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Hearts, Minds, and Dollars by David Kaplan
[This is a good summary of the US 'propaganda war' to date]
25 April 2005
Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
By David E. Kaplan
As war games go, this one was unique: the first-ever exercise on "strategic communications," its sponsors said. It was July 2003, and the government's leading players in winning the "war of ideas" against terrorism had gathered at National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. There were crisis managers from the White House, diplomats from the State Department, Pentagon specialists in psyops--psychological operations. Washington's quick victory over Saddam Hussein's Army that spring had done little to quell surging anti-Americanism overseas. Across the Muslim world--including U.S. allies like Indonesia and Jordan--polls showed Osama bin Laden a more trusted figure than George W. Bush.
The war game used an all-too-real scenario: As violent anti-American protests rocked a host of Muslim countries, pro-democracy students were being murdered in Iran while terrorists in Iraq were being hailed as patriots. The job for the government's top information warriors was daunting: improve the image of America in the Muslim world and help foster a stable democracy in Iraq. Halfway through the exercise, however, the war game was abruptly stopped. "Things were so dysfunctional," recalls one participant, "we saw little point in playing through the scenario."
The problems, others said, were a mirror of what a dozen studies say has gone wrong in what may be the most critical front in the war on terrorism today--the battle for hearts and minds: no one in charge, no national strategy, and a glaring lack of resources. From the CIA to the State Department, America's once formidable means of influencing its enemies and telling its story abroad had crumbled, along with the fall of communism. "In the battle of ideas," said Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco, "we unilaterally disarmed."
No more. Today, Washington is fighting back. After repeated missteps since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has embarked on a campaign of political warfare unmatched since the height of the Cold War. From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself. The previously undisclosed effort was identified in the course of a four-month U.S. News investigation, based on more than 100 interviews and a review of a dozen internal reports and memorandums. Although U.S. officials say they are wary of being drawn into a theological battle, many have concluded that America can no longer sit on the sidelines as radicals and moderates fight over the future of a politicized religion with over a billion followers. The result has been an extraordinary--and growing--effort to influence what officials describe as an Islamic reformation.
Among the magazine's findings:
The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance.
In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. This broad engagement with Islam has raised questions about whether the funding is legal, given the constitutional line between church and state.
The CIA is revitalizing programs of covert action that once helped win the Cold War, targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties. The agency is receiving "an exponential increase in money, people, and assets" to help it influence Muslim societies, says a senior intelligence official. Among the tactics: working with militants at odds with al Qaeda and waging secret campaigns to discredit the worst anti-American zealots.
Despite the surge of activity, Washington's efforts to win hearts and minds remain chaotic. Staffers on the White House National Security Council have drafted over a hundred papers proposing action against Islamist propaganda and political activity, sources say, yet almost none have been acted upon. To help remedy the situation, the White House is creating a new position, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach.
The push for hearts and minds comes amid hopeful signs, with a string of successful elections in the Middle East and anti-Syria protests in Lebanon. The events have boosted the Bush administration's hopes for the region, but some experts on terrorism and the Muslim world say the problems are so deep-seated they may be growing worse, not better. A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment."
Even as the insurgency in Iraq shows signs of losing steam, anti-Americanism now reaches across every strata of the Muslim world. Rumors that U.S. soldiers harvest organs from dying Iraqis or that Washington caused the tsunami to kill Muslims appear in major Arab media. Slick jihadist music videos and recruiting CD s sell briskly on the streets of Arab capitals. Many of the region's leaders believe America is at war with the Arab world, or with Islam itself, according to a March report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "U.S.-Arab relations," the report concludes, "are at their lowest point in generations."
The tools with which to fight back are varied. To the CIA, they are covert operations involving political influence and propaganda. At the Pentagon, they are called psyops or strategic-influence efforts. At the State Department, it's called public diplomacy. All seek to use information to influence, inform, and motivate America's friends and enemies abroad. Many of these tools have fallen into disuse. Many are controversial, particularly in light of recent revelations that administration officials have peddled fake video news reports and paid columnists to boost policies here at home. But to those toiling on the front lines against terrorism, the war of ideas--and the tools to fight it--are essential. How those tools have come back into use, and what Washington is doing with them, is a story that begins a half century ago, in the heyday of Soviet communism.
At the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. government fielded a worldwide network of propagandists, publicists, and payoff artists. The United States Information Agency (USIA) ran hundreds of information specialists abroad and produced enough films to rival Hollywood's top studios, all to sell the world on the goodness of America--and the evils of communism. There were USIA-run cultural centers and libraries in foreign capitals, Fulbright Scholarships and other exchange programs from the State Department, plus the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The CIA's covert payoffs, for better or worse, bought the allegiance of entire political parties in Italy and Japan. Other funds went secretly to sympathetic journalists, scholars, and labor leaders.
Exposes of CIA funding and abuses took their toll starting in the late 1960s, curtailing many of the secret programs. With the implosion of communism, Congress set about searching for a "peace dividend" and pared back what programs of influence remained. Convinced that USIA was a Cold War relic, conservatives in 1999 forced the Clinton administration to collapse the agency into the State Department. Hundreds of staffers were let go or retired, cutting the nation's public diplomacy corps by as much as 40 percent. American libraries abroad were shuttered, and exchange programs and foreign broadcasting dropped by a third. By the time al Qaeda's pilots flew their hijacked planes into Lower Manhattan, the U.S. government had ceded management of America's image abroad to Hollywood producers and rap musicians.
After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials began to ponder how to get their message out. The Taliban, for all their backwardness, were scoring propaganda successes, and much of the Muslim world refused to believe that Arabs were even behind the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. To fight back, officials set up Coalition Information Centers in Washington, London, and Islamabad, Pakistan. But the centers focused largely on breaking news, putting out fires in a 24-hour news cycle the likes of which the Cold War had never seen. Responding to the world's media, including the often-inflammatory new Arab satellite network called al Jazeera, left little time to formulate a strategy that got at the roots of Islamic terrorism.
Pulling out those roots was a task more fitting for the CIA, the White House concluded. Just weeks after 9/11, in a secret national security directive, President Bush gave the CIA carte blanche to wage a worldwide war against al Qaeda. Among the activities authorized: propaganda and political warfare. But when it came to campaigns of influence, the agency's clandestine service was "dead as a doornail," says former Middle East operative Reuel Marc Gerecht. Once staffed by hundreds, the CIA's strategic influence section was down to some 20 people by late 2001, sources tell U.S. News . "We had precious few assets left," says another agency veteran. "And none of them were spring chickens." When a group of outsiders visited the unit, one recalls, they were literally met by a woman with a walker.
At the Pentagon, top officials wondered why more wasn't being done. The military's psyop units ran airborne TV and radio stations, showered millions of leaflets on countries, and distributed everything from comic books to giant kites in order to sway minds. But they had little know-how in combating a global movement of radical Islam. In response, military leaders ordered up their own operation--a new Office of Strategic Influence, charged with waging an information war against Islamic terrorism and the ideology behind al Qaeda. But stung by misleading reports that it would spread disinformation, OSI closed its doors just four months after it opened.
The war of ideas fared little better at the State Department. To run public diplomacy, Secretary of State Colin Powell brought in Charlotte Beers, the only person to have served as chairman of two of the top 10 worldwide advertising agencies. But her workplace, as she later put it, was "a clumsy camel" of an agency--skilled, even brilliant, at dealing with other governments but shy and slow-footed at taking its case to the masses. Worse, the surviving USIA staffers, she found, were a demoralized lot, spread across a bureaucracy that cared little about their work. Nor was there much money. The entire annual budget for public diplomacy was equal to what the Pentagon spent in a day. Despite White House utterances about winning the war of ideas, it was a tough sell, even for one of the world's top ad people. "We were asking them to deal with intangible values like emotion, religion, and trust," she told U.S. News . "It wasn't easy." Beers poured what funds she had into a pilot project to open doors overseas--TV clips showcasing the lives of Muslim Americans. While criticized in the press, the spots actually played well with Muslims abroad, studies showed. But after 18 months, Beers had seen enough. She quit in March 2003, just as U.S. troops headed into Iraq.
To millions of Muslims, Washington's toppling of Saddam seemed to confirm the imperialist caricature painted by its worst enemies: an America that invades and occupies an oil-rich Arab nation, thumbs its nose at the world, supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, calls for democracy but relies on strongmen from Egypt to Pakistan. "The U.S. could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations, and it wouldn't help," argued Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich. "I don't believe that people hate movie stars and Burger King. They hate what the U.S. is doing to their lives."
Regardless of where one stood on the Iraq war, it was clear Washington needed to do a far better job at getting out its message. Complaints were piling up at the White House: In fighting for hearts and minds, America had no strategy and few resources for the job. It fell to the National Security Council, charged with coordinating the government's sprawling national security apparatus, to sort things out. Under then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, officials in mid-2002 formed two interagency committees, whose members were to include the government's top specialists in waging the war of ideas. The first, on "strategic communication," focused on public diplomacy; the other, on "information strategy," was created by classified memorandum and handled covert activity. Neither group fared well.
Those working on covert plans tried to jump-start an information offensive that would discredit al Qaeda and its allies. One staffer, Arnold Abraham, ran a panel designed to attack Islamist propaganda. In a paper last year at the National War College, Abraham wrote that his group "developed 50 different position papers with proposed courses of action, but despite very positive feedback on content, only a mere handful of the actions were operationalized." The number of proposals later topped 100, sources say, and almost none were taken seriously by their bosses. Among the ideas: using music, comics, poetry, and the Internet to get across America's views to the Arab world.
The fate of the NSC's strategic communication group was worse. Charged with crafting a national strategy on public diplomacy, the group met several times and then fell apart from lack of leadership. Its last meeting was over 18 months ago. Back at the State Department, meanwhile, Ambassador Margaret Tutwiler had, at the urging of the White House, taken on the job of public diplomacy chief. But Tutwiler lasted only six months, and in June last year the job was vacant again. By the end of Bush's first term, the position had lacked an appointed leader for half his administration.
Why the lack of priority? Fighting bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lion's share of attention, to be sure. Yet in public, top administration officials seemed emphatic. "This is a battle of ideas and a battle for minds," declared the Pentagon's No. 2 man, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. "To win the war on terror, we must win a war of ideas," agreed Condoleezza Rice a year later. But those working below them saw a decided lack of interest. "The principals have not indicated this is a priority," bemoaned one key staffer, speaking of cabinet-level officials. "They just didn't get it."
There were other reasons. Attempts at forging a national strategy repeatedly failed. Policymakers couldn't even agree on the target--worldwide terrorism or Islamic extremism, or on its root causes--poverty, Saudi funding, misunderstood U.S. policies, or something else. Interagency meetings on the topic were "agonizing," one participant recalled. "We couldn't clarify what path to take, so it was dropped." Another key factor was religion. Going after the roots of Islamic fundamentalism would drag Washington into a battle involving mosques, mullahs, and Scripture, argued some, and that went against 200 years of U.S. church-state relations. The inevitable turf wars also came into play. The war of ideas cut across otherwise-neat lines of responsibility in bureaucratic Washington. At the Pentagon and the NSC, public-affairs staffers warily eyed psyop officers who argued that public diplomacy, press relations, and psychological operations should be united under a single information strategy. White House veterans of tough political campaigns brought a short-term, manage-the-news outlook to what others thought would take a generation to fix. As a result, by mid-2004--nearly three years after 9/11--the government still had no one in charge of winning the war of ideas and no strategy for winning it. That summer, Government Accountability Office investigators told Congress they found public diplomacy staffers without guidance and a department short of linguists and information officers. "Everybody who knows how to do this has been screaming," complained one insider. "There are no virgins in this."
A few bright spots emerged. A growing chorus of criticism from Congress and the press helped gain big funding boosts for public diplomacy and foreign aid programs. The administration kicked off major new initiatives in foreign broadcasting--Radio Sawa, a pop music-news station in 2002, and Alhurra, a satellite-TV news network in 2004, both aimed at Arab audiences. The CIA's strategic influence unit and the Pentagon's psyop group also won major funding increases.
But the breakthrough finally came last summer, sources say, when the NSC began reworking the White House's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. In 2003, officials had released an earlier, public version of the document, but there is a larger, classified edition that includes annexes dealing with key objectives, among them terrorism finance and winning the war of ideas. Staffers rewrote the ideas section with bold, new language and fashioned it into a strategy called Muslim World Outreach. Aimed at strengthening the hand of moderates, the plan acknowledges that America has done poorly in reaching out to them. But it goes one big step further, stating that the United States and its allies have a national security interest not only in what happens in the Islamic world but within Islam itself, according to three sources who have seen the document. It further states that because America is limited to what it can do in a religious struggle, the nation must rely on partners who share values like democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. Among those partners: allied Muslim states, private foundations, and nonprofit groups.
Approved by President Bush, the Muslim World Outreach strategy is now being implemented across the government. But it has stirred controversy. "The Cold War was easy," says a knowledgeable official. "It was a struggle against a godless political ideology. But this has theological elements. It goes to the core of American belief that we don't mess with freedom of religion. Do we have any authority to influence this debate?" The answer, for now, appears to be yes. "You do it quietly," says Zeyno Baran, a terrorism analyst at the Nixon Center who advised on the strategy. "You provide money and help create the political space for moderate Muslims to organize, publish, broadcast, and translate their work." Baran, an expert on Islam in central Asia, says the dilemma for Americans is that the ideological challenge of our day comes in the form of a religion--militant Islam, replete with its political manifestos, edicts, and armies. "Religion is just not an issue American policymakers are comfortable discussing," she says. "But we're talking about a fascist ideology."
In crafting their strategy, U.S. officials are taking pages from the Cold War playbook of divide and conquer. One of the era's great successes was how Washington helped break off moderate socialists from hard-core Communists overseas. "That's how we're thinking. . . . It's something we talk about all the time," says Peter Rodman, a longtime aide to Henry Kissinger and now the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. "In those days, it was covert. Now, it's more open." Officials credit publicly funded programs like the National Endowment for Democracy, which have poured millions into Ukraine and other democratizing nations.
The role of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come up in discussions of the new strategy, sources say. Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam widely blamed for preaching distrust of nonbelievers, anti-Semitism, and near-medieval attitudes toward women. Saudi-funded charities have been implicated in backing jihadist movements in some 20 countries. Saudi officials say they've cracked down on extremists, but U.S. strategists would like to see opportunities for less fundamentalist brands of Islam. Reform may be more likely to come from outside the Arab world. "Look to the periphery," predicts a knowledgeable official. "That's where change will come." One solution being pushed: offering backdoor U.S. support to reformers tied to Sufism, a tolerant branch of Islam.
Another strategy being pursued is to make peace with radical Muslim figures who eschew violence. At the top of the list: the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist society, founded in 1928 and now with tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Many brotherhood members, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, are at serious odds with al Qaeda. "I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought," says Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in Muslim societies. "The Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem." Indeed, sources say U.S. intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with members of the Deobandi sect in Pakistan, whose fundamentalism schooled the Taliban and inspired an army of al Qaeda followers. Cooperative clerics have helped tamp down fatwas calling for anti-American jihad and persuaded jailed militants to renounce violence. These sensitive ties have led to at least one breakthrough--the July arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda's Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer held surveillance files of the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank, and other financial targets. Khan's capture led to a dozen arrests in London. "Engagement," says one official, "is absolutely key."
The emergence of the Muslim World Outreach strategy comes as America's frontline troops in the war of ideas may finally be hitting their stride. Despite its slow start, the CIA has received dramatic increases in money, people, and assets. It still lacks an integrated approach to attacking the roots of Islamic terrorism, insiders say, but individual CIA stations overseas are making some gutsy and innovative moves. Among them: pouring money into neutralizing militant, anti-U.S. preachers and recruiters. "If you found out that Mullah Omar is on one street corner doing this, you set up Mullah Bradley on the other street corner to counter it," explains one recently retired official. In more-serious cases, he says, recruiters would be captured and "interrogated."
Intelligence operatives have set up bogus jihad websites and targeted the Arab news media, but they are being exceedingly cautious. Unlike the good old days of the Cold War, spreading propaganda in the Internet age can easily result in "blowback," with stories ending up in the U.S. media. "They're a bit sheepish," says a CIA veteran. Indeed, some of the acts seem decidedly minor league. "The biggest that I heard about was a large banner at a major soccer game," adds the former spook. "They considered it a rousing success." Getting talented officers and linguists into the field also continues to be a problem, made worse by the drain of the Iraq war. "In Iraq," jokes a former top spy, "we have 300 there, 400 ready to go, and 400 just back" --virtually the entire overseas staff of the clandestine service.
At CIA headquarters outside Washington, the agency's analysts have also been busy. The CIA's Office of Transnational Issues has created a Global Information and Influence Team, charged with pulling together assessments of key U.S. targets. A public diplomacy conference hosted by the group in February focused on strategies to influence six nations, according to an agenda for the meeting. On the list: China, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Also under CIA auspices is a Cyber-Influence Conference Series, which brings in cutting-edge experts from industry to explore how to combat terrorist use of the Internet.
The CIA is not alone in the new push for hearts and minds. Regular budget increases since 9/11 have lifted spending on public diplomacy by more than 40 percent since 9/11, to nearly $1.3 billion, and more is on the way. The government's new Arabic broadcasting services--Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV--are showing some success, despite a barrage of complaints from critics. Radio Sawa, which features pop music interspersed with frequent newscasts, is now one of the most popular stations in the Middle East. Estimates differ, but an ACNielsen survey last year found that Alhurra, after just six months on the air, was reaching between 20 percent and 33 percent of viewers with satellite dishes in a half-dozen key Arab nations. There are new initiatives to bring Alhurra to Arab speakers in Europe, expand Persian broadcasts into Iran, and increase programming in other key languages.
Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming not from the CIA, nor from the State Department, but from the low-profile U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union--training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups.
Records drawn from the State Department, USAID, and elsewhere reveal a striking array of Islamic projects bankrolled by American taxpayers since 9/11, stretching to at least 24 countries. In nine of them, U.S. funds are backing restoration of Muslim holy sites, including historic mosques in Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. In Kirgizstan, embassy funding helped restore a major Sufi shrine. In Uzbekistan, money has gone to preserve antique Islamic manuscripts, including 20 Korans, some dating to the 11th century. In Bangladesh, USAID is training mosque leaders on development issues. In Madagascar, the embassy even sponsored an intermosque sports tournament. Also being funded: Islamic media of all sorts, from book translations to radio and TV in at least a half-dozen nations. Often the aid doesn't need an explicit Islamic theme, as in what boosters are calling Muppet Diplomacy. An Arabic version of Sesame Street has become one of the most popular shows on Egyptian TV, and along with lessons on literacy and hygiene, the program stresses values of religious tolerance. Among the show's key backers: USAID, which is helping bring out a pan-Arab satellite edition this year.
In no country is the effort more pronounced than Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, with 240 million people. A bastion of moderate Islam, the nation has nevertheless given birth to several radical Islamic groups that include al Qaeda offshoot Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202. Working behind the scenes, USAID now helps fund over 30 Muslim organizations in the country. Among the programs: media production, workshops for Islamic preachers, and curriculum reform for schools from rural academies to Islamic universities. One talk show on Islam and tolerance is relayed to radio stations in 40 cities and sends a weekly column to over a hundred newspapers. Also on the grants list: Islamic think tanks that are fostering a body of scholarly research showing liberal Islam's compatibility with democracy and human rights.
The grants, technically, aren't secret, but they are, as one official put it, "done in a subtle manner." Open ties to U.S. funds could spell the end of programs in volatile regions and even endanger those who work in them. Indeed, security is such a factor for USAID workers that the agency now relies largely on local hires. In Pakistan, where the agency once fielded hundreds of employees, it now has only two dozen.
Even when USAID does want to take credit, anti-American sentiment can make it tough. During a mission to Cairo by a State Department panel on public diplomacy, visitors were repeatedly told how grateful Egyptians were to the Japanese for building their opera house. Yet they seemed wholly unaware that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid--nearly $2 billion a year--and that Americans have funded Cairo's systems for clean water, sewage, and electricity. U.S. funds also saved from water damage that nation's oldest mosque, built in A.D. 642, yet Egyptian officials were reluctant to put USAID's red, white, and blue sign outside the building. Frustrated, top agency officials decided to create their own public diplomacy corps and will soon have information specialists attached to all USAID missions.
For those worried about future generations of jihadists, what to do about madrasahs--traditional Islamic schools--is a major concern. The 9/11 commission, in its final report last year, branded the worst of them "incubators for violent extremism." A World Bank study puts the number of madrasah students in Pakistan alone at nearly 500,000. To attack the problem, U.S. officials are employing a variety of tactics. Perhaps the most surprising program is in Uganda, which hosts a large Muslim minority. Last year, the embassy announced it was funding construction of three Islamic elementary schools. "We're in the madrasah business," quipped one terrorism analyst. In the nearby Horn of Africa, the U.S. military is running a model program aimed at winning hearts and minds by, among other things, directly competing with the madrasahs. Military officers gather intelligence on where militants plan to start religious schools, Marine Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland told U.S. News ; they then target those areas by building up new public schools and the local infrastructure.
Elsewhere, U.S. officials are working quietly through third parties to train madrasah teachers to add math, science, civics, and health to their curriculum. The most ambitious program is in Pakistan, where sensitivities run so high that allegations of U.S. funding are enough to prompt parents to pull their children from schools, USAID staffers say. The agency is working through private foundations and the Pakistan Ministry of Education on what officials call a "model madrasah" program that may eventually include over a thousand schools. Drawing the line on engagement, though, can be tough. In January, the U.S. Embassy there ordered an abrupt end to a $1 million contract to supply Internet access to scores of madrasahs and other schools in Pakistan's most restive provinces. The reason: an arrest of a militant mistakenly thought to be tied to one of the schools.
U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Islamic radio, Islamic TV, Islamic schools, mosques, and monuments--no wonder some officials find the strategy controversial. USAID staffers argue that as long as they offer assistance to all groups and their grants are meant for secular activities, they are allowed to fund religious organizations. "We structure our programming to be in compliance with 'establishment clause' case law," says Jeffrey Grieco, a USAID spokesman, referring to the First Amendment's church-state divide. But some legal experts question whether America's growing involvement with Islam is legal, given that American courts have found that tax dollars may not be used to support religion. "For us to be doing this is probably unconstitutional," says Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University. In 1991, Schwartz and the American Civil Liberties Union won a case against USAID to stop it from funding 20 Catholic and Jewish schools overseas. "But that seems a long time ago," Schwartz adds. "I don't know if anyone would support that kind of suit today."
Times have certainly changed. The nation's highest officials now seem convinced that America's greatest ideological foe is a highly politicized form of radical Islam and that Washington and its allies cannot afford to stand by. More proof that the administration is finally engaged in waging a war of ideas came last month, when the president tapped his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, to be the State Department's new head of public diplomacy. Although lacking foreign expertise, Hughes brings proven communications skills and, equally important, a direct line to the top. The White House is also slated to announce a new position at the National Security Council, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach, whose job will be to goad the bureaucracy into further action.
The increased focus, already, it seems, is bearing fruit. A poll of Indonesians conducted last month after the tsunami relief efforts led by the U.S. military found that America's unfavorability rating had plunged from a horrid 83 percent to 54 percent; support for bin Laden, by contrast fell by more than half. It would be folly, however, to think that the road ahead will be easy. Veterans of information warfare say the amounts being spent today are still inadequate, while a new Government Accountability Office study highlights an array of problems with U.S. public diplomacy strategy. Hughes's predecessor at State, acting Assistant Secretary Patricia Harrison, told U.S. News that she felt at times like Sisyphus, the Greek king banished to forever push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson Washington needs to learn, Harrison says, goes back to the Cold War--that the world matters and America needs to stay engaged. "You never declare victory," she warns. "You do not declare that it's the end of history and go home. The job is to continue pushing the boulder up and up, to keep investing, keep connecting."
With Aamir Latif, Kevin Whitelaw and Julian E. Barnes