job in public diplomacy is to promote this accurate narrative in everything we do. We can do it while at the same time emphasizing America’s values — concepts of pluralism, freedom, and opportunity that run counter to the extremists’ ideology. We should emphasize that the United States won’t be a passive bystander in these struggles. We will advance our own ideals and interests — which include promoting a comprehensive two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Particularly on Iran, the United States is squandering a great opportunity. Public diplomacy can advance U.S. objectives — mainly because of the brave opposition movement that developed after the June elections. What is the United States doing to help? It’s hard to see.

The United States needs to do more: providing moral and educational support for the green movement in Iran by publicizing what worked in Ukraine or Georgia; dubbing into Farsi documentaries on the fall of Ceausescu, Milosevic, and Pinochet; the transitions in South Africa and Poland; and the achievements of the U.S. civil rights movement. The great fear of the Iranian regime is that a nonviolent civil resistance in the form of a color movement, like those in states of the former Soviet Union, will gain authority and legitimacy and, ultimately, power through democratic means. The regime is right to be afraid.

The United States should also work to tighten sanctions on the Iranian economy and publicize the connection between regime belligerence and economic malaise. The slogans of the protesters demonstrate that they are connecting the dots between the regime’s foreign policy and economic privation.

America needs to do all it can to increase communications within Iran, as well as between Iran and the outside world — and help Iranians get the technology to overcome regime attempts to block and censor. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has often stated that he believes the Islamic Republic is engaged in a soft war with the West. As pointed out by Mehdi Khalaji and J. Scott Carpenter, he believes "all new telecommunication, Internet and satellite technology are Western tools to defeat him in this war." The United States should be furnishing that technology.

The task ahead is to tell the world the story of a good and compassionate nation and, at the same time, to engage in the most important ideological contest of our time — a contest America will win.

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