Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. This broad engagement with Islam has raised questions about whether the funding is legal, given the constitutional line between church and state.
The CIA is revitalizing programs of covert action that once helped win the Cold War, targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties. The agency is receiving "an exponential increase in money, people, and assets" to help it influence Muslim societies, says a senior intelligence official. Among the tactics: working with militants at odds with al Qaeda and waging secret campaigns to discredit the worst anti-American zealots.
Despite the surge of activity, Washington's efforts to win hearts and minds remain chaotic. Staffers on the White House National Security Council have drafted over a hundred papers proposing action against Islamist propaganda and political activity, sources say, yet almost none have been acted upon. To help remedy the situation, the White House is creating a new position, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach.
The push for hearts and minds comes amid hopeful signs, with a string of successful elections in the Middle East and anti-Syria protests in Lebanon. The events have boosted the Bush administration's hopes for the region, but some experts on terrorism and the Muslim world say the problems are so deep-seated they may be growing worse, not better. A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment."
Even as the insurgency in Iraq shows signs of losing steam, anti-Americanism now reaches across every strata of the Muslim world. Rumors that U.S. soldiers harvest organs from dying Iraqis or that Washington caused the tsunami to kill Muslims appear in major Arab media. Slick jihadist music videos and recruiting CD s sell briskly on the streets of Arab capitals. Many of the region's leaders believe America is at war with the Arab world, or with Islam itself, according to a March report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "U.S.-Arab relations," the report concludes, "are at their lowest point in generations."
The tools with which to fight back are varied. To the CIA, they are covert operations involving political influence and propaganda. At the Pentagon, they are called psyops or strategic-influence efforts. At the State Department, it's called public diplomacy. All seek to use information to influence, inform, and motivate America's friends and enemies abroad. Many of these tools have fallen into disuse. Many are controversial, particularly in light of recent revelations that administration officials have peddled fake video news reports and paid columnists to boost policies here at home. But to those toiling on the front lines against terrorism, the war of ideas--and the tools to fight it--are essential. How those tools have come back into use, and what Washington is doing with them, is a story that begins a half century ago, in the heyday of Soviet communism.