Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
The war of ideas fared little better at the State Department. To run public diplomacy, Secretary of State Colin Powell brought in Charlotte Beers, the only person to have served as chairman of two of the top 10 worldwide advertising agencies. But her workplace, as she later put it, was "a clumsy camel" of an agency--skilled, even brilliant, at dealing with other governments but shy and slow-footed at taking its case to the masses. Worse, the surviving USIA staffers, she found, were a demoralized lot, spread across a bureaucracy that cared little about their work. Nor was there much money. The entire annual budget for public diplomacy was equal to what the Pentagon spent in a day. Despite White House utterances about winning the war of ideas, it was a tough sell, even for one of the world's top ad people. "We were asking them to deal with intangible values like emotion, religion, and trust," she told U.S. News . "It wasn't easy." Beers poured what funds she had into a pilot project to open doors overseas--TV clips showcasing the lives of Muslim Americans. While criticized in the press, the spots actually played well with Muslims abroad, studies showed. But after 18 months, Beers had seen enough. She quit in March 2003, just as U.S. troops headed into Iraq.
To millions of Muslims, Washington's toppling of Saddam seemed to confirm the imperialist caricature painted by its worst enemies: an America that invades and occupies an oil-rich Arab nation, thumbs its nose at the world, supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, calls for democracy but relies on strongmen from Egypt to Pakistan. "The U.S. could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations, and it wouldn't help," argued Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich. "I don't believe that people hate movie stars and Burger King. They hate what the U.S. is doing to their lives."
_ Regardless of where one stood on the Iraq war, it was clear Washington needed to do a far better job at getting out its message. Complaints were piling up at the White House: In fighting for hearts and minds, America had no strategy and few resources for the job. It fell to the National Security Council, charged with coordinating the government's sprawling national security apparatus, to sort things out. Under then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, officials in mid-2002 formed two interagency committees, whose members were to include the government's top specialists in waging the war of ideas. The first, on "strategic communication," focused on public diplomacy; the other, on "information strategy," was created by classified memorandum and handled covert activity. Neither group fared well.
Those working on covert plans tried to jump-start an information offensive that would discredit al Qaeda and its allies. One staffer, Arnold Abraham, ran a panel designed to attack Islamist propaganda. In a paper last year at the National War College, Abraham wrote that his group "developed 50 different position papers with proposed courses of action, but despite very positive feedback on content, only a mere handful of the actions were operationalized." The number of proposals later topped 100, sources say, and almost none were taken seriously by their bosses. Among the ideas: using music, comics, poetry, and the Internet to get across America's views to the Arab world.