Politics & Policy

War of Ideas

The old-new battlefield.

The resignation of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, calls for a reexamination of how the U.S. is waging a war of ideas against Islamist terrorism. Beers’s resignation comes as the State Department is facing increasing difficulty marshalling international public opinion in support of the coming war against Iraq. The battle for hearts and minds is not a short-term campaign but a protracted conflict that will last decades, if not generations. It should be guided by an integrated strategy of public diplomacy and political covert action, something that the United States has not attempted for half a century, since the early stages of the Cold War.

The concept of the war of ideas should not be confused with psychological operations (psyops), which are a tactical instrument deployed on the battlefield specifically to undermine the morale of an enemy fighting force. Plenty of psyops will be launched against Saddam’s troops.

The campaign in the information and media battlefields is another story; it will be fought not so much against another superpower (as was the case with the USSR), as against an array of radical organizations and the governments that support them.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has found itself engaged in an ideological war against those who wish to destroy American society and its core values. Terrorism has deep roots in the modern radical — indeed totalitarian — interpretations of Islam that gave birth to al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations.

Secular regimes, such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya, also create terrorist groups and use them to further their political ends. Totalitarian ideologies of terrorism — both the Islamist and secular varieties — have to be discredited and eventually destroyed. This is one war that our country cannot afford to lose.

The nature of the enemy, the spectrum of the threats, and the environment in which the conflict is waged makes the battle overt where possible, and covert where necessary. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations operate by stealth. So do funders who subsidize radical Islamic brainwashing in the guise of religious “education.” Persian Gulf moneybags, Iranian ayatollahs, and jihadi fundraisers from mosques in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Finsbury Park, London, and from Florida to the Philippines, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this war.

Today, most Westerners are not allowed into religious seminaries in Pakistan and the Gulf. Thus, penetration by U.S. and friendly agents is required. And, regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria do not welcome U.S. foreign service officers on public-diplomacy missions. Thus, the Central Intelligence Agency’s political-action capabilities, eviscerated in the 1970s, need to be rebuilt.

The key to victory in the battle of ideas will be leadership from the top — clear policy guidance and perseverance from the White House, as well as support from the American people.

The main American weapon in the battle of ideas should be the truth — truth about the societies, their rulers, and terrorist leaders. The truth should be disseminated through open channels where possible, and covertly where necessary, but the promotion of individual freedom and respect for others’ life, faith, and property must remain at the heart of any strategy. Other countries want to join the U.S.-led effort, as participants in a conference organized with U.S. support at the parliament of Finland have recently declared. Their participation should be welcomed: In the Cold War, U.S., British, and German international broadcasters coordinated their activities. A similar cooperation should be developed today.

The mixed successes, and in some cases the outright failure, of recent attempts to engage in the battle of ideas — such as State’s international media initiatives, featuring religious tolerance and a sunny attitude towards Islam in America; the Pentagon’s short-lived Office of Strategic Influence; and the newly-launched Radio Farda in Farsi and Radio Sawa in Arabic — demonstrate how difficult it is to regain massive public-diplomacy capabilities in a new theater only twelve years after the end of the Cold War. These efforts will require humility, patience, and realism: Changing the way people think is hard.

Victory in the war of ideas will require developing and mobilizing cultural, geographic, and linguistic expertise, all of which in turn require a long-term commitment of resources and stamina. This is a battle in which it is necessary to understand audiences and engage them, including women, youth, the business community, artists, academics, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities.

To win, Washington and its allies should pursue the following policies:

Initiate diplomatic action against the state-supported incitement to violence prevalent in mosques, education systems, and Islamist media. Develop and maintain databases tracking violent preachers and madrassa principals. Monitor school and university curricula, demanding reform of countries’ educational systems where necessary. Radical mosques and madrassas have become, in some places, little more than Jihad factories indoctrinating hundreds of thousands of potential terrorists. Often, weapons training is provided alongside the Koranic studies.

Expand the capability for political covert action at the CIA, not just against terrorist cells, but also against the mass movements and political parties that spawn them, and regimes that support them.

Identify and recruit talent for the new war of ideas. Utilize the talents of people from the Islamic world residing in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. This war can and should be fought primarily for Muslims, by Muslims.

Prepare managers and experts to administer public information operations. The best Cold War-era operations, such as Radio Liberty-Radio Free Europe, and today’s global broadcasting, demonstrate that mixing teams of Westerners and locals has proven most effective.

Reform and reexamine funding for Middle Eastern studies programs at Western universities, some of which are hijacked by the Left, as Michael Kramer’s recent book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, amply demonstrates. Some Middle Eastern academics busy themselves with “explaining,” if not outright justifying, the “root causes” of terrorism. Politically mobilized sympathizers and fellow travelers often claim expertise in the area, and oppose a robust effort against international terrorism.

Pursue inter- and intra-confessional religious dialogue. It is necessary to identify and support moderate Islamic clergy and lay leaders — to initiate and encourage debate within Islam about the corroding and dangerous role of terror and fostering or harboring terrorists.

Further develop Radio Farda and Radio Sawa as surrogate broadcasting, similar to Radio Liberty-Radio Free Europe; carefully monitor feedback from their target audiences. Begin a feasibility study for Western satellite TV channels in Arabic, Pashtu, and Farsi.

Expand the publication of books, journals, and newspapers that promote views opposing radical Islam and provide the truth about America and the West. The Middle East is one of the most Internet-starved regions of the earth. Thus, the population has to have access to printed materials. State’s Bureau of Public Diplomacy should revive the book-translation program formerly run by the U.S. Information Agency.

Reevaluate and restructure cultural-exchange programs. It is necessary, but expensive, to expose a larger number of Middle Eastern and Islamic current and future leaders to the United States and the West.

Only twelve years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S., the West, and a large number of allies are facing a new threat to their ultimate survival. The military successes in the war in Afghanistan and the coming war against Saddam should not distract policymakers from the ideological nature of the conflict.

This is not a war against Islam, but against vicious militants who are trying to hijack Islam and topple moderate governments throughout the Islamic world. Ideas have consequences, and this battle has to be joined through words, symbols, and pictures, not just bullets and missiles. The creation of effective institutions and mechanisms, and the formulation of key messages to fight this war of ideas has become one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for the Bush administration.

As in wars against 20th-century totalitarians, this struggle must be fought as a war of ideas, not just a battle of military tactics and equipment. As many a world leader said, the swamp has to be drained.

— Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. From 1979 to 1992 he managed audience-research projects for Radio Liberty and studied Soviet-influence operations in the third world. The views expressed in this article are his own.


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