Waging the War of Ideas

The conventional wisdom is that the “global war on terrorism” can only be won if the spread of the ideology that feeds terrorism — Islamism, Islamic extremism or whatever you want to call it — is halted, discredited and rolled back.

Even the Bush administration, which has been criticized from the left and right for relying too much on “hard power” instruments such as the military in its foreign policy, now seems to realize this. One much-heralded case in point was the appointment of Bush confidant Karen Hughes as under secretary of state for public diplomacy. Another is the Defense Department’s increasing emphasis on “strategic communications” in its operations and planning.

Two items that could shed some light on the management of the war of ideas at both the Defense and State Departments recently came to my attention, and so I’m passing them along here.

The first is an article in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly (subscription required) by Ilana Ozernoy. Ozernoy recently accompanied Hughes on a “listening tour” of Morocco. Ozernoy concludes that Hughes hasn’t been doing a very good job of listening on these tours:

. . . for all her protestations that she was in Morocco “to listen and to learn,” Hughes seemed to be there to talk. She talked about herself as a working mom. She talked about choosing freedom over tyranny. “Tell me what we can do better,” she said to a group of Moroccan business leaders, in a discussion about bridging the cultural gap. Soon, though, Hughes offered her own answer. “I keep thinking we need to do a reality-TV show of a Moroccan family living in America! Let’s make this happen!”

More often than not, the burden seemed to be on her audience, not Hughes, to be the better listener. When a student asked Hughes at a cultural center in Casablanca what difficulties Hughes faced, she paused and then said, “Misunderstanding.” She went on to explain, “We’re a very diverse and tolerant country, but people don’t see us that way. They think we’re very arrogant, and they get that from the movies and TV coverage they watch.” Then she added, “At a time of war, at a time we’re trying to liberate the people of Iraq from a horrible dictator, it’s really hard to convey what America is like.” Later, at the middle school in Settat, Hughes zeroed in on a young girl in a hejab, who had put together a presentation on fighting terrorism. Hughes pulled up a chair and, as Moroccan photographers and cameramen circled, made a show of taking notes while the girl, working with a translator, went through her slides. “I wish I spoke Arabic! I need to learn it! But maybe I’m a little too old to learn!” Hughes teased. The girl smiled weakly. She appeared not to get the joke.

Part of Hughes’s past political strength has been her ability to connect with average Americans and communicate the president’s policies in terms they understand. But foreign audiences don’t necessarily think the same way, and they haven’t responded as favorably to her bootstrap bluntness, folksy charm, and anecdotes about being a mother. . . .

Not a positive portrait of Hughes’ diplomatic skills. Ozernoy also rightly points out that this kind of face-to-face diplomacy can only be so effective if the audience the United States is trying to influence fundamentally loathes its recent foreign policy.

On the other hand, Ozernoy reports that “Hughes is pushing to increase the budgets for public diplomacy and visitor exchanges next year to almost $825 million.” If Hughes manages to leverage her relationship with Bush and her political skills to significantly increase funding for public diplomacy, this contribution could outweigh her failures in listening-tour diplomacy.

The Defense Department is also trying to ramp up its efforts in the battle of ideas. DOD’s 2006 “Quadrennial Defense Review” found that the department needs to better integrate “strategic communications” into everything it does, from training to warfighting. On Sept. 25, the department released a “Strategic Communications Roadmap” that lays out the path for improvement in this area.

The folks over at InsideDefense.com obtained a copy of the roadmap, and are offering it through their pay-per-view newstand site. It’s not terribly exciting unless you’re into organizational charts and you understand DOD-speak. But there a few interesting nuggets to be gleaned from it. Among them:

  • By June 2007, DOD’s Combatant Commands will begin taking into account strategic communications when formulating operational plans for war and other missions.
  • By September 2007, the U.S. Joint Forces Command will “develop an overarching program to provide cross-cultural communication expertise to the joint warfighter . . . in cooperation with the Defense Language Office.”
  • U.S. Special Operations Command’s responsibility to use “psychological operations” for strategic communication may expand.
  • The Pentagon wants to spend $125 million over five years, beginning in fiscal year 2008, to improve its access to “foreign broadcast, Internet, and print media tools and products” for assessment and analysis, as well as $28 million in fiscal year 2008 to “maintain existing print and broadcast analysis capabilities in DOD.”
  • DOD will examine building a “Web-based interactive collaborative services application to improve the process of capturing, filtering, processing, querying, and presenting information on demand.”
  • The department will “develop a concept for establishing” U.S. government-wide “regional support centers to provide open-source assessment, collection, analysis and fusion of the communication environment.”

And this is a just a sampling of the initiatives identifed in the document. In a nutshell, the Defense Department is going to spend a lot more money improving its ability to tell the stories it wants to tell, as well as to analyze the stories that are being told elsewhere in the global media.