washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Should Obama Confront Terror?

Between the economic meltdown and the uplifting election, Americans have had something of a respite for a few months from dispiriting headlines concerning wars and terrorism. But now the horrific atrocities in Mumbai bring a sobering reminder that the Obama administration will face a continuing, if not growing, threat of global terror, much of it directed against Americans.
As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama had to talk tough about confronting terrorists with military force. He wasn’t just overcompensating because of his opponent’s impressive military record. The cold, hard reality is that we do need enhanced military and intelligence capabilities to deal with the threat of terrorism. But our policy must be a lot smarter, with more precision in targeting military action when it’s really necessary and much stronger on-the-ground intelligence. It will require a major reformulation of our strategic goals at DOD, State, and intelligence agencies.
But the greatest challenge facing the Obama administration in confronting the threat of global terror is creating a more effective strategy for winning the struggle for hearts and minds.


The policies of the Bush Administration have exponentially increased the number of terrorists, particularly impressionable young people, who are willing to do harm to America and its citizens. Bush’s policies have been so disastrous in this regard that it would be hard for the Obama Administration not to improve America’s image in the communities where terrorists thrive. The Bush Administration long ago abandoned any sincere effort to meet this challenge, as collateral damage of his ill-conceived military occupation of Iraq.
It would be unfair to say that the United States Information Agency, the Voice of America, and all of the other propaganda agencies, programs and projects charged with building goodwill abroad during the post-war period have achieved nothing worthwhile. They all had success stories. Anyone interested in the history of U.S. public diplomacy and a balanced assessment of its accomplishments has a must-read in Arthur A. Bardos’s “‘Public Diplomacy’: An Old Art, A New Profession” in the Virginia Quarterly Review.
As Bardon notes, meeting the challenge of influencing world public opinion was a conscious concern of America’s better thinkers from the get-go, and even the Declaration of Independence cited the need for Americans to embrace “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” When the USIA was founded in 1953, its modestly-stated goal was “telling America’s story to the world,” although the McCarthy era shaped it into an instrument focused on anti-communist propaganda, as much as anything else. Perhaps the high point in the agency’s mission came during the Kennedy Administration, when director Edward R. Murrow’s vision re-shaped the USIA’s purpose, as Bardos explains:

In testimony before Congressional committees and many public speeches, Murrow formulated his broader vision of the Agency’s role. He wanted specific efforts in specific places and situations “to do the things that diplomacy and force alone cannot: to change the minds of men—in their best interests and ours.” But he also saw beyond foreign policy skirmishes, even beyond the contest with communism. Even then, “…this Agency would continue to be charged with a great responsibility. We would still have the mission of combating ignorance and fear, suspicion and prejudice.” Like his predecessors and a few of his successors, he was aware that this struggle could not be quickly won; that the USIA’s task was inevitably a long-term one.

The Vietnam War damaged the Johnson Administration’s ability to carry forward Murrow’s vision, and during the Nixon Administration a ranking USIA officer reportedly told his charges “Your task is to create respect for and instill fear of the United States, nothing else.”
Confusing fear and respect seems to have been a hallmark of Republican Administrations since then. During Democratic presidencies, a more vocal concern for human rights and public diplomacy was impaired by inadequate funding for the USIA, VOA and other efforts to win hearts and minds. The USIA was dissolved into the State Department in 1999, and its functions were placed under the supervision of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The VOA was placed in the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency.
For the most part, we have failed to make substantial inroads in at-risk communities where terrorists are recruited. This void cries out for a major investment of resources, but it could be a highly cost-effective investment in containing terrorism, compared to what we have squandered in Iraq, only to make millions of new enemies in nations with large Muslim populations.
The current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman (formerly an American Enterprise Senior Fellow and publisher of The New Republic) has acknowledged:

I think that the single most pernicious misperception that’s out there, an extremely dangerous misperception, is that the United States and the West, for that matter, are out to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. And when you look at the surveys in Muslim countries, you see 80, 90 percent of the people agreeing with that statement. Now, that’s a statement that we need to do a better job of refuting.

Hardly surprising, since President Bush described our war on terrorism as a “crusade.”
The war in Iraq will have to wind down considerably to the point where U.S. troops have low/no visibility, before the Obama Administration can make significant headway in the struggle for hearts and minds. Indeed, even if all our propaganda agencies operated at full funding and maximum competence, their accomplishments would be limited if our foreign policy is still wrong-headed.
A good beginning would be for the President-elect to create an advisory group of creative thinkers charged with designing a more effective strategy for reaching communities that are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment and improving their attitudes towards the U.S., including some non-traditional political strategists, like Gene Sharp, whose writings on nonviolent resistance have influenced liberation movements in many countries.
The telecommunications revolution offers some powerful new tools for meeting this challenge, especially internet radio and streaming video. It’s not hard, for example, to imagine a range of informative, even life-saving U.S.-produced radio and internet video programs benefiting at-risk communities. The current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is even making use of Facebook and Google tools.
President Obama could make a tremendous contribution to both U.S. national security and better relations with the rest of the world by providing the leadership needed and the necessary investment to enhance ‘public diplomacy’ as a higher priority of our international relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.