This morning I went to hear Under Secretary of State Jim Glassman and Ambassador Dell Dailey speak at GWU's Homeland Security Policy Institute on the topic of "Toward a Comprehensive Approach to Countering Terrorism." Glassman, who kindly
pretends admits to being an Abu Aardvark reader, has been making the rounds the last few months laying out his new conception of the role of public diplomacy. His innovation has been in all but name to reorient public diplomacy efforts from "public diplomacy" towards "strategic communications" (thought he doesn't use precisely that language).
What I mean is that instead of focusing on the long-term project of building understanding of America among foreign publics (exchange programs, speaker series, and so forth) or of improving America's image in the world (trying to 'move the needle' on the favorable ratings in the Pew Global Attitudes surveys), Glassman prefers to narrow the focus to 'creating a hostile environment for violent extremism.' The mission, as he put it, is "highly focused" on the 'war of ideas' as part of counter-terrorism, with public diplomacy cast as the persuasive and non-coercive tools in the strategic campaign. This fits very well with the emphasis on political dimensions and soft power which Secretary of Defense Bob Gates brought to the table, and with the general COIN turn in thinking about counter-terrorism. Indeed, listening to Glassman and Dailey, it wasn't hard to hear echoes of "clear, hold, build" in their conception of the "war of ideas". (What that might actually mean in practice is something which deserves a conference or six of its own..)
On one level, I think this is a positive development - as I should, since I've been writing and giving talks for two years now arguing in favor of just such a 'war of ideas' focused tightly on 'delegitimizing terrorism' and leveraging al-Qaeda's very real marginality not just among Muslims but even among Islamists. Support for and opposition to al-Qaeda has very little to do with America's favorability ratings, and I'm glad that Glassman has severed that particular linkage.
But I also think there is now a real risk of going too far in this direction. Global views of America matter for a whole range of important reasons besides the question of al-Qaeda and counter-terrorism. Subordinating America's public diplomacy to the single focus of "creating a hostile environment for violent extremism" is as mistaken as was the previous obsession with "moving the needle" on Pew surveys. The U.S. really needs to do both: a strategic communications campaign as part of the counter-terrorism effort, and a reconfigured and energized public diplomacy aimed at the longer-term, wider dimensions of America's relations with the world. The stunning imbalance of resources between 'traditional' public diplomacy and the State Department on the one hand, and strategic communications around the Pentagon on the other poses a real challenge. Both Secretary Gates (in speeches) and Under-Secretary Glassman (today) have acknowledged that there is problem, but I don't think it has been adequately debated.
A few other interesting points from their presentation and the discussion which followed:
First, much of the discussion revolved around the Muslim Brotherhood question - how the U.S. should deal with influential Islamist groups which have renounced violence and are hostile to al-Qaeda, but which promote ideas antithetical to (his conception of) American values and preferences and oppose U.S. foreign policy. Glassman argued - in nigh Aardvarkian language - that given the primary focus on delegitimizing al-Qaeda, it makes sense to work with its most effective internal critics [* note - just realized this was poorly phrased - the MB is not an 'internal critic' of al-Qaeda, but rather an influential voice within Islamism.. an important distinction which that sentence didn't make as obvious as it should have]. But he also expressed his concern about the longer-term challenge of a group like the MB, who hurt al-Qaeda but also challenge the emergence of the kinds of pro-Western, secular "moderates" that the U.S. wants to see. He repeatedly described the Muslim Brotherhood question as one of the toughest facing his office, and one which they were actively discussing but had not yet arrived at any clear strategic vision. I can attest to both points - that the issue is under real discussion, and that there is no clear strategic consensus as of yet. It might help to define the objective first: if the goal is to sideline al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood is a useful indirect ally and if you are trying to build a secular society it isn't... so which war is the U.S. trying to fight? On a side note, Glassman also noted his fascination with the "Muslim Brotherhood bloggers" phenomenon, but didn't quite know what to make of it.
Second, Glassman talked with some passion about using new media technologies to "divert" young people away from radicalism, explicitly arguing that youth should be channeled into other areas such as music, sports, and entertainment as an alternative to politics and religion. It's not every day that you hear Frankfurt School critical theory - popular culture as an instrument of state power used to distract the people from politics - articulated as policy. Arab political commentators such as Fahmy Howeydi and Abd al-Bari Atwan have long complained that popular music video clips and reality TV shows were designed to distract Arabs from political issues... maybe somebody was listening, if not exactly who they had in mind!
Finally, there is a real tension in their presentations in the portrait of al-Qaeda. On the one hand, they presented al-Qaeda as a "death cult", "imploding" under its own contradictions, with an ideology that "doesn't resonate with most Muslims" and carrying within it "the seeds of its own destruction". They gave much attention to Peter Bergen's account of AQ's fatal flaws, of the declining support for suicide bombing, the recantations by Dr Fadl, and the rest of this new narrative. But at the same time, they presented AQ as continuing to be an adaptive and dangerous organization, a propaganda juggernaut posing a continuing massive threat and with frightening abilities to recruit and radicalize. But which is it? Do they really see al-Qaeda as a marginal, self-defeating movement collapsing on its own irrelevancy, or as a major threat requiring the concentrated resources of the U.S. national security establishment? Does it really make sense to focus the American 'war of ideas' on such a self-defeating, collapsing death cult? This reminds me of nothing more than Jack Snyder's famous depiction of the 'paper tiger' myth, in which adversaries are simultaneously seen as so formidable that they pose an existential threat and as so weak that they can be easily crumpled by a forceful blow. More debate fodder.
All of which makes me think that what the world needs now is a roundtable on the challenges for public diplomacy and the 'war of ideas' for the next administration... have to get on that.