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U.S. shifts 'hearts and minds' fight

Instead of trying to explain America, it promotes alternatives to extremism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2008



Washington

Nearly seven years after the 9/11 attacks spawned the question, "Why do they hate us?" and made the repair of America's poor international image a top foreign-policy pursuit, the Bush administration is taking a new tack in the "war of ideas."

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Out, or at least de-emphasized, is the effort to explain America and its widely disdained foreign policy.

In, on the other hand, is a focus on defeating terrorism and in particular radical Islam by largely leaving America out of the equation. The plan, instead, is to promote alternatives to radical violent extremism and nurture the local forces deemed best suited to countering it.

"The key" to the new approach is "that the US is not at the center of the war of ideas, [and in that way] we can accomplish our goals with people who don't necessarily like our policies," says James Glassman, the newly appointed undersecretary of State for pubic diplomacy. "The focus becomes defeating an ideology – not making ourselves liked."

In practical terms, the shift means dumping glossy Madison Avenue campaigns about America in favor of helping target populations find alternatives to extremism in everything from politics and technology to sports and religion. The target populations include the burgeoning Arab and Muslim youth populations in particular.

The shift is long overdue in the eyes of some proponents of an aggressive war on terror. They say the United States for too long saw the "war of ideas" as a PR campaign about itself rather than essentially an ideological struggle between two visions for the Muslim world.

"Helping anti-radical Muslims defeat the ideology of extremists is precisely the right strategy for waging the 'battle of ideas,' " says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail.

He defines that "battle" as the "contest under way in most Muslim societies for control of social, educational, cultural, and political power." It is "much larger in scope and duration than peaks and valleys in the Arab-Israeli peace process or other regional issues," Mr. Satloff adds, "and we need to be actively engaged on the hopeful, constructive side of this battle."

But others counter that the change in focus is largely irrelevant because at the center is still a preoccupation with terrorism, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden – a preoccupation that Arab and Muslim societies don't share.

"The Bush administration still sees Al Qaeda and radical Islam as the defining challenges in the Arab and Muslim worlds, whereas the people there do not see these as the major threats to their societies," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

His recent travels to the region revealed that people are more focused on economic hardship, food shortages, and restricted political freedoms, says Professor Gerges, adding, "It's a clash of perceptions and a clash of narratives."

Undersecretary Glassman does not shrink from placing radical Islam at the center of the US effort. But the new US focus, he says, is more about providing alternatives of thought and action than about trying to impose an American or Western vision of what is right. Speaking recently at the New America Foundation in Washington, he said, "Our role is to be a facilitator of choice – to allow young people to make their own choices, rather than imposing them."

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