Washington — Nearly seven years after the 9/11 attacks spawned the question, “Why do they hate us?” and made the repair of America’s poor international image a top foreign-policy pursuit, the Bush administration is taking a new tack in the “war of ideas.”
Out, or at least de-emphasized, is the effort to explain America and its widely disdained foreign policy.
In, on the other hand, is a focus on defeating terrorism and in particular radical Islam by largely leaving America out of the equation. The plan, instead, is to promote alternatives to radical violent extremism and nurture the local forces deemed best suited to countering it.
“The key” to the new approach is “that the U.S. is not at the center of the war of ideas, [and in that way] we can accomplish our goals with people who don’t necessarily like our policies,” says James Glassman, the newly appointed undersecretary of State for pubic diplomacy. “The focus becomes defeating an ideology – not making ourselves liked.”
In practical terms, the shift means dumping glossy Madison Avenue campaigns about America in favor of helping target populations find alternatives to extremism in everything from politics and technology to sports and religion. The target populations include the burgeoning Arab and Muslim youth populations in particular.
The shift is long overdue in the eyes of some proponents of an aggressive war on terror. They say the United States for too long saw the “war of ideas” as a PR campaign about itself rather than essentially an ideological struggle between two visions for the Muslim world.
“Helping anti-radical Muslims defeat the ideology of extremists is precisely the right strategy for waging the ‘battle of ideas,’ ” says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail.
He defines that “battle” as the “contest under way in most Muslim societies for control of social, educational, cultural, and political power.” It is “much larger in scope and duration than peaks and valleys in the Arab-Israeli peace process or other regional issues,” Mr. Satloff adds, “and we need to be actively engaged on the hopeful, constructive side of this battle.”
But others counter that the change in focus is largely irrelevant because at the center is still a preoccupation with terrorism, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden – a preoccupation that Arab and Muslim societies don’t share.
“The Bush administration still sees Al Qaeda and radical Islam as the defining challenges in the Arab and Muslim worlds, whereas the people there do not see these as the major threats to their societies,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
His recent travels to the region revealed that people are more focused on economic hardship, food shortages, and restricted political freedoms, says Professor Gerges, adding, “It’s a clash of perceptions and a clash of narratives.”
Undersecretary Glassman does not shrink from placing radical Islam at the center of the U.S. effort. But the new U.S. focus, he says, is more about providing alternatives of thought and action than about trying to impose an American or Western vision of what is right. Speaking recently at the New America Foundation in Washington, he said, “Our role is to be a facilitator of choice – to allow young people to make their own choices, rather than imposing them.”
The U.S. is increasing the number of scholarships for study in the U.S., he says, and multiplying the forums where democrats, labor leaders, and rights activists have an opportunity to interact with local populations.
In Pakistan, for example, the State Department has supported a radio program that was developed, written, produced, and acted by local students and aimed at a youth audience. Creating the radio dramas teaches skills to program participants, while the dramas address cultural and social issues selected by the students as being of interest to the target audience.
Yet no matter how the U.S. redefines its public-diplomacy effort, the issue of unpopular U..S policy could continue to be an impediment.
“To simply say, ‘We have our differences with you about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about the occupation of Iraq, so let’s just move beyond that,’ I don’t see where it takes us,” says Charles Dunbar, a former ambassador to Yemen who is now a professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University. “Even if you were able to somehow remove that, you still have the fact that they do not see this ‘common enemy’ that U.S. policy is focused on.”
Another challenge Mr. Dunbar sees for a U.S. effort predicated on an ideological struggle within Islam is that it risks coming off as arrogant and meddlesome. “If you start talking about Islam, saying, ‘We know what good Islam is and what bad Islam is,’ when you’re doing that as Westerners you get into trouble.”
Glassman’s approach recognizes this risk, as when he acknowledges that “we are not the credible voices here.” It is why the new focus is on amplifying the local voices that, based on their vision of national interests, can provide an alternative to violent extremism, he says.
One argument being raised is that U.S. policy is so toxic in the Arab and Muslim worlds that any American effort on behalf of the anti-extremist forces it favors is counterproductive. But Satloff of the Washington Institute dismisses such a “one-dimensional view of Muslims” as “dangerous paternalism.”
“The ‘conventional wisdom’ … is that, because of the alleged unpopularity of the U.S. in Muslim societies, any connection with the U.S. government or even many U.S. quasi-governmental agencies is the ‘kiss of death’ for local activists,” Satloff writes. “The reality is that local activists are smart and mature enough to recognize issues where they welcome U.S. support and issues where they may disagree with U.S. policy, not letting the latter dissuade them from the former.”
Recent trends in some key Arab and Muslim countries appear to favor the moderate forces that the U.S. also hopes to encourage in the region. Fresh polls show support slipping for terrorism as a means of protest or political action. Approval of the suicide bombings that have been used against both Israelis and Muslims is down, as is the popularity of Mr. bin Laden.
But the way to build on that, says Gerges of Sarah Lawrence, is to develop policies that deal with regional priorities, especially those of the 65 percent of the population that is young, instead of tinkering with an approach that in his eyes is still based on the U.S. war on terror.
“Let’s focus on the social crisis these countries are facing. Let’s put the emphasis on developing the rule of law in Arab and Muslim governments,” Gerges says. “Then we can talk about something genuinely new in the American public-diplomacy effort.”