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 fate of the NSC's strategic communication group was worse. Charged with crafting a national strategy on public diplomacy, the group met several times and then fell apart from lack of leadership. Its last meeting was over 18 months ago. Back at the State Department, meanwhile, Ambassador Margaret Tutwiler had, at the urging of the White House, taken on the job of public diplomacy chief. But Tutwiler lasted only six months, and in June last year the job was vacant again. By the end of Bush's first term, the position had lacked an appointed leader for half his administration.
"No virgins." Why the lack of priority? Fighting bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lion's share of attention, to be sure. Yet in public, top administration officials seemed emphatic. "This is a battle of ideas and a battle for minds," declared the Pentagon's No. 2 man, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. "To win the war on terror, we must win a war of ideas," agreed Condoleezza Rice a year later. But those working below them saw a decided lack of interest. "The principals have not indicated this is a priority," bemoaned one key staffer, speaking of cabinet-level officials. "They just didn't get it."
There were other reasons. Attempts at forging a national strategy repeatedly failed. Policymakers couldn't even agree on the target--worldwide terrorism or Islamic extremism, or on its root causes--poverty, Saudi funding, misunderstood U.S. policies, or something else. Interagency meetings on the topic were "agonizing," one participant recalled. "We couldn't clarify what path to take, so it was dropped." Another key factor was religion. Going after the roots of Islamic fundamentalism would drag Washington into a battle involving mosques, mullahs, and Scripture, argued some, and that went against 200 years of U.S. church-state relations. The inevitable turf wars also came into play. The war of ideas cut across otherwise-neat lines of responsibility in bureaucratic Washington. At the Pentagon and the NSC, public-affairs staffers warily eyed psyop officers who argued that public diplomacy, press relations, and psychological operations should be united under a single information strategy. White House veterans of tough political campaigns brought a short-term, manage-the-news outlook to what others thought would take a generation to fix. As a result, by mid-2004--nearly three years after 9/11--the government still had no one in charge of winning the war of ideas and no strategy for winning it. That summer, Government Accountability Office investigators told Congress they found public diplomacy staffers without guidance and a department short of linguists and information officers. "Everybody who knows how to do this has been screaming," complained one insider. "There are no virgins in this."
_ A few bright spots emerged. A growing chorus of criticism from Congress and the press helped gain big funding boosts for public diplomacy and foreign aid programs. The administration kicked off major new initiatives in foreign broadcasting--Radio Sawa, a pop music-news station in 2002, and Alhurra, a satellite-TV news network in 2004, both aimed at Arab audiences. The CIA's strategic influence unit and the Pentagon's psyop group also won major funding increases.