'Soft war' goes missing amid 9/11 follow-up
The US won a hearts-and-minds effort in the cold war. Such a victory may be needed again - but harder to win.
WASHINGTON — As discussion of the 9/11 commission's recommendations continues with hearings in Congress this week, almost lost in the debate is the prominence the commission gave the need to vastly improve both how America is seen in the Islamic world and its influence there.
The commission named the softer side of the war on terror - the so-called battle for hearts and minds, and the effort to spread democracy and economic opportunity - as one of three broad "dimensions" of a necessary strategy. But the topic has received meager attention so far.
Still, some experts say the commission's call for action will have to be addressed simply because the war on terrorism can't be won without it.
"This may lack the sex appeal of fixing the intelligence agencies, but it's not something we can ignore and still expect to move forward against terrorism," says Mark Helmke, a public diplomacy specialist on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Some noted advocates of long-term "soft" solutions to fighting terror say they expected that agency reforms and a new intelligence "czar" would get the limelight - especially with the nation handling a new terror alert. "With a short-term threat on people's minds, it's not surprising they'd look at short-term strategies first," says Benjamin Barber, an expert in the roots of terrorism at the University of Maryland.
But Mr. Barber, whose new book, "Fear's Empire: Terrorism, War, and Democracy" analyzes long-term solutions to terrorism, says the US must move beyond defensive and protective security measures.
"If we stick to taking on the terrorists on the turf of fear, we're losing the battle even as we fight it," he says. Pointing to recent heightened security measures - roadblocks, checkpoints, and increased police presence in Washington, New York, and Newark, N.J. - Barber says, "We're spending millions and handing them a victory without them lifting a finger. And if we stay fixed on the short term, they win."
That sentiment was echoed in the commission testimony of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told the panel that to many foreign eyes Americans are "exporting our fears and our anger" more than a vision of opportunity and hope.
That's why it was right for the 9/11 commission to give the hearts and minds battle equal footing with going after the terrorists and protecting Americans at home, experts say. But they add that uncertainties about how to wage the "soft" war are likely to hamper the implementation of new initiatives.
Many emphasize that the hearts and minds battle was won before, in the cold war, and believe it can be done again. But some experts see a confounding difference. In the cold war the US was fighting a political ideology. The enemy now - no matter how clearly corrupted and unrepresentative of the larger population - is a segment of a major world religion.
The ambivalence doesn't end there. Another delicate topic is the impact of US foreign policy, with the US position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Muslim world's perception of complete US one-sidedness in favor of Israel. Even the bipartisan 9/11 commission gingerly danced around this sensitive issue, asserting that "American foreign policy is part of the message," but going only so far as to recommend that US policy choices be "integrated" with a message of opportunity for Arabs and Muslims.
At the same time, US officials may look at measures implemented since 9/11 and question why new initiatives would help. "The Bush administration is thinking, 'What is left that is going to work any better?' " says Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Noting that anti-Americanism has only increased as the US in three years has created a new undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, the Radio Sawa network, and more recently the Al Hurra television station - all directed at Islamic audiences, she says, "People feel like it's such an enormously difficult task that they don't want to get into it."
But Ms. Crenshaw and others say the hearts and minds battle requires perseverance and imagination.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Mr. Helmke notes that the fledgling post of public diplomacy undersecretary has already had two appointees and is currently operating under a third acting head.
"We need someone who's going to be in there for at least four years and really coordinating how we get out the message of America," he says. "Regardless of what happens in the election, this has to be a priority of whoever is in the White House and running the State Department next year."
Yet at least as important as what the US does to reach the Islamic world is how it is done, specialists say. "It's not selling America we need," says Barber. "It's opening political participation and creating genuine economic opportunity."
The commission does place the emphasis on building hope and opportunity. Specifically it calls for providing more funding for US overseas broadcasting; constructing and operating public schools in Muslim countries; and setting the goal of cutting the Middle East illiteracy rate in half by 2010. It also calls for reopening many of the free libraries that the US once maintained abroad. And the commission recommends expanding the exchange programs that bring foreign students and scholars to the US - an idea already running into stricter homeland security procedures when students try to obtain visas.
"We want people to come here so they can learn about our values," says Crenshaw. "But at the same time we're really increasing anti-Americanism by turning so many people away."