Hearts, Minds, and the War Against Terror
The scoop appeared in the New York Times in February: as part of “a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries,” it revealed, the Pentagon was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations” (emphasis added).
According to the Times, what had prompted the creation of this so-called Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was the worry of “many administration officials” that “the United States was losing support in the Islamic world after American warplanes began bombing Afghanistan.” And what had prompted the leak of the story? It seems that a number of people inside the Pentagon, whether for reasons of principle or for reasons of turf, were concerned that the new office, by combining the tasks of public relations with those of covert operations, would thereby taint the former. “It goes from the blackest of black programs to the whitest of white,” an anonymous official was quoted, thus fueling the impression that the office would be peddling lies.
In fact, the U.S. has rarely done anything like this in its history. (The term “black operations” in this context properly refers to the practice of hiding the role of the government as the source of a given story rather than to the practice of spreading disinformation.) Nevertheless, the Times weighed in the very next day with an editorial denouncing the new office, which it called “Orwellian,” while the columnist Maureen Dowd contributed her own broadside against what she dubbed the Office of Strategic Mendacity. In no time, scores of other newspapers around the country had registered their indignation, causing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to protest that “the Pentagon is not issuing disinformation to the foreign press or any other press.”
But the die had been cast. Within a week of the first Times story, Rumsfeld announced he had closed the office down.
This aborted mission was not the only effort by the Bush administration to wage a battle for hearts and minds as part of its larger war against terrorism. The State Department had already brought in Charlotte Beers, formerly the head of the giant advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, as undersecretary for “public diplomacy.” According to Beers, her aim was to do for the United States what she had done for IBM in the 1990’s—namely, to “rebrand” it. But her new job, she confessed, would be even tougher than her old one—indeed, “the most sophisticated brand assignment I have ever had.” “It is almost,” she added, “as though we have to redefine what America is.”
If the goal sounded ambitious, she could at least count on the full backing of her formidable patron, the Secretary of State. For Colin Powell himself, it turns out, had been keen on the Madison Avenue approach to public diplomacy even before September 11, much preferring it to the more traditional and overly intellectual methods of the now-defunct United States Information Agency (USIA). In congressional testimony soon after taking office, Powell had declared: “I’m going to be bringing people into the public-diplomacy function of the department who are going to change from just selling us in the old USIA way to really branding foreign policy, branding the department, marketing the department, marketing American values to the world.”
In the wake of September 11, and in line with the new spirit, Beers was reported to be considering “TV and radio spots in which sports stars and celebrities [would] talk up the U.S.” Her office’s major product was a shiny and colorful 25-page pamphlet, The Network of Terrorism, distributed in 36 languages and featuring vivid photographs of the September 11 destruction, harsh commentary on al Qaeda and the Taliban, and denunciations of terrorism by such world leaders as Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, and Jiang Zemin. By far the most prominent quotations, spread throughout the pamphlet in huge type, were by Muslims—three Arab sheiks, one Indonesian cleric, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—repudiating the September 11 attacks and the taking of innocent life.
As the war began, the White House also created another agency, the Coalition Information Center (CIC), with offices in Washington, London, and Pakistan. Its purpose was (and remains) to publicize our side’s war aims and to provide instantaneous rebuttal of enemy claims about civilian casualties or battlefield successes. Widening its writ, the CIC also gave impetus to the “Afghan women’s initiative,” which pressed for a role for women in post-Taliban power structures, thereby underscoring the humanly liberating aspect of a victory in Afghanistan.
More important than the work of any of these agencies, the hallmark of America’s outreach efforts was the activity of George W. Bush himself. Three days after September 11, the President led an ecumenical service at the National Cathedral at which a spokesman for America’s Muslims helped officiate. A few days later, the President visited the Islamic Center, a Washington mosque, where he proclaimed that “Islam is peace” and went on to castigate Americans who had made threatening gestures toward Muslims in the days since September 11. “Women who cover their head in this country must feel comfortable going outside,” he declared. “Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America.”
Bush’s embrace extended beyond American Muslims to Muslims around the globe. In his address to Congress nine days after the attack, he enunciated several themes to which he has returned repeatedly in the months since:
I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends.
To demonstrate his earnestness in this matter, the President invited a group of American Muslim spokesmen to breakfast at the White House in order “to discuss . . . what our country is going to do to make sure that everybody who is an American is respected.” In November, he also invited the ambassadors of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to pray and break the daylong Ramadan fast at the White House, expressing his esteem for Muslim “believers [who] built a culture of learning and literature and science” and with whom “we share the same hope for a future of peace.” Secretary of State Powell held a similar dinner at the State Department, and U.S. ambassadors around the world were instructed to do likewise.
To reinforce Bush’s message of openness to the faith whose teachings the September 11 terrorists had invoked in attacking us, Charlotte Beers’s office printed up thousands of posters in a series called “Mosques of America,” for distribution around the world. She herself declared that “We . . . have to be as good at listening as we are at proposing our point of view,” so that our interlocutors will “understand . . . that they don’t need to kill us to get our attention.”
But if we had been better listeners, we might have been disconcerted by what we heard. Thus, the very same Islamic spokesmen whom the administration was celebrating for their anti-terrorist sentiments turned out to have, at best, mixed records on the issue. The first of the three sheiks featured in the State Department’s pamphlet was Yussef al-Qaradawi of Qatar, who had praised suicide bombings—especially those directed against innocent Israeli civilians—as “martyrdom operations”; according to a columnist in the London Arabic newspaper Al Hayat, Qaradawi also endorsed a fatwa issued by another sheik supporting the killing of Americans. The pamphlet’s second sheik, Mohammed Sayyed al-Tantawi of Egypt, had indeed criticized attacks on women and children, but subsequently qualified his position by stating that “whoever blows himself up among aggressors . . . who violate the dignity of our brothers in Palestine . . . is a martyr.” The third sheik, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais of Mecca, although more outspoken than either of the other two in decrying violence, nonetheless was ambiguous when it came to the bottom line, appealing to Muslims “not to mix up the concepts of real terrorism and legitimate jihad.”
The records of the American Muslims to whom the administration turned were no less clouded. CAIR, cited in large print in the State Department’s publication and one of the hosts of the President’s visit to the Islamic Center, is headed by Nihad Awad, who announced in the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords that he was shifting his support from the PLO to Hamas. Some of the guests at the White House breakfast for Islamic spokesmen likewise boasted histories of support for Hamas or Hizbullah, two groups that had done and continue to do much to earn their places on the United States list of terrorist organizations. And so forth.
If the only Muslim spokesmen we could find to second our message were themselves highly compromised, additional and devastating evidence was soon to emerge of how faintly that message was getting through. In March, the Gallup organization released the results of polling in nine predominantly Muslim countries. In only two of them did the proportion of respondents with a “very favorable” opinion of the United States exceed a tenth of the population: Lebanon, where the number was 18 percent, and Kuwait, where it was 11. But these pro-American respondents were themselves offset by the 30 percent of Lebanese and 23 percent of Kuwaitis who recorded their opinion of us as very unfavorable. In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, a mere 7 percent said they held a very favorable view of us, with seven times that number, or 49 percent, at the opposite end of the spectrum; in Pakistan, Gallup had to report an asterisk under “very favorable,” signifying a response of less than 1 percent. With the exception of Turkey, the news was hardly any better elsewhere.
When asked specifically about the September 11 attacks, pluralities or bare majorities in most of the nine countries did say they found them “totally unjustifiable”—but much higher proportions condemned the U.S. military action in Afghanistan as itself totally unjustifiable. The most startling results were for Kuwait, where a mere 26 percent of respondents found the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon totally unjustifiable, while over twice that number, 55 percent, applied this judgment to America’s actions in Afghanistan. It would have been fascinating to see how Saudis assessed the September 11 attacks, but the presumptively pro-American Saudi government forbade Gallup to ask the question, as did the government of Jordan.
To make matters worse, even where substantial numbers found the September 11 attacks unjustifiable, there was widespread denial—except in Turkey—that they had been carried out by Arabs. In Pakistan, deniers outnumbered believers 86 percent to 4, in Kuwait 89 percent to 11—and this was after the release of the infamous videotape in which Osama bin Laden had boasted of having planned the attack. Some respondents who denied Arab involvement did (confusingly) name bin Laden or al Qaeda as the responsible party, but among Lebanese, Kuwaitis, and Moroccans the favored culprit was Israel, and for Iranians, America itself.
The import of these stark numbers was soon brought into question by news items challenging the methodology of the Gallup survey and the presentation of its findings. The main target of criticism was a press release, echoed by CNN and USA Today, that aggregated the data for the nine countries, thereby yielding numbers that were statistically meaningless since they ignored the wide disparities in the size of the various populations. But the flaw in Gallup’s press release was quite irrelevant. However erroneous the procedure, the aggregated numbers did not make the data any more appalling than they would be if taken country by country, which is how I have cited them here.
Another complaint was that the group of nine—Indonesia, Turkey, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, and Lebanon—do not necessarily represent the diversity of the Islamic world as a whole. This argument too is hard to credit. Not only does the list include a rather disparate array of polities, but the sample is hardly weighted toward the anti-American side. Within the Muslim Middle East, which is the focus of concern in the war against terrorism, one would be foolish to imagine more comforting results than these in, say, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, or Egypt.
Finally, the government of Kuwait, a country liberated by American power from the clutches of Saddam Hussein only a decade ago, has looked for a way out of its embarrassment over the Gallup figures by complaining that the pollsters sampled residents at large rather than only citizens. (In Kuwait, noncitizens outnumber citizens.) But, as it happens, Gallup did ask respondents in that country to indicate their status; as between citizens and noncitizens, the answers differed hardly at all. In fact, if Kuwaiti citizens alone had been tallied, the percentage finding the September 11 attacks morally justified would have risen, from 36 to 40 percent.
Confronted with the Gallup figures, President Bush exclaimed, in a masterpiece of understatement: “We’ve got work to do.”
How is the work to be done? Basically, public diplomacy comprises two broad functions, both of which have traditionally been carried out by specially trained foreign-service officers, mostly stationed in U.S. missions abroad. One is short-term public relations: explaining current U.S. policy, circulating speeches by the President and the Secretary of State, flacking for them on their visits. The other is long-term: academic exchanges, sustaining U.S. libraries and American-studies programs, cultivating relationships with writers and editors receptive to America and its values, even publishing intellectual magazines in local languages.
For decades, both of these functions were the responsibility of the United States Information Agency. Opinion differs as to how successfully they were performed—better in some eras and under some directors than in others, obviously—but in any case, as I have already noted, the USIA is no longer in existence. It was abolished in 1999, with its functions being putatively taken over by the State Department.
This “reorganization” was pushed through by Republican Senator Jesse Helms in order to streamline what he called the “outrageously costly foreign-policy apparatus.” But it was first proposed not by Helms but by Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and other former Secretaries of State hurried to endorse it. (USIA’s $2-billion annual budget would make a large addition to State’s funding.) George P. Shultz, who served under Ronald Reagan, called it “bold and constructive,” and James Baker, who served the elder Bush, found it “breathtaking in its boldness and visionary in its sweep.”
The consequences of the reorganization were as swift in coming as they were predictable. For one thing, the promised savings never materialized: in its official implementation report, the Clinton administration was soon explaining that the merger of the agencies had instead led to an increase in costs, and one that would continue “over the next several fiscal years.” For another thing, the long-term side of public diplomacy was eviscerated. This too was predictable: in the State Department, the main focus is not on the long-term but on the immediate; what enhances the Secretary’s image is public relations, not libraries or exchange programs. No wonder that, in unveiling his Madison Avenue approach to public diplomacy, Colin Powell had gone out of his way to deprecate the USIA.
There is a third side, or complement, to public diplomacy—namely, international broadcasting. But here, too, such meager instruments as were once in our hands have been diminished in recent times. Post-cold-war budget cuts have weakened the Voice of America to the point where its Arabic service has been broadcasting only seven hours a day in a single dialect (the Arab world is notable for wide variations in pronunciation), reaching an audience estimated at only 2 percent of the population.
But the paucity of our means is not the sole or even the major problem we face. Nor is a solution to that problem to be found in enhancing our technique, either through “rebranding” programs or through attempts to do “a better job of telling the compassionate side of the American story,” as the President has also suggested.
The key underlying premise of our entire publicity effort is that we and the Muslim Middle East inhabit the same moral and cognitive universe, and that our task is therefore to demonstrate the congruence of our goals and actions with those shared values. Yet nothing in Middle Eastern politics—from the nearly universal obsessive hatred of Israel, to the brutal conduct of relations among Arab states themselves and among factions within them, to the pitiless way rulers treat their subjects—suggests that there is any truth to that premise, let alone that compassion is a prized value in this part of the world.
Take the one principal theme of our outreach efforts—that our enemy is not Islam but terrorism. To judge by the Gallup poll and other evidence, this is another subject on which we speak a different moral language from those we wish to reach. The numbers who told Gallup they found our war against terrorism even “somewhat” justifiable amounted to 1 percent in Morocco, 2 percent in Indonesia, 4 percent in Pakistan, 9 in Iran, 17 in Kuwait, 19 in Turkey, and 20 in Lebanon; Saudi Arabia and Jordan once again refused to allow Gallup even to ask the question.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—no hawk, he—discovered all this for himself when he proposed a world treaty against terrorism in the aftermath of September 11. Appealing for “moral clarity,” Annan condemned “the deliberate taking of innocent life, regardless of cause or grievance. If there is one principle that all peoples can agree on,” he added, “surely it is this.” So cautious and anodyne was the wording of the proposed treaty that North Korea itself proclaimed its support. Not so the Islamic Conference, which turned it down flat. Even when Annan “gambled his moral authority” (in the words of a UN diplomat) by a personal appeal to a meeting of the Conference, the Islamic states would not budge or accept any compromise unless a blanket exemption were included for terrorist actions against Israel. At its meeting in Malaysia in early April, the Conference reaffirmed its stance.
If there is “one principle that all peoples can agree on,” in short, it is not this one. For most Muslim states (Turkey again excepted), “terrorism” is a concept defined not by the nature of the act but by the cause in whose name it is undertaken, or by the identities of the perpetrators and the victims. Almost any military action by Israel is considered terrorism, almost any violence against Israel is resistance. For some large number of Muslims, the same would seem to apply if the term “United States” is substituted for “Israel.”
This widespread acceptance of terrorism is only one sign of a larger syndrome. The political culture of the Muslim Middle East is mired in tyranny, violence, fanaticism, bigotry, and fantasy. As Fouad Ajami showed in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, this is not just a matter of regimes and rulers. It is also a matter of thinkers—academics, journalists, intellectuals, writers and artists, professionals of every stripe: the very people whose hearts and minds we are seeking to address. The widespread denial that it was Arabs who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, the credence given to the preposterous rumor that 4,000 Jewish employees at the World Trade Center stayed home from work on September 11 because the Mossad slipped them the word that it was about to blow up the towers, is evidence of a deficiency not merely in information but in the skills of reality-testing.
Changing this, if it is within our power at all, is not a matter for the short or even the medium term, and it cannot be accomplished by public diplomacy conceived along Madison Avenue lines. If we are going to chip away at the solid wall of hostility that Gallup found, we will have to proceed less by polishing our image than by improving the Arab-Muslim way of looking at things. The problem is not our “brand”; it is their buying habits.
First things first, then. What is needful above all (as Norman Podhoretz argued in these pages last month) is to prosecute the war against terrorism relentlessly until it is won. Our victory need not await local political change; indeed, we dare not risk making it contingent on such change. Rather, the inverse applies: a triumph of arms may facilitate a triumph of ideas that could obviate future resort to military measures.
Contemporary Islamism arose as an idea in response to political rather than religious yearnings. It was not an answer to the question, “what does my faith demand of me?” but rather to the question, “how can I overcome my sense of national humiliation?” And it battened on the image of an America defeated by the Iran of the ayatollahs and of an America and Israel driven from Lebanon by Hizbullah.
It is a cliché that you cannot kill an idea. But the defeat of an armed idea can indeed lead to its death. That is what happened to fascism, and we can hope it will happen to Islamic extremism in its turn. Just as we succeeded in imbuing Japan and Germany with liberalism and democracy after we had defeated them decisively on the battlefield, so the defeat of terrorism, which in practice means the defeat of the various regimes that sponsor terror and of the Islamist movement, may open the way to new thinking in the Middle East. Although it is unlikely that we will occupy any countries as long or as thoroughly as we did at the end of World War II, our goal ought to be the same: liberalizing and democratizing cultures that have previously proved resistant to it.
It is here that public diplomacy properly should be brought in—for it is true that, in the long run, if we are to foment some betterment of the political culture of the Muslim Middle East, we will have need of it. In lieu of reprising General MacArthur’s role in Japan as an ersatz emperor, we will have to rely on instruments of “soft power” to effect lasting change. Nor need we wait until the moment of military victory to begin deploying those instruments.
On this front, there is good news and bad. The good news lies in the area of broadcasting, where Congress has funded plans, already in the testing stages, for a new Middle Eastern Radio Network (MERN) that promises to repair many of the defects of our current operation. The plan calls for a mixture of public affairs and music (both Arabic and Western) to be broadcast 24 hours a day on AM and FM bands rather than only on short wave as at present, and in five different regional dialects of Arabic. The network is scheduled to begin full operation this summer.
Plans for revitalizing public diplomacy per se offer a less encouraging picture. The fiasco of the Pentagon’s short-lived Office of Strategic Influence, and the embarrassment that was the State Department’s pamphlet on terrorism or the President’s breakfast with supporters of Hamas and Hizbullah—all give witness to a vacuum of coherent, long-range thought. During the very week of the OSI scandal, the White House confirmed that it was working on its own plan to transform the wartime Coalition Information Center into a permanent office that would be oriented toward a more distant horizon. There is much value in such an idea—the presidency is a bullier pulpit by far than the State Department—but the political pressures that weigh on the State Department weigh even more heavily on the White House. The same purpose would be better served by reinventing a semi-independent agency like the old USIA.
No initiative of public diplomacy is likely to succeed, however, unless it is informed by a spirit of honesty, however politically incorrect, about the depth of the problem we face, and of unapologetic directness in confronting the sordid political culture that gave rise to the attacks of September 11. We need an effective capability for disseminating information and influence, but if its message is one of “anxious propitiation” (in the phrase of the eminent Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis), it will not only fail on its own terms but it will undercut and compromise the very different and necessary message being sent by our awesome military forces. On this front, not only do we have much work to do, we have not even begun.