Sunday, June 1, 2008

"This requires a conceptual revolution"

This is from last November, but I think it is still relevant given the seeming state of perpetual stagnation of our war of ideas efforts. Succeeding in the war of ideas against Islamic extremism doesn't necessarily mean that people have to buy into our ideas, they just have to reject those of the extremists. However in the long term we need to be championing a set of ideas that can be used by people around the world to develop more liberal, more modern, more prosperous societies. Ideas that can help them through this transition period and give them a positive vision of (following Tom Barnett) a future worth creating. So while this article is accurate in addressing the first part of countering radical Islam it does not address the second part.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has fixated on dismal public opinion surveys in Muslim countries and viewed the core task for public diplomacy to be: "How do we fix foreigners' perceptions of the United States?" The result was that, despite persistent poor results in polls, Hughes succeeded in improving America's public relations capacity. This included creating media "rapid response" teams, energizing diplomats to engage with local journalists, and repairing the content and message of the "speaker abroad" programs.

But these tactical achievements cannot hide a stunning strategic failure. Because Hughes was the most senior government official responsible for the "battle of ideas," her principal task should have been to answer the question: How can the United States most effectively empower anti-radical Muslims around the world to combat the spread of Islamist extremism? After all, the "battle of ideas" is not a popularity contest about us; it is a battle for political power among Muslims, in which America's favorability rating is irrelevant.

Hughes clearly was attracted to polls as a metric of success. In a Sept. 17 Post op-ed, she twice referred to positive poll numbers as signs of progress in the fight against al-Qaeda. In so doing, she lost all right to claim that the ideological struggle is, as she sometimes said, "the work of a generation." Journalists who criticized Hughes for failing to improve America's poll numbers abroad were only judging her by the measurement she chose to extol America's successes.

Hughes's resignation gives Bush one last chance to get this right. This requires a conceptual revolution. Rather than expend effort on winning Muslim friendship for America, our engagement with Muslim publics -- what we call "public diplomacy" -- should focus on identifying, nurturing and supporting anti-Islamist Muslims, from secular liberals to pious believers, who fear the encroachment of radical Islamists and are willing to make a stand.

This strategy would involve overt and covert ways to assist anti-Islamist political parties, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, media outlets, women's groups, educational institutions and youth movements as they compete with the radicals. It calls for marshaling government resources -- our embassies, aid bureaucracies, international broadcasting units and intelligence agencies, as well as our commercial, educational and civic relationships -- to give anti-Islamists the moral, political, financial, technological and material support they need.
A key feature of this includes empowering local Muslims with information about the salafist or Wahhabi connections of their radical Islamist adversaries.

Our goal is to help anti-Islamists prevent extremists from controlling public space, public speech and public behavior. If our allies win, their societies have a chance to join the globalizing world and America benefits; if anti-Islamists fail, they lose, we lose and no bump in America's poll numbers will ever offset the gravity of the defeat.

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