U.S. Public Diplomacy: Forget the U.S. Image, Focus on Enemy Wrongs

In “Why Al-Qaeda is Losing,” published in the Washington Post on Jan. 13, Gary Anderson seizes on the simple insight that al-Qaida’s methods are abhorrent to most Muslims as the logical basis for recommending a new U.S. public diplomacy strategy. Forget feel-good “listening tours” of Muslim nations focusing on rehabilitating the U.S. image, he counsels. Instead, focus on the actions of Islamist extremists to degrade their reputation in the Muslim world:

. . . Our message isn’t selling. We can’t change what we are, nor would we want to. No matter how much the government may disapprove, the government’s official propaganda will be overwhelmed by the deluge, both positive and negative, from the popular media. We need to accept this fact and move on, rather than waste more millions on strategic communications “charm campaigns.”

What we can do is to expose our Islamic extremist enemies for what they are. The people of Afghanistan and Anbar found this out the hard way and threw the rascals out. But when al-Qaeda kills scores of innocents, we report it as a statistic without context. We may see weeping relatives and bloodstained bodies from a distance, on video or in photographs, but they are depersonalized, and people quickly become desensitized to anonymous images. Ironically, Stalin was right: One death is a tragedy; millions are a statistic. We need to help Muslims understand how these people really treat other Muslims.

The original Islamic movement spread its doctrine by a combination of military action and compassion. Charity was a key tenet. This is largely why Hamas and Hezbollah gain a degree of popular support in the areas they control. That ingredient is missing in the al-Qaeda/Taliban approach to the world. To them, winning hearts and minds means, “Agree with us or else.” That is largely the reason that the U.S. government dropped its early “for us or against us” approach. It has taken us some time, but we seem to be recovering from that approach.

If I were directing the U.S. strategic information campaign, I would spend my dollars on collecting photos of the Muslim innocents al-Qaeda has killed and putting below them quotations from the Koran decrying such practices. These advertisements would appear in every newspaper and TV station in the Muslim world where I could buy print space or air time.

We may not be losing the war on terrorism, but we are not doing all that we can to win it.

In focusing on the enemy, it’s not just their atrocities that provide ample fodder for a P.R. campaign aimed at alienating extremists. In addition to shaming them, the U.S. and the civilized world should also be exposing them to ridicule, as Michael Waller wrote in an interesting 2006 white paper. Here’s an excerpt:

The more extreme the leader, the more vulnerable he tends to be to ridicule. Being a declared adversary – even enemy – of the United States is a status symbol among the world’s terrorists, dictators, and political extremists. By taking that enemy too seriously, by hyping it up as a threat, the United States is unintentionally credentializing a heretofore insignificant individual or group, and giving it the stature it needs to rise above its own society, establish itself, attract recruits, and gain influence.

Ridicule can cut the enemy down to size. Arab, Persian and other predominantly Islamic cultures have long traditions of using ridicule for political and military purposes, presenting the U.S. with ample opportunities. The practice of militaristic ridicule dates from the third- to fifth years of Muhammad’s annunciation as prophet, when he employed ridicule aggressively against enemies, ahead of his invading forces. Poets wrote not so much for entertainment or storytelling as for psychological purposes to help achieve military ends. The popularity of some medieval Arab poets has been undergoing a revival since the 1980s, where the most extreme have provided intellectual and ideological foundations for Wahhabi/Salafi brands of militant Islamism and their terrorist manifestations.

Muslims around the world have ridiculed Islamist extremists and their terroristic interpretations of the Koran as few American writers, comedians and broadcasters would ever dare. Pakistani TV has run shows mocking the extremists. Political satire in literature, music and movies are some of the biggest sellers in the Arabic-speaking markets. Arab, Iranian and Indonesian stand-up comics already perform stinging political satire but few are well-known and even fewer have outlets, though if they were “discovered” their listenership could be in the hundreds of millions.

The U.S. military’s treatment of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi provides evidence for the wisdom of this approach. After months of unwisely hyping al-Zarqawi as the No. 1 enemy of the United States in Iraq, thereby unduly inflating his importance and influence, DOD officials finally got smart and tried a little ridicule.

Remember DOD officials mocking al-Zarqawi for handling his machine gun like an amateur? For a supposed “Lion of Holy War,” this kind of strategy is brilliantly effective (notwithstanding the clueless analysis of a few critics, who didn’t seem to understand that it doesn’t matter whether the content of the ridicule is logically valid in the minds of weapons experts, only how it is perceived by the target audience).

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