War of Ideas: America’s Problems and Way Forward

The Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, must be commended, on its recently released report on America’s outreach to the Muslim world. Described by The New York Times’ Defense correspondent, Thom Shanker, as "a harshly critical report," the study shows in a unprecedented way that America’s efforts to improve its image overseas is facing more problems than expected. To summarize these problems is to describe them as a domestic triangle of setbacks consisting of missing leadership, counterproductive foreign policies, and a surprising lack of obvious understanding among America’s top officials of the main goal of the War on Terrorism.


When it comes to the Bush administration’s role in leading the war of ideas, the report states, "there is a consensus that U.S. public diplomacy is in crisis. Missing are strong leadership, strategic direction, adequate coordination, sufficient resources, and a culture of measurement and evaluation." The report complains that the Bush administration was satisfied with making some minor changes to the way America conducts its public diplomacy. Some of these changes included delivering public speeches that emphasize that the “War on Terrorism,” is not a war on Islam, encouraging top officials to appear on Arab and global media networks, launching a new TV network Al Hurra, and a new radio station Sawa, in Arabic and embedding journalists with the troops in Iraq.

Yet, there has been no presidential directive to reorganize America’s public diplomacy institutions, programs, or strategies. One of the administrations’ main public diplomacy posts, the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was vacant for two of the first four years of the Bush administration. The Department of Defense created an Office of Strategic Influence in October 2001 to lead a "strategic information campaign in support of the War on Terrorism" and then shut it down in four months after some officials accused the office of intending to spread lies and misinformation that would ultimately hurt America’s image and credibility in the world.

As a result, America’s public diplomacy agencies and officials had been with little planning, research, internal coordination, or any measurable ways to evaluate their work. Moreover, these agencies were left with narrow budgets that did not correspond with the administration’s frequent emphasis on the importance of winning the war of ideas. The report estimates that the annual spending of America’s public diplomacy programs is about $ 1.2 billion, which is equal to one-quarter of 1 percent of the military budget. "Political leaders," the report urges, "need to determine whether a military budget 400 times greater than a strategic communication budget is adequate to U.S. national security strategy and to a global War on Terrorism viewed as a struggle about ideas."

Counterproductive Foreign Policies

Speaking about the effect of America’s foreign policies on its image in the Middle East, the report eloquently states that "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. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility."

To explain America’s credibility problem, the report refers in an unparalleled way to some of America’s policies toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. "U.S. Policies on Israeli-Palestinian issues and Iraq in 2003-2004," the report warns, "have damaged America’s credibility and power to persuade.” It also refers to Muslims’ perceptions of "one-sided support [of America] in favor of Israel and against Palestinians", of the "chaos and suffering" resulting from America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and of America’s support for some Arab and Muslim non-democratic regimes.

America’s counterproductive policies, according to the report, did not only lead to diminishing Arab support for the United States, but they have also led to the elevation of "the stature of and support" that some radical groups have in the Arab and Muslim societies. They have transformed what the report describes as "a marginal network" of extremists into a "wide movement of fighting groups," which can be easily seen happening in Iraq today.

Defining the War on Terrorism

More surprisingly, the report, if read carefully, points to a startling major problem hindering America’s officials who are responsible for planning and applying America’s war of ideas. They do not have a common understanding of the true nature and main goal of the War on Terrorism.

The report describes the War on Terrorism as the new "meta narrative," that has replaced the Cold War paradigm, and through which most government officials discuss and think about America’s national security today. Yet, it complains that the U.S. Government is still using a "Cold War style response" that leaves most officials with little understanding of the true nature of the new era and its proper policies. "The U.S. Government does not even have a coherent statement of the problem, and refuses to address the importance of strategic communication in addressing it," the report cautions. As a result, discussions about the War on Terrorism very often "direct attention to tactics not strategy."

In this regard, the report warns that the War on Terrorism "is more than a war against the tactic of terrorism." It also warns against short-term solutions and against manipulative public relations. The authors of the report defined the War on Terrorism as "a generational and global struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and Islam," in which "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."

In general, the authors see the Muslim World going through a rapid and comprehensive struggle for change and awakening led by the Islamic restoration movements, many of which are "non-violent, tolerant, and relatively pluralistic," and who constitute "the true center of gravity in the Muslim World today." They believe that America’s goal should be to help "promote actual positive change" within the Muslim world.

The Future

In its last chapter, the report introduces several recommendations to strengthen American public diplomacy. First, it calls for a clear and shared understanding of the War on Terrorism and the role public diplomacy ought to play in order for the United States to win the war. Second, it calls upon the President and the Congress to intervene, to reorganize, and support the institutions and programs of public diplomacy. It also calls for better cooperation between the Government and the private sector in improving America’s image overseas and for use of more advanced communication technologies in spreading America’s message to the world.

More importantly, the Bush administration should reevaluate some of its policies toward the Middle East-“actions speak louder than words. Adopting an even-handed approach toward the Arab-Israeli issues and bringing security and stability back to Iraq as soon as possible are immediate necessary steps that America should take to help rebuild its credibility in the Middle East.

In addition, America should refrain immediately from any Iraq-like heavy-handed intervention in the Muslim world. Instead, it should align itself with the aspirations of the Arab and Muslim societies for freedom and democracy. The war of ideas should not be seen by American officials as a tool to reshape the Muslim world in America’s image. Rather, it should be regarded as an opportunity for finding out new peaceful and just ways to maintain the relationship between America and the Muslim world.

Bush’s new term is seen by many observers in America and the Muslim world as an opportunity for the administration to have a fresh look at its policies and their effect on the Muslim world. Certainly, the report should be helpful in providing such perspective.