Commentary Magazine


Is the U.S. Waging a War of Ideas?

I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

It’s hard to know for sure, since such programs are necessarily covert, but I doubt there is anything approaching the scale of the Cold War efforts. If it isn’t doing so already, the CIA and other organs of the U.S. government should be paying to translate great works on liberty, from novels to philosophical tracts, from Western languages into Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and other relevant languages while also spreading the work of liberal Muslim writers. I know I know: Books are so 20th century. So, sure, we should also be propagating such ideas in cyberspace but even today books have resonance that is hard to match for spreading ideas.

As for the second article, it suggests that we are currently wasting some of the scarce funds that could be going to wage political warfare for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. While the article’s focus is on how Rajiv Shah is changing USAID’s focus away from simply funding contractors toward using loan guarantees to enable efforts by private industry–a good idea, no doubt–the lead example is a bit discomfiting: “Here in South Africa, in one of the signature new deals for the agency, Dr. Shah brought in corporate America — General Electric — to guarantee a portion of a bank loan to help buy $30 million in much-needed equipment” for a new children’s hospital.

The hospital is no doubt a laudable undertaking, one that will benefit the children of South Africa. But how exactly does this project benefit the foreign policy of the United States? South Africa is already one of the most prosperous and stable states in Africa; it is not home to terrorist groups or other developments that threaten U.S. security. So why is USAID spending any portion of its $20 billion budget in South Africa instead of concentrating on countries such as Mali, Libya and Yemen–to pick three at random–which are threatened by jihadist groups that are also enemies of the United States?

USAID should be focusing on nation-building in those front-line states as part of a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy worked out with the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies of government; it should leave purely charitable work to private institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for which Shah used to work.

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