Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

Messaging to the (Muslim) Masses

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Ilan Berman


Full Text

By now, the idea that the struggle against radical Islam is in large part a battle of ideas has become widely accepted. Our statesmen, diplomats and political leaders regularly intone that we are engaged in a monumental conflict between freedom and fear, between democratic values and religious totalitarianism, and between individual liberties and religious fiat. But is the United States actively engaging in this struggle? Sadly, all of the available evidence suggests that it is not. Eight years into the fight, America still lacks anything remotely resembling a coherent strategy for competing on the Muslim world's intellectual battlefields. And without one, it has steadily ceded the strategic initiative to its adversaries, who do.

That this state of affairs is counterintuitive is something of an understatement. Even during peacetime, the United States needs the ability to actively communicate its values and policies to the outside world. During a time of conflict, particularly one against intractable ideological adversaries, nothing could be more urgent.

Winning the Cold War...

This lack of communication is all the more surprising because not long ago the United States possessed-and successfully implemented-just such a plan, not once but twice.

The first was formulated during the early years of the Cold War, when the United States was struggling for a new and innovative approach to its emerging superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union. As part of this effort, President Harry Truman tasked the Policy Planning staff of then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson with crafting a new national security paradigm to govern relations with the U.S.SR. Truman approved the resulting document, National Security Council paper 68 (NSC-68), on April 14, 1950, thereby committing the United States to a "worldwide" ideological and political struggle to contain the Soviet Union and Communist ideology.

Today, NSC-68 is widely recognized as the blueprint for the "containment" strategy that came to dominate U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the early decades of the Cold War. Yet its contributions to the field of American strategic influence were no less important. With the implementation of NSC-68, the previously ad hoc covert and overt political warfare initiatives carried out by various U.S. government agencies (not least the CIA and its predecessor, the OSS), were consolidated into a new bureaucracy. The centerpiece of this new structure was an interagency working group known as the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB).1 Subsequent national security directives dramatically expanded the authority of the U.S. military to carry out strategic influence operations-from psychological warfare to propaganda-during peacetime.

Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, continued this trend. On Ike's watch, a new entity known as the President's Committee on International Information Activities (PCIIA) was formed, and set about refining, expanding and strengthening the initiatives already set in motion by the PSB. From its recommendations, detailed in a comprehensive 1953 report, sprang the organization and authority for national security planning possessed today by the President's National Security Council. And political warfare, in its various permutations, was a central part of that structure.

The second was initiated by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. In line with his view of U.S.-Soviet relations as an intractable ideological contest, Reagan abandoned the "cold peace" that had set in between the superpowers in favor of a vision for victory against Moscow. In July of 1982, he issued National Security Decision Directive 45 (NSDD 45), setting the stage for a dramatic enhancement of America's international communications presence. "International broadcasting," NSDD 45 declared, "constitutes an important instrument in the national security policy of the United States."2 This directive dictated that the scope and reach of America's premier instruments of international outreach-the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)-would be expanded and strengthened.

Two other edicts followed in close succession. NSDD 77, issued in January of 1983, launched a comprehensive strategic communications campaign against the U.S.SR.3 Just over a year later, Reagan bolstered this effort with NSDD 130, which dramatically expanded the range of active U.S. strategic communications activities, reinforcing traditional information instruments such as broadcasting, authorizing new ones (such as the distribution of audio and video cassettes), and reinvigorating the use of psychological operations (PSYOP) by the U.S. military.4

The practical effects were far-reaching. With greater funding and technical means, VOA and RFE/RL were able to widen their activities-and their appeal-among the oppressed peoples of the Soviet bloc. Their efforts, in turn, have been credited by experts as playing a key role in successfully winning the Cold War for the West.

...but losing the peace

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, American strategic influence became a victim of its own success. The end of the Cold War kindled hopes for a "peace dividend" among many in Washington, and U.S. officials embarked upon a systematic dismantlement of the informational infrastructure that had so successfully communicated American values and ideals to the captive masses behind the Iron Curtain.

Throughout the 1990s, U.S. strategic communications suffered death by a thousand cuts, as important and dynamic programs were progressively eliminated, funding dwindled and the human brain trust that had helped to win the ideological battle against Soviet Communism was dispersed. In their place, the United States grew more and more dependent on private media, believing against all the available evidence that such outlets could communicate U.S. interests as effectively as their official counterparts.

The crowning blow came in October 1999, when the United States Information Agency-until then the operational nerve center of U.S. public outreach-was formally folded into the State Department as part of new legislation aimed at restructuring and streamlining the nation's public diplomacy effort. That decision, more than any other, can be credited with the current systemic dysfunctions plaguing American public diplomacy.

In lieu of the U.S.IA, the U.S. government opted to erect a hybrid structure-part bureaucratic and part programmatic-to oversee American outreach. Formally, the U.S. State Department took charge of the country's public affairs, cultural outreach and international education efforts. Practically, American broadcasting became the bailiwick of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan oversight panel populated largely by prominent businessmen and media figures.

Two results flowed from this fateful decision. The first is an attrition of strategic vision. During the Cold War, broadcasting was viewed as an integral tool of America's larger public diplomacy effort, and its goal, as then-USIA Director Edward R. Murrow told Congress back in the spring of 1963, was "to further the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives."5 The BBG, however, has taken a rather different view. As one Board member famously put it back in 2002, "We've got to think of ourselves as separate from public diplomacy."6 Not surprisingly, this perception has had a pronounced effect on the way the BBG does business.

The second result is a decline in the reach of America's various instruments of strategic influence. During the Cold War, person-to-person exchanges formed the backbone of U.S. cultural diplomacy, exposing foreign constituencies and emerging activists to American ideas, values and policies. The result was the cultivation of a generation of political leaders-from Vaclav Havel to Helmut Kohl-who understood, and identified with, the vision underpinning American policies. And yet, in the decade that followed the Soviet collapse, the United States unilaterally stripped itself of the ability to influence post-Cold War political leaders in a similar fashion. When tallied in 2002, the number of academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and foreign nations was found to have been slashed by nearly 40 percent (from 45,000 to 29,000 annually) during the second half of the 1990s alone.7 Simultaneously, American information centers abroad-once a key resource for foreign publics interested in learning more about the United States-were aggressively scaled down.8

If anything, broadcasting initiatives have fared even worse. In their heyday at the height of the Cold War, the combined efforts of the Voice of America and RFE/RL are estimated to have reached as much as 80 percent of the population of Eastern Europe, and half of the citizens of the Soviet Union, every week.9 In turn, the arguments, ideas and discussions carried on those outlets empowered an emerging generation of leaders within the Soviet bloc-leaders who, armed with Western values, would emerge to challenge the authority of the Soviet Communist Party. Today, however, America's tools of public outreach have been relegated to the margins of politics in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Part of this decline undoubtedly has to do with funding. When surveyed close to a year-and-a-half after September 11th, the United States was spending, in real terms, about one-third less on public diplomacy than it did during the Cold War.10 Of that money, only a comparatively small fraction is spent on outreach to the principal area in need of such contact: the Muslim world. (In its 2003 survey, the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World estimated that just one-sixth of the State Department's $600 million public diplomacy budget was spent in majority Muslim countries.)11 The modest increases to America's public diplomacy and public affairs budgets undertaken by the Bush administration during its term in office have only partially addressed the resulting communications deficit.

But even when America's message manages to penetrate Arab and Muslim society, it often falls on deaf ears. This is largely because, over the past decade, Washington has ceased actively affecting what foreign audiences know or feel about America and its values. Instead, consistent with former BBG Commissioner Norman Pattiz's belief that MTV, rather than American ideals or Soviet corruption, "brought down the Berlin Wall,"12 American public diplomacy has gravitated to a lighter, music-driven format.

The resulting decline in U.S. strategic influence is hardly surprising. "The more like commercial radio U.S. broadcasting becomes, the less reason it has to exist," former VOA Director Robert Reilly has explained. "After all, the image of America created by the popular media is the cliché that often repels much of the world. U.S. broadcasting has the duty to reveal the character of the American people in such a way that the underlying principles of American life are revealed. Music with a sprinkling of news cannot do this."13

Ceding the informational battleground

Little in this sorry picture has changed since September 11th. To its credit, the Bush administration grasped early on the importance of political warfare to the new worldwide conflict against the forces of radical Islam. Thus, its formative National Security Strategy of the United States of America, released publicly in September of 2002, counseled that:

Just as our diplomatic institutions must adapt so that we can reach out to others, we also need a different and more comprehensive approach to public information efforts that can help people around the world learn about and understand America. The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations. It does, however, reveal the clash inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world. This is a struggle of ideas and this is an area where America must excel.14

As a practical matter, however, the U.S. government did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, even as it professed its commitment to fighting the "war of ideas," the Bush Administration voluntarily took itself out of the competition in it.

To be sure, the start of the War on Terror prompted a media reorientation toward the Middle East on the part of the White House. The first step in this process was the establishment in 2002 of Radio Sawa, a flashy radio channel heavily laden with the latest pop music but light on critical analysis and news, to serve as the successor to VOA's lackluster Arabic Service. Two years later, with considerable fanfare, the BBG launched Alhurra, a high-profile satellite television station aimed at providing news and analysis for audiences in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The success of these initiatives has been mixed, however. By all accounts, Sawa has a marginal impact on the Middle Eastern political scene, in large part because its format is seen as "fun" but "irrelevant" by locals. Alhurra, while more successful, has succumbed in recent times to a corrosive culture of subtle anti-Americanism (manifested through, among other things, ever greater media airtime for terrorists and their sympathizers).15

Nor has this reorganization meant more money. Against all logic, funding for U.S. public diplomacy has not risen by any appreciable amount since 2001.16 And without such additional investments, much of this reorganization has come at the expense of other critical programming. Thus, in early 2007, in an effort to reallocate resources to its Middle Eastern programming, the White House announced a major constriction in the worldwide activities of the Voice of America. These cuts, outlined in the FY2008 Foreign Operations budget presented by the Administration to Congress, included the outright elimination of English-language broadcasts by VOA on every continent except Africa, a cessation of the VOA's Cantonese, Croatian, Greek, Georgian, Thai and Uzbek services, and a significant reduction in the programming of what was arguably the agency's flagship effort, the VOA Russian service. This evisceration was only delayed by swift action from Congress, which authorized an emergency support fund to sustain the programming in question, at least temporarily.

The State Department, now the U.S. government's principal public diplomacy coordinator, has fared no better. For years, Foggy Bottom has floundered without a coherent vision for outreach, under a succession of beleaguered stewards. The first such point-person was Charlotte Beers, a high-powered marketing executive that President Bush appointed to the newly-created post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs just one month after the September 11th attacks. Beers entered office with high expectations and an ambitious plan to repackage America in the eyes of foreign audiences. But she would depart just a year-and-a-half later, her marketing scheme for "Brand America" thoroughly discredited by foreign audiences. Beers' successor, Margaret Tutwiler, lasted even less time and left even less of an impression, fleeing the post in June 2004, just six months after being sworn in. It was not until the installation of Karen Hughes, President Bush's close personal confidante and longtime advisor, that the State Department's sclerotic public diplomacy bureaucracy appeared to be nudged into action. But the resulting strategic plan, the U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication released by the State Department in December 2006, still left a great deal to be desired. As the U.S. government's internal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, pointed out in its assessment of the situation in the summer of 2007, the Department of State-whatever its formal strategy-still exhibits serious practical deficiencies in carrying out effective public diplomacy action.17

Matters improved in June 2008, when a new Under Secretary took the helm of the State Department's public outreach efforts. James Glassman, a veteran journalist and author, was selected for the post following a brief but dynamic tenure as Chairman of the BBG. Glassman gave hopeful signs of understanding the importance of media to the current struggle, and of the need for a comprehensive coordinated approach to it. Yet his tenure and vision were cut short with the advent of a new administration, and a number of promising initiatives withered on the vine.

Other corners of the U.S. government have been even harder hit. Pentagon efforts to forge a coherent strategic influence strategy, for example, have been largely stillborn-a casualty of political pressure and bureaucratic infighting. Such was the case of the Office of Strategic Influence, established in October 2001 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to develop "a full spectrum influence strategy that would result in greater foreign support of U.S. goals and repudiation of terrorists and their methods."18 The OSI was plagued with problems from the start, and in February 2002, just four months after commissioning the OSI, Rumsfeld shuttered the office, declaring it to be "so damaged" as to be unable to "function effectively."19 In lieu of the OSI, Pentagon planners opted for a lower-profile option, creating the post of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Diplomacy Support. But that position, established on the recommendation of the Defense Science Board, lay vacant for almost a year-and-a-half before accepting its first occupant in 2007.

This rot has been mirrored at the operational level. In the early stages of the War on Terror, United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), the principal combatant command responsible for the greater Middle East, established a Media Engagement Team (MET) to coordinate the informational front of Coalition operations. Launched in August 2005, this small, ad hoc unit, headquartered in Dubai, served as the U.S. military's primary liaison unit with al-Jazeera, al-Arabiyah and other regional media outlets. But in mid-2007, clashes of personality between some members of the MET and CENTCOM's new commander, Admiral William Fallon, led to its complete dissolution.20 It was not until General David Petraeus assumed the post of CENTCOM chief in October of 2008, more than a year later, that tentative steps began to be taken to reconstitute this capability. In its absence, the U.S.-led Coalition compromised its ability to interface with the often-hostile Arab media, a crucial medium in the "battle of ideas" now taking place in the region.

From defense to offense

This disarray has not gone unnoticed. Over the past several years, scores of studies, reports and assessments have taken stock of America's ability to exert strategic influence abroad. Their conclusions have been practically unanimous. A "process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety," the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, declared in its October 2003 report.21 Others have been even more blunt. America's strategic communications are "in crisis," the Pentagon's elite Defense Science Board warned in 2004, and "must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security."22

How can the United States do so? By now, many policymakers have spoken about the "battle of ideas" that must be waged against our adversaries, and intoned the importance of winning "hearts and minds" in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But few actually know what this means. Fewer still understand that the U.S. has at its disposal a spectrum of informational disciplines which, if properly harnessed, hold the power to shape foreign perceptions and help the United States dominate the intellectual battlefield of our struggle against radical Islam. What has been missing so far is a coordinated plan for doing so.

A different message

Such a plan must start with a recalibrated American message. During the Cold War, the "battle of ideas" waged by Washington was largely an external one-a struggle between Western values and Communist ideology. The United States and its allies emerged victorious, in large part because they succeeded in convincing the captive nations of the Soviet bloc of the moral and practical bankruptcy of the Soviet system.

Today, the nature of the challenge is very different. The United States is indeed attempting to wage an external campaign to counter the propaganda and political rhetoric of al-Qaeda and other radicals-albeit not very well, by all accounts. Simultaneously, however, it also needs to work within the world of Islam, diluting the appeal of extremist ideology to "undecided voters," diminishing the regional stature and legitimacy of religious radicals, and exacerbating the fissures between these forces and the societies in which they operate.

So far, the United States has done nothing of the sort. For the past several years, American strategic communications have focused predominantly on the external informational struggle against the terrorists, rather than the internal one. In doing so, the U.S. government has unconsciously reverted to Cold War thinking about the need to demonstrate the superiority of American values. And that, as has become exceedingly clear, constitutes a major strategic blunder. "Today we reflexively compare Muslim ‘masses' to those oppressed under Soviet rule," the Defense Science Board pointed out in its 2004 report on the subject. But "[t]here is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies-except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends. [emphasis added]."23 In other words, American values, though intrinsic to U.S. public diplomacy, have far less operational value in today's strategic environment than they did some three decades ago. The Muslim world is not the Soviet Union, and the constituencies there have very different perceptions of the United States, its goals and its interests.

Clarifying the resulting misconceptions can and should be a key part of America's message. Equally important, however, is recalibrating the thrust of U.S strategic communications. Rather than attempt to convince skeptical Muslim audiences of our good intentions, Washington's goal should be to "divide and conquer" by convincing foreign audiences of the ideological bankruptcy of our enemies.

A campaign footing

In the early 1960s, while he languished in prison in Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of modern militant Islam, released his manifesto, entitled Ma'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones). Qutb, an intellectual and sometime academic, had become radicalized during his formal education in the 1930s and 1940s, when he spent several years studying in the United States and saw firsthand what he deemed the "corruption" of the West. Upon his return to Egypt, Qutb drifted more and more deeply into radical Islam, becoming a power broker in the country's most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. By the time Milestones was published, Qutb had formulated his views about the ungodliness of the West, the supremacy of shari'a law, and the need for armed struggle to root out jahiliyya (unbelief).

For years, these views would go unchallenged. The first popular English-language translation of Milestones did not enter circulation until the early 1980s.24 And, as a result, for over a decade-and-a-half, Qutb's ideas about the irreconcilability of Western values and Islamic ideals circulated unchallenged throughout the Middle East. The damage done was incalculable; without a countervailing Western message, many in the Muslim and Arab worlds grew to believe Qutb's depiction of the United States and Europe, and embrace his call for their overthrow.

During the decades when America was preoccupied with the struggle against Soviet Communism, this kind of failure could perhaps have been forgiven. Today, however, it cannot be. The proliferation of continuous, instantaneous media and the Internet has given radical Islam's ideologues far greater ability to disseminate their message to followers and potential adherents alike. And they are actively exploiting this new medium. Through a steady diet of public broadcasts, Internet messaging and multimedia outreach, al-Qaeda has continued to shape global events despite its dislocation from its traditional safe haven of Afghanistan.

If the bin Laden network is taking seriously the battle for "hearts and minds," the United States so far is not. U.S. policy experts and government officials studiously translate and dissect the public messages of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. Rarely if ever, though, has the United States opted to discredit either the message or the messenger-let alone done so in a timely manner.

This is a critical mistake. "In an asymmetric conflict," writes one specialist, "we simply cannot allow an information vacuum to develop because it will be filled with the gossip and lies of the insurgents and extremists."25 Instead, the United States needs to seize the informational initiative, helping to shape the terms of the ideological landscape in the current conflict through a constant informational offensive calibrated to key target audiences.

On this score, U.S. officials could learn much from the methodology and pace of U.S. political campaigns, where image warfare is an art form, and where every claim, assertion and barb made by a political opponent-no matter how petty-is answered quickly and resolutely. In the past, a number of studies have recommended the United States government adopt such a "campaign-style" approach, with little apparent impact. And because it has not adopted such a footing, Washington has progressively ceded the informational initiative in an increasingly fast-moving communications battlespace.

Tilting the balance in its favor requires the United States to assume a proactive approach to countering enemy disinformation, and in providing the proper prism for combatants and civilians alike to view the current conflict. This necessitates building the institutional mechanisms-interagency groups, counterpropaganda units, and political crisis teams-to operationalize such a rapid response effort. And it requires senior management in Washington's corridors of power that views such strategic communication as intrinsic to the war effort, rather than as incidental to it.

Organizing for success

None of this will be possible without a structural reorganization of the way the United States carries out strategic influence. During the decades of the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) served as the front line of U.S. strategic communications, implementing and then overseeing American soft power strategy against the U.S.SR. Not so now. The abolition of the U.S.IA in 1999 left American public outreach without a coherent organizing body. And without one, the various strains of American strategic influence have evolved in different-and often unaccountable-directions.

Needless to say, such a state of affairs is unacceptable. The White House needs to do a far better job of ensuring that its message is communicated to the outside world. And that requires reuniting these various elements into a new informational architecture capable of harnessing the tools of American strategic influence in the "war of ideas" now taking place in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

In its 2004 study, the Defense Science Board made the case for a "permanent strategic communication structure" within the U.S. National Security Council, complete with the creation of the post of "Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication" and the establishment of an interagency Strategic Communication Committee with "authority to assign responsibilities and plan the work of departments and agencies... [and] shape strategic communication budget priorities."26 Others have taken an even more radical approach; the "Strategic Communications Act of 2008," introduced in September 2008 by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), recommends the creation of a completely new federal agency, the National Center for Strategic Communications, with similar functions and powers to the now-defunct U.S.IA.27

These proposals each have much to commend them. Ultimately, however, the future shape of the U.S. strategic communications effort will be decided by the White House itself. But whatever form it chooses, serious investments in two concrete areas will be required.

The first is leadership. As one veteran government official has succinctly summarized, "the most fundamental problem" with U.S. public diplomacy "is that no one in the U.S. is in charge. Each U.S. government agency currently has [its] own informational program, but the bureaucracy as a whole lacks a senior official with the authority to integrate these efforts."28 Without it, the various agencies responsible for communicating America's message to the world have succumbed to bureaucratic infighting, funding battles and conflicting mandates. What is needed, therefore, is a real strategic communications "czar," a single individual with primary responsibility for truly harnessing the tools of American strategic influence over the length and breadth of the governmental bureaucracy.

The second is resources. "You get what you pay for," the old saying goes, and the arena of strategic influence is no different. By any yardstick, America's current investment in communicating its ideas and policies to the outside world remains minimal. For the 2008 fiscal year, America's total combined public diplomacy spending stood at some $1.15 billion-or roughly a tenth of the State Department's total budget. Of that sum, just seven-and-a-half percent, $154 million, was allocated for public outreach toward the Middle East, the principal theater of operations in the struggle against radical Islam.29 Not surprisingly, given this shortfall, the United States has been forced to progressively cede the communications battlespace to its more agile, more innovative and more resourceful adversaries. If it hopes to be able to defeat the ideology of its adversaries, the United States must first be able to match-or, better yet, to exceed-the volume of their message. And that necessarily means committing far greater resources than currently allocated to public diplomacy and strategic communications.

Pushing back

The stakes could not be any higher. By any yardstick, the number of extremists now actively engaged in warfare against the United States and its allies is minuscule. The State Department's 2007 Country Reports on Terrorism identifies some 23 Islamist terrorist groups, with a combined strength of fewer than 100,000 active operatives. But, with the Muslim world now estimated at some one-fifth of humanity, and with no shortage of privation and discontent among Muslim communities in the Middle East and Africa, the pool of potential recruits to the cause of radical Islam, in either its Shi'a or Sunni variants, is virtually limitless.

America's ideological adversaries understand this very well, and have made strategic outreach a key priority. So far, however, Washington has not fielded a robust response to this informational offensive. Rather, it has contented itself with advocating the "lasting diversion" of foreign audiences away from radical Islamist ideology toward "entertainment, culture, literature, music technology, sports, education, business and culture, in addition to politics and religion."30

As a tactic, such an approach has much to commend it. As a long-term strategy, however, the United States will need to go much further. If it hopes to achieve what military planners term "battlefield dominance" in the war of ideas, the United States will need to harness its tools of strategic influence into a coordinated strategy that engages the Muslim world while simultaneously discrediting and marginalizing the message of the extremists attempting to hijack it.