External Messages vs. Internal Conversation

by Steven R. Corman

We often tend to think of U.S. strategic communication problems as having to do with our messages to the rest of the world. To be sure, that is an area where we need a lot of work. But it’s easy to become over-focused on the external aspects of the problem, and overlook the internal dimensions. This is Michael Scheuer’s point in a new book entitled Marching Toward Hell.

In a recent Newsweek interview, he criticizes the discourse of our political leadership on terrorism, saying “it’s much easier to tell Americans that crazy people are after you and tomorrow morning your daughter is going to have to go to school in a burqa.”

An inspection of recent essays in Foreign Affairs by the leading presidential candidates shows lots of rhetoric of this sort. John McCain describes a movement that our defeat in Iraq would turn into a juggernaut:

The consequences of failure would be horrific: a historic loss at the hands of Islamist extremists who, after having defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the United States in Iraq, will believe that the world is going their way and that anything is possible.

Barack Obama warns of “global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism.” And Hillary Clinton describes complex social forces that drive the Bad Guys’ hatred of America:

Terrorist cells are preparing for future attacks. We must understand not only their methods but their motives: a rejection of modernity, women’s rights, and democracy, as well as a dangerous nostalgia for a mythical past.

But according to Scheuer, there is a much simpler explanation:

I read bin Laden’s writings and I take him at his word. He and his followers hate us because of specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Bin Laden lays them out for anyone to read. Six elements: our unqualified support for Israel; our presence on the Arabian peninsula, which is land they deem holy; our military presence in other Islamic countries; our support of foreign states that oppress Muslims, especially Russia, China and India; our long-term policy of keeping oil prices artificially low to the benefit of Western consumers but the detriment of the Arab people; and our support for Arab tyrannies who will do that.

He says that rather than engaging these complex, contentious, and difficult issues, our politicians create the fiction of a dangerous world where evil forces want to destroy us because of who we are and what we stand for.

I’m not sure I see that as being as much of a distinction as Sheuer, but he makes a valid overall point. It is a mistake to ignore their stated grievances and our role in maintaining them. Above all he reminds us that strategic communication is not just about “public diplomacy” oriented toward external audiences. It’s also about “public affairs” and our internal conversation.