Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
_ U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Islamic radio, Islamic TV, Islamic schools, mosques, and monuments--no wonder some officials find the strategy controversial. USAID staffers argue that as long as they offer assistance to all groups and their grants are meant for secular activities, they are allowed to fund religious organizations. "We structure our programming to be in compliance with 'establishment clause' case law," says Jeffrey Grieco, a USAID spokesman, referring to the First Amendment's church-state divide. But some legal experts question whether America's growing involvement with Islam is legal, given that American courts have found that tax dollars may not be used to support religion. "For us to be doing this is probably unconstitutional," says Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University. In 1991, Schwartz and the American Civil Liberties Union won a case against USAID to stop it from funding 20 Catholic and Jewish schools overseas. "But that seems a long time ago," Schwartz adds. "I don't know if anyone would support that kind of suit today."
Times have certainly changed. The nation's highest officials now seem convinced that America's greatest ideological foe is a highly politicized form of radical Islam and that Washington and its allies cannot afford to stand by. More proof that the administration is finally engaged in waging a war of ideas came last month, when the president tapped his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, to be the State Department's new head of public diplomacy. Although lacking foreign expertise, Hughes brings proven communications skills and, equally important, a direct line to the top. The White House is also slated to announce a new position at the National Security Council, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach, whose job will be to goad the bureaucracy into further action.
The increased focus, already, it seems, is bearing fruit. A poll of Indonesians conducted last month after the tsunami relief efforts led by the U.S. military found that America's unfavorability rating had plunged from a horrid 83 percent to 54 percent; support for bin Laden, by contrast fell by more than half. It would be folly, however, to think that the road ahead will be easy. Veterans of information warfare say the amounts being spent today are still inadequate, while a new Government Accountability Office study highlights an array of problems with U.S. public diplomacy strategy. Hughes's predecessor at State, acting Assistant Secretary Patricia Harrison, told U.S. News that she felt at times like Sisyphus, the Greek king banished to forever push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson Washington needs to learn, Harrison says, goes back to the Cold War--that the world matters and America needs to stay engaged. "You never declare victory," she warns. "You do not declare that it's the end of history and go home. The job is to continue pushing the boulder up and up, to keep investing, keep connecting."
In a bold move to influence the direction of Islam, Washington since 9/11 has quietly funded a variety of projects to boost Muslim religious moderates and generate goodwill in at least 24 countries. Programs range from training Islamic-school teachers in civics to funding think tanks that promote moderate interpretations of the Koran.