Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Dangerous Game

The all-seeing eye, praktike (not Sauron) has alerted me to an article in US News that discusses some of the "renewed" efforts by the Bush administration in the realm of public diplomacy. I have minor issues with some of the reporting in the article, such as the singling out of the appointment of Karen Hughes as a signal of the new seriousness of the Bush administration. She is a trusted advisor to Bush, which is significant, but as the Washington Post reported:

Karen Hughes, who was appointed a month ago to craft a bold new approach for U.S. public diplomacy, is not expected to take the job until as late as the fall, according to administration and congressional sources. The delay is already undermining U.S. credibility, with a well-placed U.S. official warning about "the gap between rhetoric and reality."
Waiting until the fall? That's something like a half-year hiatus before the job even begins - and it's not exactly as if the rest of the world is on vacation too. In addition, the US News article applies an overly optimistic appraisal of the "successes" and acceptance of the Al Hurra television network and Radio Sawa, both of which are too propagandistic to gain credence among a wide swathe of the target audience. Perhaps the authors of the article were relying on the dubious poll numbers that Ed Djerejian called "skewed" - a charge that was backed up by research conducted by the Brookings Institute (as reported in my prior post).

But what struck me in the US News article was the newest prong in the diplomatic strategy: that of actually trying to influence the religion of Islam itself:

The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance.

In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. This broad engagement with Islam has raised questions about whether the funding is legal, given the constitutional line between church and state.
This is a dangerous game to be playing, and one that must be orchestrated with the adroitness of a surgeon. Exposure of too heavy a hand in internal disputes within the faith of Islam could trigger a nasty backlash, and a further marginalizing of reformist movements and moderate voices. Even an association with American ideas in a political context is enough to evoke suspicion and distrust, but an attempt to promote certain religious currents by the US would arouse a harsher response. The article provides a closer look at some of the tactics and beneficiaries of this new engagement with Islam itself:

But the breakthrough finally came last summer, sources say, when the NSC began reworking the White House's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism....Aimed at strengthening the hand of moderates, the plan acknowledges that America has done poorly in reaching out to them. But it goes one big step further, stating that the United States and its allies have a national security interest not only in what happens in the Islamic world but within Islam itself, according to three sources who have seen the document. It further states that because America is limited to what it can do in a religious struggle, the nation must rely on partners who share values like democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. Among those partners: allied Muslim states, private foundations, and nonprofit groups.

Another strategy being pursued is to make peace with radical Muslim figures who eschew violence. At the top of the list: the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist society, founded in 1928 and now with tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Many brotherhood members, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, are at serious odds with al Qaeda. "I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought," says Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in Muslim societies. "The Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem." Indeed, sources say U.S. intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with members of the Deobandi sect in Pakistan, whose fundamentalism schooled the Taliban and inspired an army of al Qaeda followers. Cooperative clerics have helped tamp down fatwas calling for anti-American jihad and persuaded jailed militants to renounce violence. These sensitive ties have led to at least one breakthrough--the July arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda's Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer held surveillance files of the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank, and other financial targets. Khan's capture led to a dozen arrests in London. "Engagement," says one official, "is absolutely key."
The article also recounts two of the main reasons that I opposed the Iraq invasion, and why I believe it was a setback in the diplomatic effort to win Muslim hearts and minds. On the one hand, it leant credence to the radical propaganda that the US is an imperial force in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general, while at the same time, it drained the resources, brainpower, and assets needed to combat these virulent misconceptions, most of which predated the Iraq invasion itself.

First, a recounting of how much harder the invasion of Iraq has made our already daunting task of rehabilitating our image in the Muslim world:

To millions of Muslims, Washington's toppling of Saddam seemed to confirm the imperialist caricature painted by its worst enemies: an America that invades and occupies an oil-rich Arab nation, thumbs its nose at the world, supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, calls for democracy but relies on strongmen from Egypt to Pakistan. "The U.S. could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations, and it wouldn't help," argued Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich. "I don't believe that people hate movie stars and Burger King. They hate what the U.S. is doing to their lives"....

Even as the insurgency in Iraq shows signs of losing steam, anti-Americanism now reaches across every strata of the Muslim world. Rumors that U.S. soldiers harvest organs from dying Iraqis or that Washington caused the tsunami to kill Muslims appear in major Arab media. Slick jihadist music videos and recruiting CD s sell briskly on the streets of Arab capitals. Many of the region's leaders believe America is at war with the Arab world, or with Islam itself, according to a March report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "U.S.-Arab relations," the report concludes, "are at their lowest point in generations"....

A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment."
Then, with these problems at the level of a crisis, the drain of money, resources, and attention to address them:

Despite the surge of activity, Washington's efforts to win hearts and minds remain chaotic. Staffers on the White House National Security Council have drafted over a hundred papers proposing action against Islamist propaganda and political activity, sources say, yet almost none have been acted upon. To help remedy the situation, the White House is creating a new position, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach....

Why the lack of priority? Fighting bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lion's share of attention, to be sure. Yet in public, top administration officials seemed emphatic. "This is a battle of ideas and a battle for minds," declared the Pentagon's No. 2 man, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. "To win the war on terror, we must win a war of ideas," agreed Condoleezza Rice a year later. But those working below them saw a decided lack of interest. "The principals have not indicated this is a priority," bemoaned one key staffer, speaking of cabinet-level officials. "They just didn't get it."
The article closes with what I took as an admonition to the champions of unipolarity, those who are most seduced by notions that America's dominance is limitless and will persist independent of our actions and other developments around the world. Maintaining a positive image depends upon our continued effort to engage the world, cooperate with allies, embrace differences, and accommodate varying viewpoints. We rely on the village.

Veterans of information warfare say the amounts being spent today are still inadequate, while a new Government Accountability Office study highlights an array of problems with U.S. public diplomacy strategy. Hughes's predecessor at State, acting Assistant Secretary Patricia Harrison, told U.S. News that she felt at times like Sisyphus, the Greek king banished to forever push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson Washington needs to learn, Harrison says, goes back to the Cold War--that the world matters and America needs to stay engaged. "You never declare victory," she warns. "You do not declare that it's the end of history and go home. The job is to continue pushing the boulder up and up, to keep investing, keep connecting."
True enough.

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