The Magazine

Warfare of Ideas

There is an alternative to Obama diplomacy.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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But in order to conduct political warfare, the United States will need political warriors—and agencies that allow them to work together effectively. Whiton’s experience tells him that there are very few such people in the government, and that our agencies are incompetent and, in fact, flee from the very idea of political warfare. He spends many pages telling horror stories about the bureaucracy and describing how America successfully engaged in political warfare in the past. 

During and after World War II, we seemed to be good at it, able to fight the Communists on their own intellectual and ideological turf. Whiton recalls the success of the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in combating Communist parties and ideology in Europe. Indeed, Smart Power begins with the tale of a CIA agent delivering bags of cash to Italy’s Christian Democrats in the years after the war, allowing them to take on the Soviet-backed Italian Communist Party.

Whiton despairs of teaching new (or, actually, old) tricks to the State Department, though, and argues that “no instrument is available to presidents to initiate and manage political warfare. .  .  . The closest operation the United States ever had to a peacetime political warfare agency was the U.S. Information Agency.” But the USIA was a victim of success and closed down when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. 

The best model he examines is the Political Warfare Executive, created in London during World War II as part of the Special Operations Executive, whose mission Winston Churchill said was “to set Europe ablaze.” Today, Whiton laments, “the United States has neither the tools nor even the serious inclination to engage in a war of ideas against Washington’s adversaries,” a “deficiency [that] represents a no-show for a major part of the smart power spectrum. There is no updated Congress for Cultural Freedom for China today.”

Whiton does not suggest reopening USIA, but wants a new agency instead, one capable not only of information operations but of covert activities. It needs “the ability to act covertly and at times even support political forces that might not want U.S. help but whose progress would advance U.S. interests (e.g., the opposition movements in Iran).” 

Whiton’s own experiences in the intelligence bureaucracy should suggest to him that this is very unlikely to happen: The CIA and the State Department would fight it to the death. But it is not Whiton’s specific proposals that make this a valuable book; it is his analyses of today’s foreign policy challenges and our bureaucratic failings in meeting them. His portrait of the Foreign Service is etched in acid, and his description of the jumble of agencies and offices supposedly handling political warfare when they oppose even the idea that we should engage in this type of combat is effective and therefore depressing. But he seems a happy warrior himself, confident that the next Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan is out there and that “American voters will find them eventually.” 

This book forces us to hope that “eventually” won’t be too far away.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.