Winning the war of words in the campaign against terrorism
Exchange programs help the US win hearts and minds in the war on terror.
NEW YORK — The war against terrorism is also a war of words - words that capture the ideals and beliefs of the warring factions.
That the terrorists understand this was never made clearer than in the letter written by Osama bin Laden's principal lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, last year to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader in Iraq.
"More than half of the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media," Mr. Zawahiri wrote. "We are in a media race for hearts and minds."
And last week came the 18-page letter from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, the first from an Iranian leader to an American president in 27 years. It is clearly cast as a significant salvo against the United States, asserting the failure of Western-style democracy and the superiority of Islam.
The Iranian president concedes that Saddam Hussein (who engaged Iran in a long and costly war) was a "murderous dictator." But he suggests that Mr. Bush cannot be a "follower of Jesus Christ," for having gone to war in Iraq at terrible human cost.
Mr. Ahmadinejad also has harsh words for Israel, which he says has no credibility to exist. The Israeli "regime," he claims, shows no mercy "even to kids, destroys houses while the occupants are still in them, plans to assassinate Palestinian figures and keeps thousands of Palestinians in prison." Is (US) support for this Israeli regime in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ? he asks.
The Iranian president says Hamas represents the Palestinian electorate and suggests that attempts to get Hamas to recognize Israel are "unbelievable."
He says the attacks of 9/11 on the United States were horrendous and the killing of innocents was appalling. But he makes no mention of the Muslim terrorists' role in the attacks and instead joins the conspiracy theorists who say orchestrating them was "not a simple operation," and could not have been planned and executed "without intelligence and security services."
His main thesis, clearly addressed to the Islamic world, is that Western-style democracy has failed and that "those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems."
To counter such fanciful arguments from the Islamic world, the US government has been strengthening its response. Bush has installed his principal media adviser, Karen Hughes, as undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. US government radio broadcasting to the Islamic region, particularly Iran, has been ramped up. But years of downgrading and neglect since the end of the cold war have taken their toll on the government's once-effective structure for conducting public diplomacy throughout the world.
A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the quality of government efforts to engage Muslim audiences abroad points up some serious deficiencies. Some 30 percent of public diplomacy specialists at diplomatic posts in the Islamic world lack the language skills to communicate with their target audiences. Dangerous security threats in many of those countries hinder attempts to reach out. Tours of duty are shorter than in more secure countries, resulting in much turnover and shortages of personnel.
Perhaps the most telling GAO criticism is that there is a lack of overall coordination where core messages, strategies, tactics, and in-depth research and analysis are concerned - a communication plan that would "bring it all together." The GAO suggests that government could take some tips from the private sector in the careful integration of public relations planning.
One of the bright spots is a program that has brought 600 high school students from the Muslim world to study in the US, and 170 college students for two years of academic study at American colleges or universities.
While such numbers are relatively small, programs like this, operated both by the government and the private sector, are effective in planting a friendlier view of America and Americans among a sliver of Muslim communities. Last week I attended a board meeting here of the nonprofit International Center for Journalists which specializes in training programs, both on-site and in the US, for journalists from less-developed countries.
Over the years it has built up an impressive worldwide network of journalists steeped in the traditions of a free press. They are potential opinionmakers in their homelands and are now better prepared to detect what is truth and what is fiction in the war of words consuming many of their countries.
More of these kinds of exchange programs are essential.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.