When President Obama delivers his speech to the "Muslim world" in Cairo he will once again differentiate his foreign policy from that of his predecessor. The president is smart to use his own popularity to try to improve America's image in the region. However, to prevail comprehensively over terrorists, we must realize the limits of this strategy.
All too often, what is called public diplomacy or strategic communications is believed to consist entirely of decreasing anti-American opinions abroad. The theory goes that this will translate to more allies and reduce support for terrorists. It is a strategy that is based on hope and self-appreciation but fails to tackle the driving force of those who commit acts of terror: the Islamist ideology.
Dislike of American culture and U.S. foreign policy is only a limited part of what comprises this dangerous and still vibrant political movement. Even if we were to succeed at the nearly impossible task of marginalizing gratuitous criticism of America, we would still be left confronting an extremist ideology focused on our downfall.
The roots of the Islamist movement are deep and have less to do with recent U.S. foreign policy than is often purported. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 and came into its own in the 1950s and 1960s. The first Islamist state was achieved in Iran in 1979, and it remains Islamism's key node of power--essentially the same role the Soviet Union played for the communist ideology during the Cold War. The Saudis have been significant benefactors of a particular flavor of Islamism for domestic political reasons, although they also help neutralize those who cross the line to open jihadism. Like communists and fascists before, there are many sects of this ideology, but the general goals of the philosophy are commonly held.
Islamism has been successful as a political force because it taps into Muslim humiliation, both perceived and real. For some this sense of humiliation goes back several centuries to the West's surpassing previously superior Muslim societies and reversing the expansion of Islam. Others' perceptions of grievance stem from the corruption exhibited by post-colonial Middle Eastern governments that exposed their populations to modernity but did poor jobs of availing them access to its benefits. Iran is a case and point. Islamism proposes a remedy to these setbacks in the form of cultural purity and political conformity, ultimately expressed in a unitary totalitarian state. Step back and one sees the outlines of this ideology are not that different from the totalitarian ideologies of the last century, save for Islamism's religious veneer.
This matters because it shows that our primary task is not to go out into the world and win a popularity contest. Rather, we must help bring about the decline of an ideology.
For that reason, we must complement outreach like that which the president plans in Cairo with strategic communications to aid those who have a voice in this battle of ideas. Luckily, this is something that in the past Americans have done better than any people in history. In the last century, the demise of Soviet communism would not have been complete and lasting had the West not aided the enemies of our enemy--from shipyard workers to playwrights to culture-hungry teenagers to imprisoned intellectuals--in utterly undermining from within the ideology to which they were subject.
There are signs that some in the Obama administration grasp this--perhaps better than the last administration, which despite the efforts of many individuals, had difficulty aiding strategic communications that went beyond direct statements by U.S. officials and instrumentalities. On May 20, Secretary Clinton noted to the Senate that the Taliban was more effective than the U.S. at strategic communications, and indicated the administration is revamping America's communications strategy. President Obama referred to an "extremist ideology" in his May 21 speech on national security.
Working in favor of the administration are two key recent events: the 2008 victory in Iraq and President Obama's decision to pursue victory in Afghanistan. These contribute to an essential element of undermining an ideology: convincing people that the enemy's cause is futile. Now this must be complemented by much more nuanced, retail activities that empower those within Muslim communities who do not share the Islamists' vision for humanity. Free societies can help reformers by providing resources, the means to disseminate ideas, training, publicity, access to supporters elsewhere and political cover. Conceptually, we need to find and help those who can speak directly and credibly with those who are most vulnerable to radical influence, rather than sell America better.
The administration should take its time and get this right. Traditional State Department public diplomacy should be enhanced, but its overall mission should be expanded and new tools are needed. The president should insist first on a coherent strategy to counter Islamism. Once we get the strategy right, organizing for success becomes possible. At that point, history shows that the ideological opponents of the United States and other free societies do not fare particularly well.
Christian Whiton was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a policy advisor to the Foreign Policy Initiative.