Getting Beat in the War of Ideas

by Steven R. Corman

A new study of public opinion in Muslim countries was released this week by  WorldPublicOpinion.org.  The study was conducted between July and September of 2008, using in-home interviews of around 1100 people in each of Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan, plus “supplemental polling” of 500-1000 people in each of Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Turkey, and Nigeria.

The headline results are that about 75% of those polled think it’s acceptable for al Qaeda to attack American troops on foreign soil, but not to conduct terrorist attacks against Americans at home. That’s better than them believing attacks here are OK, I guess.

But what really struck me about this report is stark evidence of the success the Bad Guys have had in driving Muslim public opinion about the West.  Here, for your reading enjoyment, are conclusions from the section of the report entitled “Perceptions of US Goals in Relation to Muslim World” juxtaposed with past statements from al Qaeda leaders:

  • Dividing Islam.  Report:  “There is a widespread majority belief that the United States seeks ‘to weaken and divide the Islamic world,’ and this belief seems at least as strong now as it was two years ago.” Abu Yahia al Libi, 2006:  “It [the U.N. Security Council] is an instrument to implement the Zionist-Crusader decisions against Muslims, including resolutions to wage wars against us and divide and occupy our land. It is a Crusader-Zionist war against Muslims.”
  • Spreading Christianity:  Report: “Just as majorities assume that the United States wants to weaken Islam, they see it as more than plausible that it is a US goal ‘to spread Christianity in the Middle East.'”  Ayman al Zawahiri 2006: “To America and the rest of Christiandom we say: Either repent of your misguided ways and enter into the light of truth or keep your poison to yourself and suffer the consequences in this world and the next. But, whatever you do, don’t attempt to spread you misery and misguidance to our lands.”
  • Controlling Oil.  Report: “The belief that it is a US goal to ‘maintain control over the oil resources of the Middle East’ is so widespread as to be consensual, and is especially strong in Middle Eastern countries.”  Ayman al Zawahiri 2007:  “But it was the security of the Saudi kingdom that was at the forefront of King Abd al-Aziz’s concerns. He requested American military assistance and training, and they agreed to construct the Dhahran military base. In return, the King guaranteed that the US would always have secure access to Saudi oil. In this way, the deal which for 60 years has been the basis of American-Saudi relations was struck.”
  • Democracy Hypocrisy.  Report:  “”The most common response was that the US favors democracy only if the government is cooperative.”  Ayman al Zawahiri, 2007: “I read in it American hypocrisy, which calls for democracy even as it considers Hosni Mubarak to be one of i ts closest friends, and which sends detainees to be tortured in Egypt, exports tools of torture to Egypt and spends millions to support the security organs and their executioners in Egypt, even as the American State Department, in its annual report on human rights, criticizes the Egyptian government because it tortures detainees!”
  • Israel Expansion.   Report: “”The assumption that it is a US goal to ‘expand the geographic borders of Israel’ is a widespread view among most Muslim nations polled.”  Ayman al Zawahiri 2005: “Freedom for the American teachers of freedom means a number of funny but sad issues, including recognition of Israel’s expropriation of our territory and its daily expansion, to the detriment of our nation.”
  • Independent Palestine.  Report “Asked whether it is a US goal ‘to see the creation of an independent and economically viable Palestinian state,’ across eight Muslim publics, five publics said no (4 majorities, 1 plurality) while three said yes (2 majorities, 1 plurality).”  Osama Bin Laden 2001:  “Bush and Blair moved and said that it was time an independent Palestinian state was established. Good grace! It was not possible to resolve the issue for the past 20 years except when this strike took place. These people only understand the language of force and fighting.”

These is one case where AQ’s success is equivocal.  Except in Egypt, and by small margins, respondents said the U.S. is trying to prevent Muslim countries from being ruled by extremist groups.  This does correspond to an AQ theme, demonstrated in this statement from Youseff bin Saleh al-Ayiri in 2003:

The crusaders, whether from political, military or media circles, have all stated that the most important requirement for forming an Iraqi government is that it not be of religious nature, and that Islamists be prevented from being in control.

But the survey describes this as a “more benign” view of the U.S., implying that the respondents consider it a good thing that we are trying to prevent extremist governments.  I could find no evidence that they actually asked about that, but perhaps we should not question the only possibly-good news too much.

If anyone doubted that we’re losing the ideological contest, they could hardly ask more convincing evidence than this.  al Qaeda talking points are being agreed-to by large numbers of Muslims in diverse areas of the world selected by random sampling.   We are getting beat–nay, getting our asses handed to us–in the War of Ideas.

Thinking about how to turn things around is a very tough problem.  Jim Glassman, immediate past Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, decided to attack the al Qaeda “brand” because he concluded (correctly) that America wasn’t selling.  Though that was a reasonable course of action for his short term in office, in the long run it doesn’t really fix things.  If we drive up AQ’s negatives while contested audiences remain firmly in agreement with its positions (like those above), that is likely to create cognitive dissonance.  Research shows that it would probably be resolved by rationalizing additional reasons to support the original choices.

A general guideline would be to take actions that disprove the above beliefs.  That would combat the say-do gap that has denied us the credibility to simply persuade people that statements those above untrue.  The “dividing Islam” belief is tough to dispel, because in the absence of an effort to unite Islam it requires proving a negative.  The “spreading Christianity” claim is also difficult because it is easy for our opponents to elide differences between the US government per se, versus and people in it and NGOs it funds, some of whom would indeed like to spread Christianity to Muslims.

The other items offer a more tractable way to turn things around, albeit ones that are politically difficult for us.  Is there a way to concretely demonstrate a relinquishing of control over oil, especially in the Middle East?  Can we work with fairly-elected governments controlled by interests, like Hamas, that we oppose?  Can we do something to finally settle the Israel/Palestinian conflict?

Finding a way to answer these questions in the positive is above my pay grade.   But if we can’t do that, then one credibility-restoring tactic is to admit the point, as we have argued previously.  For example, we could admit our interest in at least partial control over Middle East oil.   While this is perhaps not what  people in the survey would like to hear, is at least honest and conforms with what they know to be true. Admitting it could help to make us look more competent and reliable, improving our performance on two key dimensions of credibility.

3 Responses to “Getting Beat in the War of Ideas”

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  1. Bob King says:

    I discovered your blog via a link on the blogs at the Army’s Combined Arms Center (CAC) in Fort Leavenworth.

    Ironically, as you write about “Getting Beat in the War of Ideas”, the CAC blogs have ongoing discussions where it seems some doubt that a “War of Ideas” even exists.

    In one recent example, a reader commented: “I do not believe the influence (metaphysical) war is analogous to the physical war.”
    http://usacac.leavenworth.army.mil/BLOG/blogs/cgsc_student_blog/archive/2009/02/27/blog-policy-flawed.aspx

    I have no doubt there is room for significant improvement in our Strategic Communication efforts at the highest levels of government. But we also need to recognize this IS a “War of Ideas” and we must engage in that war with all of our assets.

    We can’t afford to allow our enemies supremacy or superiority within cyberspace and the information domain.

  2. JCG says:

    One can read the results of this poll and come to the opposite conclusion. AQ is NOT winning a “war of ideas.” Despite its attempts to take a free ride on public opinion in the Muslim world, its own credibility has sunk. As the poll spells out, Muslims single out specific US policies they see as counter to THEIR interests. These concrete issues, combined, shape the belief that the U.S. is against Islam and Muslims. This dynamic, in various degrees of severity, was with us for decades before Bin Laden and unless the U.S. were to somehow alter how it defines the national interest, is unlikely to change.

    One way to think about AQ is that it is an opportunistic parasite that infects an open wound, making the wound more serious. In the absence of a “down-to-earth” agenda like other terrorist groups, it must take advantage of existing conflicts to keep the fire burning. If there is any “war of ideas” it is the lively and continuous debate within the Muslim world over politics, ideology and religion.

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