U.S. Struggles in War of Ideas, Panel Says

The 9/11 report urges a strategy to win hearts -- not just battles -- in the Middle East. It's a theme backed by a growing number of analysts.

By Paul Richter

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 25, 2004

WASHINGTON — In calling for a sweeping overhaul of American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Sept. 11 commission last week joined a growing consensus that the United States had not done enough to win over the world's huge Muslim population.

The bipartisan panel urged in its final report that the government engage more deeply in a "struggle of ideas" against Islamic radicalism and develop a preventive strategy that was at least as political as it was military.

"We need short-term action on a long-term strategy, one that invigorates our foreign policy with the attention that the president and Congress have given to the military and intelligence parts of the conflict against Islamic terrorism," the report said.

The fight against terrorism needs to be "balanced," involving "diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy and homeland defense," the report said.

The commission also argued that the administration must ste p up its public diplomacy to stanch the spread of anti-Americanism, and should challenge authoritarian regimes that had been allies to carry out democratic reforms. "We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world," it declared.

The report's language echoed several other official and unofficial diagnoses of the problem. A report issued last fall by a State Department panel headed by Edward P. Djerejian, an ex-aide to former Secretary of State James A. Baker, found that the United States was failing to promote America or its values.

In the nearly three years since the Sept. 11 attacks, a broad agreement has developed that the United States needs to do more to advance its values — and to convince an increasingly fractious Middle East that Americans really are the good guys they believe themselves to be. There is far less agreement on how well the Bush administration has been handling this job, and how these principles of "soft power" can be reconciled with the other goals of su ppressing Islamic militants.

The theme has been struck by Republicans as well as Democrats, and by administration officials in moments of candor. The commission's report cites a 2003 memo in which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fretted that the United States needed a long-range strategy for preventing the growth of a new generation of young Islamic militants. The report said Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage had worried aloud in an interview with the commission that Americans had been exporting "our fears and our anger, not our vision of opportunity and hope."

The issuance of the report set off an immediate debate over the administration's commitment to using diplomacy, aid and other nonmilitary tools to head off anti-Americanism.

Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, insisted that though the commission had called on the administration to do far more, its recommendations were perfectly in keeping with White House efforts. "The hearts-and-minds issues are ba ck, maybe in an even more real way than they were in the Cold War," she said.

Rice contended that Bush had pushed harder for democratization in the Arab world than any president since World War II.

Other analysts, however, saw the commission's recommendations as a challenge to the administration's policy.

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that the administration "hasn't been very energetic on the question of Islam, and the administration is vulnerable on it." The administration "has always walked away from it, partly because of the divisions between the Pentagon and the State Department that left the State Department isolated," said Walker, a former assistant secretary of State for the Middle East.

Peter W. Singer, in charge of the Brookings Institution's project on U.S. policy toward the Islamic world, said the commission was "not the first group calling for these kinds of sensible recommendations. But we just don't see them execu ted yet by the administration…. I'm afraid these again will fall on deaf ears."

Singer said that although the administration had given rhetorical support to democratization and reform in the region, it had devoted few resources for the task. He noted that the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative had a first-year budget of $27 million for a region of 300 million people. (Funding rose to $130 million in the second fiscal year, 2004.) Yet even if the administration devotes huge amounts of money to the effort over many years, it may be difficult to reconcile the goal of fostering reform with other values.

Nathan J. Brown, director of Middle East studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said the panel's recommendations would be difficult for policy makers because they failed to explain which of many conflicting goals should have priority.

For example, Brown said, the panel urged U.S. officials to push for reform and challe nge less democratic regimes. Yet it praised U.S. support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, he said.

Likewise, the panel called for a free media in the Middle East, yet it condemned Al Jazeera satellite television, the kind of channel that would probably become widespread if television in the region were deregulated.

Brown said the recommendations reflected the growing consensus that "it is time for us to rethink the principles that have guided us for the last half century…. But they pulled in different directions, and they didn't help policymakers to understand how to prioritize them."

And he said that they dodged one of the most important — and sensitive — questions: whether the war in Iraq would help reduce terrorism or cause it to grow.

The commission wrote that polling had shown anti-Americanism, a longtime fact of life in the Islamic world, had soared since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

The report cited polling data indicating that in Egypt, which had received substantial U.S. aid, 15% of the public had a positive view of the U.S. in 2002.

Fresh polling shows that in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and continuing media coverage of Iraqi casualties, the numbers have worsened considerably. Recent polling by Zogby International found that the share of Egyptians who disapprove of the United States government increased from 76% in 2002 to 98%, while sympathy for Al Qaeda has risen.

The commission's report said militants built support by playing on grievances widely felt throughout the Islamic world — "against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel."

The commission also recommended ways the administration should treat some individual Islamic countries.

The report called for new candor in dealing with Saudi Arabia. "The problems in the U.S.-Saudi r elationship must be confronted openly," so that the relationship "is about more than oil," it said. It called the Saudis a "problematic ally in combating Islamic terrorism."

It praised the administration and Congress for their support of Afghanistan and called for a "long-term commitment to a secure and stable Afghanistan."

Although the report criticized Pakistan's government for past support of the Taliban, it said Musharraf's government nonetheless "represents the best hope for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan."