Oleg Svet, Scott Kleinmann, thecalifornian.com
In the aftermath of the recent Islamic State-inspired attacks in the West, the debate over what to call groups such as ISIL or al-Qaeda has emerged once again. In response to the attacks, U.S. presidential hopefuls from both sides traded jibes about whether the West is at war with radical Islam, jihadists or lone wolves seeking to pervert Islam.
What Democrats and Republicans have in common are communications strategies focused on appealing to domestic constituencies rather than foreign audiences. Democrats brush off the idea that radical Islam poses a threat to U.S. national security because saying so hurts the sensibilities of their liberal audiences; Republicans inflate the problem to stoke up fear. In both cases, their words are perceived with either disbelief or disdain in the Arab and wider Muslim world.
In recent weeks, an al-Qaeda affiliate used Donald Trump’s campaign promise to ban entry of Muslims into America in a recruitment video. To protest Trump’s ban, first lady Michelle Obama plans to bring Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo to Obama’s final State of the Union address. But neither political correctness nor insensitivity will strengthen America’s image abroad. The next president must develop a new communications strategy that is honest about U.S. interests and values and that speaks from a position of strength, not fear.
Within days of the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush stated that the U.S. response to the attacks would be a “crusade,” which reminded listeners of the ancient Christian war on Muslims.
Rather than turn to seasoned diplomats to assuage opinion overseas (made worse by events such as torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison), Bush appointed some business executives and close political allies, who had little knowledge of the Middle East, to high-ranking public diplomacy posts.
According to the Pew Research Center, by the last year of Bush’s second term in office, U.S. favorability in Jordan and Pakistan stood at 19 percent; in Egypt it had fallen to 22 percent compared with 30 percent two years before; and in Turkey it had fallen to 12 percent, down from 52 percent before 9/11.
President Obama came into office amid optimism that he could reconnect with the Muslim world. In 2009, he delivered a speech at Cairo University that called for “a new beginning.” This made little difference. By 2015, 83 percent of Jordanians and 64 percent of Lebanese said they had no confidence in his foreign policy; in Egypt, U.S. favorability fell to 10 percent in 2014, less than half of what it was when Obama took office.
Arab Opinion Index
If Obama and current presidential hopefuls seek to defeat ISIL, also known as ISIS, they should first look at the environment in which the group seeks to spread its narrative. The 2015 Arab Opinion Index found that 89 percent of respondents had negative views of the group, and ideological support for ISIL was “rooted in (local) political grievances” and conflicts within the Arab region.
Pew found that even in countries where there has been a lack of support for U.S. foreign policy, a majority supports U.S. military action against ISIL. A recent Zogby survey of respondents in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran and Turkey ranked “anger at the U.S.” and “foreign occupation” as last among the drivers of religious extremism. Instead, respondents ranked “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas,” ”corrupt, repressive and unrepresentative governments” and “a lack of education” as the major drivers.
In recent months, there has been a large uptick in defections from ISIL. State Department officials should improve their understanding of why defectors have left and use this knowledge to mount an effective demobilization campaign.
Officials can look to Colombia, where the government has deactivated more than 10,000 FARC fighters in the past decade in part through an effective communications strategy.
A communications campaign must also be rooted in a better sociological understanding of groups such as ISIL. An astounding 95 percent of those who join the group are recruited by friends and family, according to Oxford anthropologist Scott Atran.
A well thought out communications strategy that addresses foreign rather than domestic audiences holds the promise of countering ISIL’s narrative, dissuading fence-sitters from joining, demobilizing its fighters and demoralizing its leadership.
Oleg Svet, a security analyst at Group W, was a strategic planner at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Scott Kleinmann is a senior research associate in the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University. Elissa Miller is a researcher.