Al-Qaeda and radical Islamists are winning the propaganda war against the United States, says a high-level Pentagon panel, which concluded that Bush administration policies in the Middle East, its fundamental failure to understand the Muslim world, and a lack of imagination in using new communications technologies are responsible.
In a report [.pdf] concluded in September but only released this week, the Defense Science Board (DSB) called for a major overhaul of Washington’s “public diplomacy” and “strategic communication” apparatus that would include much more money and the creation of a new independent agency to enlist the support of the private sector, researchers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote U.S. messages to an increasingly hostile Islamic world.
“Strategic communication is a vital component of U.S. national security,” stressed the 111-page report. “It is in crisis, and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security. … Collaboration between government and the private sector on an unprecedented scale is imperative.”
The document also called on U.S. policymakers to spend more time “listening” to their intended audience and use messages that “should seek to reduce, not increase, perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards.”
The DSB, made up of private sector and academic experts appointed by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, normally confines its advice to scientific and technological matters. While it has no executive authority, its prominence, the generally hawkish cast of its membership and the urgent tone of the report will likely place its recommendations high on the agenda in President George W. Bush’s second term.
The study is based on interviews with senior U.S. public-diplomacy, strategic-communication, and psychological-warfare officials and experts, more than a dozen studies by NGOs, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, public-opinion surveys, and internal government reports over the past three years.
All of them have shown a sharp plunge in U.S. standing throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, particularly since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as virtually total failure of the United States to effectively reverse that view, in large part due to the perception among Muslims that Washington’s policies are aimed at their submission.
As one task force headed by former President George H.W. Bush’s top Middle East adviser, Edward Djerejian, concluded 13 months ago, “‘Spin’ and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer. Foreign policy counts. … Sugarcoating and fast talking are no solutions.”
The DSB report also stresses that U.S. policies in the Mideast – notably Washington’s support for Israel, the Iraq invasion, and its backing of autocratic leaders in the region – make it very difficult for Washington to persuade Muslims of its good intentions. The report, however, does not advise changing policies, which would be beyond its mandate.
The gap between Washington’s rhetoric and its actions in the region, as perceived by Muslims, has contributed to a virtually total loss of credibility, argues the study.
“The larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of nonviolent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-jihadists,” it argues. “But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended” by essentially bearing out “the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars.”
Thus, contrary to the mantra of the administration and its neoconservative advisers, asserts the report, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.”
Moreover, “when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy,” while “saying that ‘freedom is the future of the Middle East’ is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World,” which, asserts the report, is not how Arabs see their situation at all.
On the contrary, it adds, the large majority yearn “to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.”
“In the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering,” notes the document.
“The critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world is not one of ‘dissemination of information,’ or even one of crafting and delivering the ‘right’ message,” the report states.
“Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none – the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. Inevitably, therefore, whatever Americans do and say only serves the party that has both the message and the ‘loud and clear’ channel: the enemy.”
Neoconservative and administration efforts to depict the “war on terrorism” that Bush launched after the 9/11 attacks as a war against “another totalitarian evil,” as in the Cold War, have been a “strategic mistake,” according to the report.
“In stark contrast to the Cold War, the United States today is not seeking to contain a threatening state-empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of western modernity – an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a ‘war on terrorism.'”
“If we really want to see the Muslim world as a whole and the Arab-speaking world in particular move more toward our understanding of ‘moderation’ and ‘tolerance,’ we must reassure Muslims that this does not mean they must submit to the American way,” argues the report.
To succeed, Washington must target those in the Islamic world “who support, or are likely to support, our views based on their own culture, traditions, and attitudes about such things as personal control, choice, and change,” it adds.
“We believe the most ‘movable’ targets will be the so-called secularists of the Muslim world: businesspeople, scientists, non-religious educators, politicians or public administrators, musicians, artists, poets, writers, journalists, actors, and their audiences and admirers.”
Key themes and messages that can persuade this group to back U.S. goals include: “respect for human dignity and individual rights; individual education and economic opportunity; and personal freedom, safety, and mobility,” suggests the report, which also stresses developing new techniques for reaching that audience, including electronic mail, Internet chat rooms, video games, and interactive Internet games.
More traditional efforts, such as television broadcasts, person-to-person exchanges, the enlistment of celebrities in government public-diplomacy efforts, should also be expanded by injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into existing programs that have, says the report, become “anemic” since the Cold War.
The president should also establish a new deputy national security advisor for strategic communication post in the White House, as well as a “strategic communication committee” within the National Security Council (NSC) on which senior representatives from all relevant agencies should serve, it proposes.
Congress should also establish a Center for Strategic Communication modeled after the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that, among other things, would act as a think tank devising new programs, such as a children’s TV series in Arabic, to communicate core messages.
(Inter Press Service)