WASHINGTON — The image of the terrorist for many in the West is of a hooded militant armed with an AK-47, or a suicide bomber with explosives strapped around his, or her, waist.
But the reality is that many terrorist leaders are worldly aware, calculating men who use violent militant action as an instrument to achieve well-defined political ends.
That was the case in the Vietnam War where the leadership in Hanoi, directing both North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, was clear about the political aim - namely to undermine the resolve of the American people, force the withdrawal of American forces, and open the way to a North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam.
Similarly, Al Qaeda has a vision of the strategic political goal it hopes to achieve by the use of militant terrorist tactics. This vision was enunciated in a 6,000-word letter from one top Al Qaeda leader presumed to be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border, to another in Iraq. Written in July, the letter was obtained by antiterrorist forces in Iraq this summer and made public last week by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence, which said the US government has the "highest confidence" in its authenticity.
Writing to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the elusive terrorist leader in Iraq, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, made it clear that creating instability in Iraq is only the beginning of a plan to establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime across the Middle East.
Intriguingly, he cites Vietnam as an example of how to conduct the campaign in Iraq, with special emphasis on manipulation of the media. "More than half of the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media," he wrote. "We are in a media race for hearts and minds." Mr. Zawahiri counsels against attacking mosques, and targeting "ordinary people." The masses do not understand or approve of such strikes, he says.
In one extraordinary piece of advice, Zawahiri questions the public relations impact of beheading hostages, suggesting that the image of the Zarqawi terrorists might be softened by just shooting the hostages.
The US is as conscious as Al Qaeda of the two significant tracks in any war against terrorism. One is the military track, of eliminating terrorists wherever they can be found. The other track is using the media to bring persuasive arguments to the public. In the West this is called public diplomacy, and leading practitioners of it met here at George Washington University last week to consider how it is faring. There are pluses and minuses.
On the minus side is government neglect of public diplomacy since the cold war's end. The happy theory was that with the destruction of the Berlin wall the enemies of the US were in decline. Informing and influencing foreign publics was no longer a high priority. The United States Information Agency (USIA), the government's prime instrument of public diplomacy, was disbanded, its remnants folded into the State Department. That has proved to be an unwise decision.
Meanwhile, burgeoning foes like Al Qaeda have become more adept at utilizing the improved technology of the day, such as the Internet, blogs, cellphones, as well as television, to project their cause. Thus the US is playing catch-up in the information war against a new and sinister enemy.
The Bush administration has installed Karen Hughes, a White House insider, as undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. She is a woman of breathtaking energy and has the ear of the president, as does Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of State. Both Ms. Hughes and Ms. Rice have extensive travel plans to personally convey the president's key message supporting freedom and liberty not only throughout the lands of Islam but to other regions such as Latin America and Africa as well.
But the challenge is long-term. In the Middle East especially, it is to reeducate the coming generation that has been bombarded with negative views of the US. Resources available for public diplomacy are slender. Time for the Bush administration is now short. Perhaps the best one can hope for is that in its remaining months the Bush administration can lay the foundation and start building the infrastructure of a kind of successor to USIA that would be totally dedicated to continuing and broadening the dialogue of future administrations with foreign publics both friendly and unfriendly.
That is a cause not only in the national interest of the US, but a sensible and selfless thing to do.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as associate director of USIA, and assistant secretary of state for public affairs, in the Reagan administration.