Thinking About The Unthinkable

VOA building in Washington, D.C.
VOA building in Washington, D.C. Logo. & Free Media Online Blog  The Federalist Commentary, January 6, 2009, San Francisco — This commentary by The Federalist, one of our regular contributors with inside knowledge of US government bureaucracy, is designed to open a discussion on the Free Media Online Blog about the proper role for US public diplomacy and international broadcasting in dealing with terrorism and threats to free media in Russia and other countries.  The Federalist argues that the current US public diplomacy effort based on the mixture of outdated Cold War models and Web 2.0 marketing schemes cannot be successful in responding to the new realities of the post-9/11 world.  The commentator points out that the tactics of Islamist extremists are consistent and predictable and that they will continue to represent a serious threat.  We would like to hear from others whether the US should build its public diplomacy strategy in response to this kind of threat assessment and whether a new approach to foreign policy by the Obama Administration will open up new opportunities for improving America’s image abroad. We invite your comments, which you may post directly on the blog or email them to:  We welcome full-length articles from outside contributors.

Thinking About The Unthinkable

by The Federalist

If you think about the above phrase coined by the late nuclear war theorist, Herman Kahn, you might find it  both unusually appropriate and alarming when applied to US public diplomacy.


There is a fundamental flaw in the current US thinking about this subject.  We seem to believe that the strategies of the Cold War can be updated to successfully deal with our current adversaries.  Such thinking is wrong and, if it continues, it can have fatal consequences for our future.


In facing Islamic extremism, we are not dealing with a “war of ideas”  typical of the Cold War. Neither are we going to impress our adversaries with “Public Diplomacy 2.0.”


The “war of ideas” terminology aptly described the competition between two economic and political systems, capitalism and communism.  Both were products of Western thought and resulted in a public diplomacy strategy that was successful during the Cold War but is not likely to work against Islamist extremists.


“Public Diplomacy 2.0” describes an approach to public diplomacy that seemingly is more focused on a technological medium (and being social gadflies) and less focused on the underlying issues.


Neither term accurately describes the current world environment.  We are faced not with a war of ideas but a war of beliefs — the worst kind of conflict.  The war of beliefs deals in terms of finality and absolutes.


Americans have become too wrapped around the babble of our own point of view.  We are not listening to our adversaries.  This is a serious lapse that, if not corrected, could prove more disastrous than some of our already well-publicized public diplomacy flops.


Our public diplomacy apparatus still believes we are dealing with a competition between two ideologies.  The current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James K. Glassman, even talks in analogies of Coca-Cola versus Pepsi.  In doing so, Mr. Glassman makes a good case that he should be replaced.


Al-Qaeda, radical fundamentalists, jihadists and terrorists often use the same technological tools as we do.  However, their message is entirely different from what Mr. Glassman’s analogy seems to suggest.


If one listens carefully to the message of these groups, it’s clear that they do not talk using the terminology of “Coke versus Pepsi.”  Their language is one of annihilation and total war against those they see as a threat to their way of life and their interests.  Americans and other Westerners are seen as nonbelievers or infidels.  We are portrayed as being driven by vice, greed and corruption.  These groups are determined to destroy the Western way of life by any means possible and available.  Generally speaking, they are not interested in talking with us or engaging in a polite discussion over our differences.


When it comes to launching a war, the jihadists have done the math, both on a tactical and strategic level. In responding, we need to reflect on the events of September 11, 2001.  We seem to have forgotten but should remind ourselves that a small number of operatives commandeered four commercial airliners and used them to attack three known sites and a probable fourth.  Three of the four aircraft reached their targets.  Of the three targets, two were completely destroyed and the third damaged.  In each case,  there was a substantial loss of life.  Billions of dollars have been spent in the aftermath of the attacks, both domestically and abroad, to improve defenses against further attacks and presumably to take the fight directly to the terrorists.


Still, the jihadists have done the math…use the smallest number of operatives to inflict the maximum amount of damage, destruction and loss of life. They are likely to use the same tactics again.


Part of the billions of dollars spent has been to upgrade US military and intelligence capabilities to deal with the threat.  Our defense and intelligence agencies point with some pride to the increased level of security we have enjoyed up to this moment.  However, as any analyst knows, understanding the jihadists’ math and developing effective countermeasures is the key to achieving victory or suffering another serious, catastrophic attack.  It is a constantly evolving set of circumstances, until the core threat and its offshoots are completely eliminated.  It requires constant vigilance.


On the tactical level, the concept of  using the smallest number of operatives to inflict the maximum amount of damage is being acted out over and over again.  Witness the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.  A small group of operatives attacked a soft target and inflicted the maximum amount of death and destruction proportionate to their numbers.


Witness also the more recent rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel.  This is another form of the same tactical process.  The Israeli response and the attendant casualties among the Palestinian civilian population are seen as validation of the jihadists’ belief that nothing short of annihilation of the enemy will resolve the situation.


On the strategic level, the jihadists have not deviated from their purpose to bring about the total destruction of the United States.  Destruction of civil society is an acceptable part of this strategy.  The vision that the jihadists have of the United States is not unlike the recently released video game, “Fallout 3.”  This is the America the jihadists want to see.  Acquiring the technology and a deliverable weapon to accomplish this goal is high on the jihadists’ list of priorities.


Seen in this light, the threat from Iran becomes much more real.  It is not merely high-handed volatile rhetoric coming from the Iranian leadership.  That leadership believes in and embraces the jihadists’ strategic concept of annihilation.


We have difficulty in being able to rationally understand this level of rage toward the United States, Israel or other Western societies.  However, we need to see and understand what factors into the jihadists’ calculations as they act upon their sense of rage.  These extremists profess to be Islamists.  Islam is the largest world religion.  Knowing this, the jihadists have drawn the conclusion that, even if they precipitate Armageddon, there is a high likelihood that the group most likely to survive are people who identify with these religious beliefs.  The condition of a post-Apocalyptic world is not a matter of great concern.  The only thing that matters is winning at all costs.


In the United States, most people live in relative comfort.  Many who identify with the religion of Islam comprise some of the poorest of the global poor.  We have a lot to lose.  From the jihadists’ perspective, there is little left to lose in this life.  This is a very appealing message to those whose lives are filled with desperation and who see themselves as exploited by and victims of Western affluence.  The jihadists do not hesitate to draw on examples of over a thousand years of history to point out examples of Western acts against their theology and people.  The jihadists’ philosophy makes heroes out of all those who sacrifice their lives in achieving victory.  Victory is its own reward.


We need to take this threat very seriously.  Up to this point, certain aspects of US public diplomacy, such as “Public Diplomacy 2.0,” have demonstrated that the threat is not being taken seriously.  We have tailored a public diplomacy strategy that seems more like a media advertising campaign during a major sporting event.


In overview, the incoming Obama administration needs to consider several issues:


First, we need to be realistic as to the nature of this threat and its intended outcomes.  This means paying close attention to the message of the jihadists and taking it literally.


Second, the primary objective of US public diplomacy is to deprive jihadists and international terrorism of its most important resource: human capital.  The task is daunting.  The jihadists promise restoring the power of Islam as a global political, social and cultural force to be reckoned with.  The jihadists promise removing the oppressors of downtrodden Muslim people around the world.  The jihadists reinforce this message with action.  Seven years after the attacks of September 11, 2001 the architect of these attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains at-large.  This increases the power of the jihadist message.  If all we have to offer in our public diplomacy effort is the status quo or trite techno-babble, the advantage will remain with the radical fundamentalists.


Third, we need to speak boldly with the international community, our allies, neighbors and those warily watching world events from the sidelines.  We need to appeal to a sense of common purpose to defeat those who intend to bring about the destruction of civilization as we know it.


Fourth, we need to get the Russians back to being fully on board with this effort.  Rather than allow themselves to be distracted by armed or verbal conflict with its neighbors, the Russian leadership faces a much more genuine threat to Russia’s interests.  The United States needs to speak directly to the Russian leadership and to the Russian people through our international broadcasting assets.  It is a serious mistake to be dismissive of the Russian people, their history and their sacrifices…a mistake compounded by the termination of direct Russian radio broadcasts by the Voice of America.  This fatal decision was implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2008.


Fifth, we need a thorough rehabilitation of our public diplomacy effort in the Arab and Muslim world.  Current projects such as Radio Sawa and alHurra television are not getting the job done.


Finally, “Public Diplomacy 2.0” should be relegated to the category of fantasy fiction…in much the same way as “Dow 36,000” ( a book co-authored by James K. Glassman).


The Federalist 2008