Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
As war games go, this one was unique: the first-ever exercise on "strategic communications," its sponsors said. It was July 2003, and the government's leading players in winning the "war of ideas" against terrorism had gathered at National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. There were crisis managers from the White House, diplomats from the State Department, Pentagon specialists in psyops--psychological operations. Washington's quick victory over Saddam Hussein's Army that spring had done little to quell surging anti-Americanism overseas. Across the Muslim world--including U.S. allies like Indonesia and Jordan--polls showed Osama bin Laden a more trusted figure than George W. Bush.
The war game used an all-too-real scenario: As violent anti-American protests rocked a host of Muslim countries, pro-democracy students were being murdered in Iran while terrorists in Iraq were being hailed as patriots. The job for the government's top information warriors was daunting: improve the image of America in the Muslim world and help foster a stable democracy in Iraq. Halfway through the exercise, however, the war game was abruptly stopped. "Things were so dysfunctional," recalls one participant, "we saw little point in playing through the scenario."
The problems, others said, were a mirror of what a dozen studies say has gone wrong in what may be the most critical front in the war on terrorism today--the battle for hearts and minds: no one in charge, no national strategy, and a glaring lack of resources. From the CIA to the State Department, America's once formidable means of influencing its enemies and telling its story abroad had crumbled, along with the fall of communism. "In the battle of ideas," said Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco, "we unilaterally disarmed."
"Radioactive." No more. Today, Washington is fighting back. After repeated missteps since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has embarked on a campaign of political warfare unmatched since the height of the Cold War. From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself. The previously undisclosed effort was identified in the course of a four-month U.S. News investigation, based on more than 100 interviews and a review of a dozen internal reports and memorandums. Although U.S. officials say they are wary of being drawn into a theological battle, many have concluded that America can no longer sit on the sidelines as radicals and moderates fight over the future of a politicized religion with over a billion followers. The result has been an extraordinary--and growing--effort to influence what officials describe as an Islamic reformation.
Among the magazine's findings:
The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance.