Is Bad PR Really the Problem?

Speaking to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia in May 2005, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made two important observations:

  • "[T]his conflict [what the administration calls the Global War on Terrorism or GWOT] cannot be won by military means alone."
  • "[W]e must find ways to reduce the ideological appeal of violent extremism."

While recognizing the limitations of military action and the importance of winning hearts and minds, Rumsfeld focused on the means for delivering the U.S. message as the solution to the problem:

"Anti-American messages and images of hate quickly find their way across the world via the Internet and other advanced technologies.

"Yet for decades, the international community’s response to this ideological battle has been inadequate. In particular, the standard U.S. government public affairs operation is still rooted in the era of daily and weekly news cycles, rather than the 24-hour global maelstrom of instant coverage on cable news, talk radio, and the Internet.

"Communications operations may well require substantial innovation, greater agility, and the speed that accompanies a transformed military. We will need to develop considerably more sophisticated ways of using the many new communication channels available to reach diverse audiences critical to success in this new world – and to do so near instantaneously.

"This will require developing better access to the non-mainstream media around the world – as their influence continues to grow and as the influence and reach of more traditional channels continue to decline."

In other words, the former secretary of defense seemed to think that the prescription for waging (and presumably winning) the war of ideas against radical Islam was a better public relations or communications or public diplomacy effort (one of the reasons the Pentagon created a public diplomacy office). This thinking persists today. For example, according to Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Lt. Gen. William Boykin, "Our adversaries are way ahead of us in the use of the Internet and the use of the media." And Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) Thomas O’Connell has lamented, "We have got to do a better job of telling our story. I think we make efforts. I don’t know if they’re efforts that are very well coordinated both on an international and a domestic level."

Listening to Boykin and O’Connell, one would think that the United States is somehow simply misunderstood, and if we were just better at telling our story, Muslims would embrace what we have to say and all would be well. (Of course, one has to wonder how Muslims reacted to Gen. Boykin’s comments that "I knew my God was a real God and his [a Muslim fighter in Somalia] was an idol" and "The enemy [Islamic extremists] is a spiritual enemy. He’s called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan.") Such logic rests on the belief that U.S. intentions are inherently good and, therefore, policy choices in pursuit of those intentions are, by definition, good policies – thereby precluding any questioning of U.S. foreign policy and particularly the use of military force.

But not questioning U.S. foreign policy is exactly the problem. It’s not that Muslims don’t understand what we do – they understand all too well because they have been on the receiving end often enough. It’s that we don’t understand how Muslims view our actions (regardless of our intentions) and that their negative view of the United States is driven largely by what we do, not who we are.

Even now, we don’t understand how stationing 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War (which was unnecessary for U.S. national security) became a cause célèbre for bin Laden and how 9/11 was a direct result. Thus, we don’t understand why Muslims such as Dr. Saad al-Fagih (a Saudi dissident in London, who has never advocated violence against Americans or endorsed terrorism) could agree with bin Laden: "I don’t think there is a sensible person who believes that the Americans should stay in Saudi Arabia. … If you are a devout Muslim, there is a religious obligation not to accept non-Muslims in military form staying in the country, especially the holy land." Similarly, we don’t understand how U.S. support for repressive and authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world fuels extreme hatred for America. Even Muslim Americans – many of whom fled those repressive regimes to seek better lives for themselves and their families in America – would largely agree that this is a legitimate grievance of Muslims living under oppressive rule (not to mention the hypocrisy of the U.S. supporting those regimes while claiming to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and the larger Muslim world).

In August 2004, Shibley Telhami (then a member of President Bush’s advisory group on public diplomacy) expressed concern that our hearts-and-minds campaign to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world and dissuade Muslims from becoming terrorists was "worse than failing. Failing means you tried and didn’t get better. But at this point, three years after September 11, you can say there wasn’t even much of an attempt, and today Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. and the degree of distrust of the U.S. are far worse than they were three years ago."

Sadly, more than four years later, it would seem that we haven’t made much – if any – progress in how to wage the war of ideas. It’s still more about style over substance. According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy Michael Doran, "The military on the ground is very much aware of the fact that when they carry out an operation it has a huge impact on how people perceive what we’re doing. There needs to be people at Defense who are thinking about this." In other words, if we can just be better at managing perceptions of our conduct of war, Muslims will understand us better (and presumably forgive us) when we bomb them.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.