But Do We Have Soft Power to Use?

by Steven R. Corman

Two weeks ago, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published the transcript of a speech by Ambassador (formerly Lieutenant General) Dell Dailey, given on December 12. Dailey was director of the Center for Special Operations at the U.S. Special Operations Command before he became the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism.

I met Dailey when I served on a panel at SOCOM, and I regard him as a smart guy who Gets It. Remarking on his speech, Micael Kraft at the CT Blog noted that he downplays the military role even though he was a three-star general, and bucks the Bush administration’s disdain for nation building:

Some of the points Ambassador Dailey made have been previously heard in various forms from others, including in the academic world. But the emphasis by the retired Lieutenant General struck me as a marked contrast with the attitudes the Bush administration expressed during its early days in office when it eschewed the concept of nation-building. And it is a somewhat unusual emphasis to come from a man who spent 36 years in the Army and was considered to be legendary in the special operations circles.

Dailey also recognizes the critical role of communication as the medium of influence and persuasion in counterterrorism efforts. He said in the speech,

Communication should therefore be used by the United States and its allies to shape perceptions, build allies, and dissuade potential terrorists. This must be a central component in U.S. strategy because it influences attitudes and behavior.

Dailey’s approach is refreshing because of its emphasis on the use of “soft power” in counterterrorism. But it raises the question: Do we have soft power to use? My view is that some of his objectives will be hard to achieve because of contradictions created by our “my way or the highway” approach to counterterrorism and international relations in recent years.

Democracy/law. At the outset of the speech, Dailey calls for “supporting local democratization efforts and working to help countries achieve the rule of law.” This will be a tough sell given recent contradictory behavior by the United States. For instance, Saudi Arabia is a staunch U.S. ally and arms customer, yet the State Department says that as of 2006 its “only elected representatives were half of the municipal counselors, elected by men.” We give Pakistan billions in foreign aid, yet it is led by a man who came to power in a coup d’état. We have also shown a willingness to discount electoral processes that yield results we dislike, as in the case of the Palestinian elections favoring Hamas. I recognize that there are some good reasons for all of these policies, but they don’t include supporting democracy and the rule of law.

These problems aside, it is not clear that there is a good market for democracy in Muslim cultures. Several verses in the Quran condemn those who “fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed” (5:44,45,47). Prominent islamist ideologues like Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi and Abu Bakar Bashir interpret such passages to mean that democracy is a form of polytheism and participating in it is a sin. While this interpretation is by no means universal in the Muslim world, it makes uncertain the value of promoting democracy, even if we could credibly do it. It also means that the harder we push democracy, the more ammunition ideologues have to cast us as an evil force.

International partnerships. Dailey notes in his speech that “defeating terrorism will require a global, coordinated effort that includes partner nations.” However, in recent years the U.S. has sometimes acted more like a competitor than a partner. Many countries viewed the Iraq invasion as a violation of international law. European nations complained about U.S. heavy-handedness in terrorism- and security-related dealings in the wake of 9/11. In 2004 a group of former diplomats and military commanders issued a statement that accused President Bush of being “insensitive to the concerns of traditional friends and allies, and disdainful of the United Nations.” While these views are open to debate, they cast doubt on our qualifications as a good partner, and help explain why the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded that in 2006 the “United States remains broadly disliked in most countries surveyed.”

Shaping perceptions. The above quote about communication recommends that we make efforts to shape perceptions, but doing this requires credibility. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the credibility of the United States may never have been lower. This is the Mother of All Constraints, fed in large part by contradictions between words and deeds like those noted above. Without credibility, we have limited ability to shape any perceptions except ones that are unfavorable to us. The first order of business must be finding a way to recover it.

As we argued in a recent white paper, the international strategic communication system appears stuck in a pattern that is unfavorable to the United States, not unlike the situation in dysfunctional families where every utterance leads to conflict and a deepening of hard feelings–if it has any effect at all. It will likely take some significant positive disruption to change the game. Until we accomplish that, it probably won’t matter how good our messages are, how many smart people we have strategizing them, or how much money and effort we expend pushing them.

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  1. [...] would also add that it’s one way to rebuild badly needed credibility in the region, the lack of which is hindering us in the quest to effectively use soft power in the fight against terrorist [...]

  2. [...] of a growing realization in the upper-reaches of the Department of Defense about the importance of soft power, which has been echoed by Gates, Joint Chiefs Chair Mullin, Deputy Under SecDef Michael Doran, and [...]