Ayaan Hirsi Ali published a long essay, “A Problem From Heaven: Why the United States Should Back Islam’s Reformation,” in a 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs. Her article opened a window on the dilemmas faced by Public Diplomacy policymakers after 9/11 and the judgment calls by two Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes and Judith McHale. She also asked some fundamental questions.
Four years have passed, and Hirsi Ali has sparked many controversies, but Public Diplomacy practitioners can still profit from reading her full argument, her regard for the work of the U.S. Information Agency, her review of decisions made during the Bush and Obama administrations, her policy proposals, and her praise of Secretary Clinton’s insight not to abdicate “the ideological arena.”
She elaborated on these themes in a Wall Street Journal essay,a Hoover Institution paper, and testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Different Public Diplomacy practitioners will have different takes on Hirsi Ali’s essay, but all need to absorb and interrogate it. She touched on fundamental purposes. Here are key quotes:
In the wake of 9/11, senior Bush administration officials sounded emphatic. “This is a battle for minds,” declared the Pentagon’s no. 2, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. But behind the scenes, there was a full-blown struggle going on about how to approach the subject of Islam. According to Joseph Bosco, who worked on strategic communications and Muslim outreach in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2004, although some American officials defined Islam as inherently peaceful, others argued that, like Christianity, it had to go through a reformation. Eventually, an uneasy compromise was reached. “We bridged the divide by saying that most contemporary Muslims practice their faith peacefully and tolerantly, but a small, radical minority aspires to return to Islam’s harsh seventh century origins,” Bosco wrote in The National Interest.
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Administration officials could not even agree on the target of their efforts. Was it global terrorism or Islamic extremism? Or was it the alleged root causes—poverty, Saudi funding, past errors of U.S. foreign policy, or something else altogether? There were “agonizing” meetings on the subject, one participant told U.S. News & World Report. “We couldn’t clarify what path to take, so it was dropped.”
It did not help that the issue cut across traditional bureaucratic demarcations. Officers from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command argued for the integration of public diplomacy, press relations, and covert operations. State Department officials saw this as yet another attempt by the Pentagon to annex their turf. Veterans of the campaign trail warned against going negative on a religion—any religion—ahead of the 2004 election. For all these reasons, by the middle of that year, the Bush administration had next to no strategy. Government Accountability Office investigators told Congress that those responsible for public diplomacy at the State Department had no guidance.
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Administration officials eventually settled on the “Muslim World Outreach” strategy, which relied partly on humanitarian projects carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development and partly on Arabic-language media outlets funded by the U.S. government, such as Alhurra (a plain vanilla TV news channel) and Radio Sawa (a 24-hour pop music station that targets younger listeners). In effect, “Muslim World Outreach” meant not touching Islam at all. Karen Hughes, who was undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007, has said that she “became convinced that our nation should avoid the language of religion in our discussion of terrorist acts.”
Here, if in few other respects, there has been striking continuity from Bush to Obama. From 2009 to 2011, Judith McHale served in the same position that Hughes had. “This effort is not about a ‘war of ideas,’ or winning the hearts and minds of huge numbers of people,” McHale said in 2012. “It’s about using digital platforms to reach that small but dangerous group of people around the world who are considering turning to terrorism and persuading them to instead turn in a different direction.
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American policymakers have made two main arguments for avoiding the subject of Islam, one strategic, the other domestic. The first holds that the United States must not jeopardize its interests in the Middle East and other majority-Muslim parts of the world by casting aspersions on Islam. The second contends that the country must not upset the delicate balance in Western democracies between Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities by offending Muslims or encouraging so-called Islamophobes. Yet it is becoming harder and harder to sustain these arguments * * * *
The United States cannot wish away the escalating violence by jihadist groups or the evidence that substantial proportions of many Muslim populations support at least some of their goals (such as the imposition of sharia and punishing apostates and those who insult Islam with death). * * * * The nonstrategy, in short, has failed. * * * * It is time to change course.
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During the Cold War, the United States systematically encouraged and funded anticommunist intellectuals to counter the influence of Marxists and other fellow travelers of the left by speaking out against the evils of the Soviet system. In 1950, the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, dedicated to defending the noncommunist left, opened in Berlin. Leading intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and Jacques Maritain agreed to serve as honorary chairs. Many of the congress’ members were former communists—notably, Arthur Koestler—who warned against the dangers of totalitarianism on the basis of personal experience. Thanks to U.S. funding, the group was able to publish such magazines as Encounter(in the United Kingdom), Preuves(in France), Der Monat(in Germany), and Quadrant(in Australia).
As détente took hold in the late 1960s and 1970s, the war of ideas died down. * * * * Under Reagan, however, funding for the war of ideas was stepped up, largely through the U.S. Information Agency.
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The conventional wisdom today is that the Cold War was won on economics. But this is a misunderstanding of history. In fact, in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, the United States appealed to people living behind the Iron Curtain not only on the basis of Americans’ higher standards of living but also—and perhaps more importantly—on the basis of individual freedom and the rule of law. Soviet dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Vaclav Havel did not condemn the Soviet system because its consumer goods were shoddy and in short supply. They condemned it because it was lawless, lying, and corrupt.
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The United States’ mistake in this regard has been twofold. First, after the collapse of communism in Russia, political leaders assumed that the United States would never face another ideological challenge. In 1998, Congress disbanded the U.S. Information Agency. Its functions were absorbed by other agencies. Then, officials assumed that Islam should not be engaged as an ideology at all. They did so mostly because they were—and remain—terrified of taking on Islam.
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Yes, the main responsibility for the Muslim Reformation falls on Muslims themselves. But it must be the duty of the Western world, as well as being in its self-interest, to provide assistance and, where necessary, security to those reformers who are carrying out this formidable task, just as it once encouraged those dissidents who stood up to Soviet communism. In her final testimony before Congress in January 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it right. “We’re abdicating the ideological arena,” she said, “and we need to get back into it.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.