The War of Ideas: Quick Hit Campaigns More Than Long Term Plays


David Kaplan of US News & World Report has an insightful short piece out on the bureaucracy of U.S. public diplomacy and Karen Hughes’ efforts to “win the war of ideas”:

U.S. effort on war of ideas draws skepticism. Even as jihadist networks become tougher to combat, the United States still lacks a comprehensive strategy to thwart the ideological forces fueling their growth, say critics. In response, the administration recently launched its latest attempt to coordinate the “war of ideas” against radical Islam: The White House’s National Security Council has convened yet another interagency committee to develop a strategy aimed at marginalizing extremists. Dubbed the Policy Coordinating Committee on Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, the group is headed by the administration’s point person on the ideas war: Karen Hughes, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy.
Skeptics abound, as this is at least the fourth attempt at coordinating federal efforts on infowar. The NSC began two ill-fated interagency committees in 2002, one on “strategic communication” and another on “information strategy.” Both generated more frustration than results, say participants. Their work was succeeded, in part, by the Muslim World Outreach Policy Coordinating Committee in 2004, which drafted a widely praised plan that was never implemented. Now that committee is being replaced by Hughes’s new group. “It’s the same old people with a new title,” says one insider.
Hughes, the president’s former counselor, has won points for crafting a Rapid Response Unit, designed to help U.S. officials abroad respond to the day’s news. (For a peek at one of its daily Rapid Response sheets, see Official Use Only) But critics say the effort is typical of Hughes’s quick-hit, political campaignlike approach to what is a years-long ideological struggle. Former State Department diplomat John Brown, editor of the Public Diplomacy Press Review, calls the administration’s efforts “naive, provincial, and evangelical” but says the problem ultimately may lie in the very nature of U.S. government today. “It’s so complex, with so many bureaucracies, that to get anybody to agree on a single message is almost impossible.”

This kind of public diplomacy is extremely tough to do when few people of import are being held accountable for Abu Ghraib, when Guantanamo is still open, revelations of a mass execution at Haditha are shaking Pentagon, and when America continues to be seen as a reckless occupier that cares little for the value and quality of Muslim lives rather than liberator.
Hughes has a tough job in this environment which was mostly self-created by our President and his team — but only serious, long-term plays are going to matter if America wants to get serious about a ‘war of ideas’.
— Steve Clemons


8 comments on “The War of Ideas: Quick Hit Campaigns More Than Long Term Plays

  1. Andy says:

    Here’s a question: In a war of ideas between liberalism and its foes, how much message discipline do we really want? This is liberalism we’re talking about, after all: freedoms of expression, press, and the like; openness and transparency; tolerance and the free exchange of ideas; the hope that enlightened debate can solve problems that violence could never affect; the faith that holds that individuals should be allowed to determine the values by which their states would be constituted AND that, given a free choice in the light of day, individuals will CHOOSE our liberal values. At best, a highly disciplined effort at unified “strategic communication” (covert propoganda) is uncomfortably ironic, and may give us short term gains at the expense of longer-term prestige. At worst, we frustrate our own cause by such short-sightedness, leading to greater cynicism about the meaning of liberal values in their practice and diminishing the appeal they hold to individuals who would otherwise choose them for their excellence.
    We don’t need a coordinated message plan, and I think the whole strategic communication thing will almost certainly come back to haunt us. Secrets come out, and if we didn’t want to do it in the light of day now, chances are good that we’ll be ashamed of it later. What we need is a new generation of programs that encourage cultural and intellectual exchange, from student programs like the Fulbright (and lowered fees for internationals who wish to study here) to VOA. Open, free exchange – that’s how liberals win debates!
    And we’re also going to need some good policy initiatives we can hang our hat on.
    For no fault of her own, Karen Hughes won’t do a bit of good. She can’t. And her efforts may well do a good deal of harm.


  2. Zathras says:

    That’s quite right. As well, with a little googling one can read US media coverage of Hughes’ appointment in March of 2005, which focused on how significant it was that someone so close to the President was taking charge of the public diplomacy office. This missed the point, obviously, and that points up a sad truth about public diplomacy: the Bush administration relates success in this area to success in running election campaigns, and so do most politicians outside the administration and nearly all of the major media. Election campaigns are what matter to all of these groups; they are the context through which each sees every substantive issue.


  3. carrieboberry says:

    Is Hughes up to it? Response to Craig’s question.
    I don’t think it’s a matter of her not being qualified — she’s not. Or of the Bushie’s being incompetent or purposely botching it.
    I think it’s more thoughtlessness. Hughes was an important asset in the Bush presidential campaign. And I think David Kaplan suggests the Bush thinking when he mentions Hughes’ campaignlike approach. The Bush thinking is that if her methods worked to get him elected in the US, they would certainly work to convince the world.


  4. capitol P says:

    This kind of public diplomacy is extremely tough to do when few people of import are being held accountable for deceiving their own country, and trying to deceive the world, into an unnecessary, illegal and immoral attack on Iraq, and its aftermath.
    They really think everybody’s stupid, and act the way they do because they are sure they will never be held accountable and receive the ultimate punishment.
    They really don’t understand that they are permanently despised worldwide, that they are curse words when not being laughed at?


  5. John Wilson says:

    An interesting phrase above “Is the administration deliberatly trying to irritate Muslems? I’ve heard that the U.S. WANTS a ‘clash of civilizations’
    In order to become the new Rome…
    It does seem at times that the White House is doing everything pssible to
    get Iran to develop atomic weapons.
    Bewildering is the right word.
    Heard that in the political world/foorball game
    The GOP plays tackle and the Dems are trying to play ‘touch’…


  6. Marcia says:

    It is their favorite thing–war, war of any kind, to make money, to keep people scared, to spin the newest line that changes with the election cycle. There is nothing serious about this administration other than weaving their own web.
    Not only does this administration care little for the value and quality of Muslim lives but it cares little about the lives of its own citizens who can go without health care, die on roof-tops in natural disasters, be deprived of voting rights,in short, all those not of the inner circle are treated like a herd of cattl, so why should others expect better?
    As for Mrs. Hughes, from a view of her past, she IS tough, so concern for her may not be necessary.


  7. Craig says:

    Is Karen Hughes a serious choice for this kind of thing?
    I ask because there’s something of a question on several blogs about whether the Bush Administration is as incompetent as it seems or so radical that much of what it is doing is deliberate. I suppose when we look at something like reconstruction in Iraq, it’s easy to see both incompetence and a deliberate form of cronyism and corruption operating at the same time.
    But some of the things the Bush Administration does are so bewildering I can hardly make sense of it. So what is it with the choice of Karen Hughes? a) Sheer incompetence? b) On the job training (okay, I’m not sure if that’s a serious choice so let’s change that to –not a serious administration effort, just something to keep Karen Hughes busy)? or c) Deliberately irritating the Muslim world?
    These are not facetious questions. We watched Thomas Friedman, a reasonably intelligent man, take the Bush Administration seriously for three years on Iraq largely because he counts himself among the kind of policy people who treat whatever administration is in power as if they are capable of listening to advice. It was a mistake but I understand it. I’ve seen many other people do the same in various ways whether they were for the war or against it. But, is there something that can be called a serious and competent component in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, something that we can say, Ah, at least they take that seriously and have people who know what they’re doing? I think we saw just a little of that in Bush’s first term; I’m not sure we’ve been seeing it in the second term but maybe I’m wrong.


  8. Finest says:

    Let me see…what is missing…oh yea…an editor…someone who can moderate the radical cant…sooo, here we go…
    This kind of public diplomacy is extremely tough to do when few people of import are being held accountable for Abu Ghraib (the perps have been tried and covicted, get over it), when Guantanamo ia still open (still serving rice pilaf in air-conditioned comfort), revelations of a mass execution at Haditha (that bastian of coalition sympathizers, burying roadside bombs as we speak) are shaking {the} Pentagon [the Media Resource Center found that between May 17.2006 and June 7 ABC,CBS, and NBC aired 99 stories on the alleged military misconduct— a full three and one half hours of coverage in three weeks. But when it came to covering heroism of our soldiers, these same networks gave that story only 52 minutes of coverage, IN FIVE YEARS!! Fourteen of the 20 Americans who received the highest recognition for bravery in the war on terror were never mentioned by the networks at all]and when America continues to be seen as a reckless occupier that cares little for the value and quality of Muslim lives rather than liberator (on Al-Jazeera).
    There, that’s better.


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