A panel of outside experts from Silicon Valley and the private sector has completed a skeptical review — still not public — about U.S. online efforts against ISIS, according to an article last week in the Washington Post. Along with the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., their timely review underscores a harsh reality: the United States and its allies have not devoted the time, attention and resources necessary to countering the ideology that drives organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida.
This is hardly the first time the United States has confronted the need to devise a strategy that combines military force with a plan to counter the enemy’s ideology. In April 1950, as several million Soviet and NATO troops faced off in the heart of Europe, President Harry Truman delivered a historic speech that outlined America’s strategy for a battle of ideas against Soviet Communism.
Addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Truman emphasized that the emerging Cold War was not primarily a military or geopolitical conflict. It was, he said, “above all, a struggle for the minds of men.” Truman, who dropped the atomic bomb and established NATO, certainly appreciated the importance of military power. But to defeat the Soviets, he argued, the United States and its European allies should recognize that “fighting Communist propaganda (is) … as important as armed power or economic aid.”
The recent attacks from ISIS are a stark reminder that Truman’s words are a more fitting description of the conflict today than they were of the Cold War. There is little doubt that ISIS can be defeated militarily. The question is whether it can ever be destroyed without fully and completely discrediting the ideas that animate the movement and continue to attract new recruits.
Defeating this extremist ideology will not be easy. It will take time and patience. But there are a few principles that should be kept in mind to help guide U.S. efforts:
1. The United States should place highest priority on partnering with those courageous Muslims in the Middle East who are fighting Islamist extremism, especially through social and broadcast media. These partners exist in greater numbers than many in Washington are aware of. Their work will have greater credibility and impact than anything the U.S. government can do. As a U.S. official familiar with the recent review said, “It’s not the U.S. government that’s going to break the (ISIS) brand. It’s going to be third parties.” The United States should and can do a lot more to identify these third parties and help scale their efforts.
2. While much attention has focused on how ISIS uses social media to disseminate its propaganda, the United States and its partners in the Middle East should focus equal attention on the hateful messages emanating from the extremist religious television channels that pervade the region. These television channels reach larger audiences than social media and their content reportedly influenced the San Bernadino terrorist Tafsheen Malik. The scope and influence of these television channels is not well understood in Washington, nor is there a strategy to counter or shut them down.
3. Too often the U.S. government has been reluctant to engage with and support moderate Muslim organizations in the greater Middle East out of an exaggerated fear that U.S. funding might potentially violate the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The question of whether and how the First Amendment applies to U.S. actions overseas needs to be urgently examined at the highest levels of our government and among legal scholars.
4. The U.S. government should significantly intensify its effort to mobilize America’s private sector, including Silicon Valley, to take a leading role in disseminating a counter-narrative to extremism. The private sector should recognize that it, too, has a huge stake in and a responsibility to help address this conflict.
5. The U.S. government needs to increase significantly the budget devoted to public diplomacy and strategic communications in the greater Middle East. Currently the State Department spends a mere $1.5 billion a year around the world on our “public diplomacy” — our efforts to communicate and engage with foreign populations. We ought to be spending several multiples of that on the Middle East alone. If we are at all serious, the glaring mismatch between the threat we face and the resources we devote must be addressed, even in a budget-constrained environment.
The world today faces a different kind of challenge than that posed by Communism. But history can still be instructive. In his speech 65 years ago, President Truman said, “We must pool our efforts with those of other free peoples in a sustained, intensified program to promote the cause of freedom against the propaganda of slavery. We must make ourselves heard round the world in a great campaign of truth.” Nothing less will be required for civilized societies to emerge victorious in the current struggle.
Aaron Lobel is president of America Abroad Media, a non-profit that produces radio and TV programming for audiences in the Middle East. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.