We're Losing the War of Ideas

Harlan Ullman
21 December 2004

Washington - A largely unnoticed report drafted by an important and mostly invisible Pentagon advisory group contained surprisingly strong and probably unintended criticism of the Bush administration's approach to the global war on terror.

The report by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board (DSB), a panel of outside technical and defense experts, was titled "Strategic Communication." In plain English, it means waging and winning the war of ideas between the United States and Islamic extremism.

The blunt conclusion of the report, which was released in September, was that "U.S. strategic communication must be transformed" because it "is in crisis." In plainer English, the United States is simply not communicating its message at home or abroad in the war on terror and is losing this contest of ideas.

The DSB also challenged key administration foreign policy assertions. Americans have been told repeatedly by the Bush administration that terrorists are out to kill us because they hate America and its democracy. But the report observed that "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom'; they hate our policies" and, in particular, "what they see as one-sided support" in favor of Israel and against the Palestinians.

And the administration's optimistic assessments of postwar nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq were countered by this: "In the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have not led to democracy there but only more chaos and suffering."

Driving its point home, the DSB report made clear that the United States "is engaged in a generational and global struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and Islam" and that the fight is "more than a war against the tactic of terrorism."

Therefore, DSB Chairman William Schneider Jr. advised, "To win [this] global battle of ideas, a global strategy for communicating those ideas is essential" - a requirement that senior government officials clearly understand.

So why are we losing this battle? The answer rests in three profound weaknesses that afflict American government:

A failure to understand reality as it is, not as we might like it to be. This flaw was central to the 9/11 commission's critical finding that "group think" produced intelligence misjudgments over Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The difficulty in holding officials accountable for policy choices that go wrong. No one was fired or reprimanded for the intelligence or strategic communication failures, or for the handling of postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

The dysfunctional nature of the U.S. government's national security organization that often prevents rational decision-making and certainly confuses it.

The DSB made seven recommendations:

Issue a presidential directive to strengthen the nation's capacity for conducting strategic communication.

Establish a strategic communication structure within the National Security Council headed by a deputy national security adviser supported by an independent, nonpartisan "think tank-like" organization, the Center for Strategic Communication.

The remaining five recommendations specified changes within the State Department and Defense Department regarding public diplomacy and planning for strategic communication, including tripling personnel and funding for strategic communication in the Pentagon.

In many ways, the DSB report paralleled the work of the 9/11 commission, whose recommendations were just enacted into law. Intelligence suffers from similar dysfunctional effects of government. The reality is that our security structure is still stuck in a time warp.

Even with the new Homeland Security Department, the National Security Act of 1947 and the vestiges of the Cold War largely define our strategic instincts and national security organization. And "group think" has not been eliminated. The DSB report concluded by predicting that we will lose this war of ideas "if we tinker at the margins." And we are tinkering. The fact is, the administration does not have a comprehensive plan for dealing with these challenges.

The government and the public need a better understanding of the dangers and the realities that confront the nation. This is the best reason for enhancing strategic communication and for correcting the larger problems that cut across national security and how we think about it.

Then, elected leaders must have the courage not just to tinker but to reform the overall national security structure, including within the executive branch and Congress. Otherwise, as long as we focus only on parts and not the heart of the issues that test us, we will never be successful in making the nation safer and more secure, and we will never reduce to a manageable level the current dysfunctional nature of government.

Real change is needed now. But who will take that lead and deal with what really matters most rather than playing at the margins?

Harlan Ullman, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic Studies, is author of Finishing Business: Ten Steps to Defeat Global Terror.