The Magazine

America Loses Its Voice

The war of ideas is lagging.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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IN LAYING OUT HIS BATTLE PLAN for the war against terrorism in his National Security Strategy issued last September, President Bush emphasized two key elements, military force and waging "a war of ideas." The second is less tangible than the first, but no less important. Our victory in the Cold War owed at least as much to our ideological arsenal as to our military deterrent. The war on terror, in contrast, has thus far been one-dimensional. Our military efforts have been prodigious, but our work in the realm of ideas has been negligible.

The need for some kind of campaign for "hearts and minds" could scarcely be more obvious. Never has the United States confronted so much hostility and distrust. A Gallup poll conducted in Muslim countries a few months after the attacks of 9/11 showed that in Kuwait, only 11 percent said they had a "very favorable" opinion of our country, while more than twice as many, 23 percent, said they had a "very unfavorable" one. In Saudi Arabia, only 7 percent were very favorable, while 49 percent were very unfavorable. And in the case of Pakistan, Gallup was reduced to putting an asterisk next to "very favorable," meaning a percentage too low to measure. These results came before the war in Iraq, which is unlikely to have boosted our standing.

Nor is the problem limited to the Islamic world. According to a Pew poll this March, only 6 percent of the French said their opinion of the United States was very favorable, while 22 percent said theirs was very unfavorable. The numbers were even worse in Germany (4 percent to 30 percent) and in Spain (3 percent to 39 percent). Even among the British, our stalwart friends, only 14 percent said they had a very favorable opinion of us, while 16 percent said the opposite. And in Turkey, which is both Muslim and European, those in the "very unfavorable" camp dwarfed their "very favorable" brethren by a whopping 67 percent to 3 percent.

We are doing little about this. Why? Because in the 1990s we unilaterally disarmed ourselves of the weapons of ideological warfare. In the early days of the Cold War, much of this arsenal reposed with the CIA, which created Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, underwrote the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and sustained the efforts of anti-Communists of many stripes in the realm of politics and culture. While such covert activities eventually became controversial, there is ample evidence that many of them were effective. After exposés drove the CIA from this field, some other agencies found ways to accomplish similar goals. The National Endowment for Democracy, for example, gives to democratic groups abroad overt support of a kind that might have been furnished covertly in an earlier day. The principal burden of cultivating good will toward America among publics overseas was left to the U.S. Information Agency. Once the Cold War was won, USIA funding was slashed repeatedly, as conservative isolationists and budget hawks teamed up with liberal cultural relativists averse to American "propaganda." The coup de grace came when Jesse Helms, taking his cue from Secretary of State Warren Christopher, persuaded the Senate to abolish USIA, folding its functions into the State Department, which was, however, more eager to absorb the agency's resources than to carry forward its mission.

Since 9/11, lacking an agency or office equipped to prosecute a war of ideas, we have been flailing. An advertising executive was brought in as an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy in order to, in Secretary Powell's words, "rebrand America," just as she had done for Uncle Ben's rice. As a start, she organized a campaign publicizing the "mosques of America," apparently to make the Muslim world aware of how many Americans practice Islam. Of course, a far greater number of Americans practice Christianity, yet it has done nothing for our standing with the French, Spaniards, and Germans.

Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Board of Governors launched "Radio Sawa," which aims to attract a large, youthful audience in the Arab world by broadcasting pop music, with only brief interruptions for news and occasional interviews.

The war of ideas, however, cannot be won by seduction. It must be primarily a work of persuasion. Of course heavy-handed propaganda is useless, and in the Cold War the Voice of America used jazz to draw listeners. But our approach today is out of balance. When Sawa was launched, the Arabic service of Voice of America was abolished, with the inexplicable result that we are today broadcasting less news, commentary, and discourse to the Arab world than at any time in memory.