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The US War Of Ideas

"We often ask the question ... is Islam compatible with democracy? But we never question the other side, taking the religion as a given and seeing how flexible democracy is. We pay lip service to the fact that (Arab democracies are) not going to look like us. But I think we very rarely say we ought to revisit what a democracy is, and what role religion can play in it," a Pentagon official closely involved in the Defense Department's piece of the war of ideas said. "If we do that we might be more flexible, and there might be different approaches that might be successful." Photo courtesy AFP.
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Jan 05, 2007
As the "global war on terrorism" enters its sixth year, the United States government is beginning to rethink its approach to the larger battle -- the so-called "war of ideas." The war on terror is, at its heart, a physical fight against extremists. The war of ideas, on the other hand, is a philosophical debate that pits extremist ideology in the Muslim world against tolerance and freedom. So far, however, the United States seems to be losing.

A Zogby International poll released in December shows that the vast majority of Arabs in five key countries view the United States and its policies in a strongly negative light. In two countries, Jordan and Morocco, attitudes have declined precipitously in the last year.

U.S. government officials are grappling with how to win the war of ideas, and some are embracing fresh conclusions: that U.S. actions speak louder than any propaganda it can put forth; that the promotion of democracy should be a sidecar to providing humanitarian aid and economic development in the Arab world; and acceptance that the United States has only a peripheral role to play in the core philosophical debate central to the war of ideas.

"I think we have to think about influencing people. The way we influence people is not just what we say, but by what we do and who we are," a Pentagon official closely involved in the Defense Department's piece of the war of ideas, told UPI last month. "It is not primarily about messaging."

For 40 years during the Cold War, the U.S. waged a war of ideas against communism and totalitarianism, and won.

"During the Cold War, that was arguably easier to do because the Soviet Union was oppressing people. It was an easier argument to make, and (in Eastern Europe) we were more or less culturally on neutral ground," he said.

" ... They didn't really know about us because they were in relatively closed societies. They didn't necessarily hate us," he said.

This new battle is more difficult and requires a different approach, the official said.

"We are starting in the hole," he acknowledged. "In the Muslim world when 70 percent of the people are opposed to the United States, that's a much harder sell."

It does not help that many people in the Middle East identify their own governments as their oppressors, and the United States as their oppressors' allies.

"We start going in, we going in knowing they dislike us," he said. "It's gonna take a long time."

He conceives the battle as having two major fronts, and in only one of them can the United States play a major public role.

The official said the U.S. should not be trying to counter terrorist propaganda. It should be finding ways to encourage competing visions within the Islamic world.

"In the strategic sense I don't think we need to have a counter-narrative," the official said. "The violent extremists, they have a single narrative. And I think from a purely strategic perspective we just have to make sure there are other narratives -- not necessarily our own -- that compete with theirs."

The debate must be engaged by "protagonists within the Muslim community," he said -- probably theologians from Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

"We know that the (Muslim) community is much more diverse than it (seems). We have to find those people. I actually think we would do ourselves a great favor if we worked from the outside in, but look to examples outside of the Arab core."

There are "individuals who don't necessarily agree with the United States but who don't agree with violence as a tool," he said. "Supporting that is very important. How we do that is the tough part, because we don't want to taint them by virtue of overt association (with the United States.) The government is struggling with how to do that."

The second front in the war of ideas is one in which the United States can play a direct public role: changing the conditions in the Arab world that feed terrorism -- the lack of educational and economic opportunity, poor health care, and repressive regimes.

"Look at the level of despair in the Arab world. It rivals sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "That, plus broken regimes in that part of the world -- it's a tinder box."

The official believes desperate conditions do not cause Islamic extremism. But they are what makes the Middle East so ripe for recruitment.

"They are the kindling of terrorism. They are what terrorists exploit," he said. "I think what the United States can do is essentially remove the kindling."

Done well, that could have two effects -- draining the number of potential terrorist recruits and sympathizers, and demonstrating American good will in the Muslim world with actions rather than words.

"Think about Hezbollah or al Qaida affiliates or ... (Muqtada Sadr in Iraq). What do they do? They don't stand on street corners only getting out proselytizing. They set up clinics, they give out food. That's their way of getting in," he said.

"If you look at the (U.S. response to the) tsunami, to the earthquake in Pakistan, the earthquake in Iran -- that's when we got the biggest spike," he said. "Some of the things that have given us the greatest return are not the things we intended."

The Bush administration's emphasis on democracy building in the region is necessary, he said, but likely to fail if the "kindling" is not addressed.

"I do think you have to address the regimes. But I would say that the second-tier efforts, removing kindling (is more important). It's not just about notions, however justified, of democracy alone. It's more broadly about (developing a) healthy society, a civil society and addressing grievances."

Moreover, what the United States considers a democracy may have to change if democracy is to be embraced in the Muslim world.

"We often ask the question ... is Islam compatible with democracy? But we never question the other side, taking the religion as a given and seeing how flexible democracy is," he said.

"We pay lip service to the fact that (Arab democracies are) not going to look like us. But I think we very rarely say we ought to revisit what a democracy is, and what role religion can play in it," he said. "If we do that we might be more flexible, and there might be different approaches that might be successful."

He is disturbed that pundits characterize the war on terrorism as a clash of civilizations.

"That feeds our adversaries," he said. "The reality is I don't see this as a (rift) between Islam or between the East and West. It's a horizontal (split) within civilizations," he said.

Source: United Press International

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