Think tank seeks new federal office to counter extremist ideology

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP

The United States has a “hole in its strategy” for countering the threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists and should create an office devoted to the ongoing global “war of ideas,” a panel of foreign policy specialists said Wednesday.

The new office, envisioned as a 21st century version of the old U.S. Information Agency that focused on anti-communism efforts, should be created through legislation and a presidential executive order and run by the National Security Council and a new private nonprofit, according to panelists assembled by the Hudson Institute, a research and advocacy group.

Elaborating on a report published earlier this year, “Organizing for a Strategic Ideas Campaign to Counter Ideological Challenges to U.S. National Security,” Douglas Feith, a Hudson fellow who was undersecretary of Defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, faulted the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for not “taking on ideology” in addition to protecting the homeland and pursuing terrorists overseas.

“The State Department would be a logical place, but it responded with public diplomacy focused on the message we transmit to Muslim world,” Feith said, mentioning “glossy brochures of smiling Muslim school children [in the United States.] That’s fine, but it’s a thin slice of what is needed because the key issue is what Muslims say to Muslims.” The goal should be to prevent people from becoming committed enemies to begin with, he said, rather than getting stuck on a “treadmill” of efforts to capture and kill terrorists that accelerates over time. “We need an operational approach that reflects the diversity in the world on multiple levels, in theology, philosophy and popular entertainment,” he said.

The State Department briefly attempted such an approach during the final six months of the George W. Bush administration, he added, but under President Obama, the issue has been downplayed.

Co-author William Galston, who worked in the Clinton White House and holds a chair in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, stressed the importance of “focusing not on Islam or Islamism in all manifestations but on variety that rejects democracy and promotes violence against civilians.”

That would not include the nations experiencing huge changes under the Arab spring, such as Tunisia or Egypt, he said.

When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, there was a feeling that “we won” and free-market capitalism had triumphed, Galston added, and so “we shut down the factory and went home.” The transfer of USIA components to State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors meant “an important capacity in government had been lost,” he said.

In preparing remedies, the authors considered situating a new counterterrorism office in State, or the Defense Department but ended up recommending leadership from a committee of the National Security Council and the Center for Counterterrorism Research, a 501(c)(3) that would receive both public and private funds to commission research, award grants, publish and “render advice to the government but not take orders from it.” The office, led by a deputy assistant to the president for national security, would work with the Office of Management and Budget for its “ideology budget,” Galston said, and issue a biannual strategic report.

Praise for the report came from James Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and the former chairman of BBG whom Bush appointed to run public diplomacy at the State Department. To the Obama administration, he said, “the very phrase ‘war of ideas’ is anathema,” as officials made clear to him during the 2009 transition. “The State Department’s default position is to burnish America’s image,” Glassman said. “But the issue is not [how] we fix public diplomacy but how we address an ideology that threatens national security by using our nonviolent tools.”

Defeating terrorism cannot mean simply bringing exchange students to the United States, though that is nice and is where the money is spent, according to Glassman. “Obama identifies the enemy as al Qaeda, but we identify it as a common ideology and drones can’t kill it,” he said.

Glassman would broaden the new office’s focus from Islamic extremism to deal with Cuba, Russia, North Korea, China and parts of Europe where Muslims live, invoking Bush’s freedom agenda, “an unpopular view,” he said.

The new office would not work well inside BBG, Glassman said, an agency that he says is the victim of some uninformed criticism. But “structurally the BBG is a mess,” he said. It needs a chief executive officer and suffers from a conflict of mission because its journalists are protected from State’s influence by a firewall.

Glassman, however, would prefer that the new office be run out of the department so that it would have its own budget. He and others approve of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, created in 2010, but say its focus is too narrow.

Will Marshall, founder and president of the Progressive Policy Institute, speculated on why anti-Islamic extremism “has no home port in the U.S. government.” He said Americans are skeptical that Islamic extremism would catch on inside the United States and are uneasy attacking an ideology that has a religious provenance.

“There’s a consoling myth that it’s just a handful of fanatics, but it has spread to places like Sinai and Mali,” Marshall said. “We also may lack confidence in our own story” and hence fall back on “moral relativism” on such issues as the Palestinian-Israel conflict. He said the office would target moderate Arab populations to help send a message of economic opportunity and “rewrite the rules of war” so that U.S.-based Muslims would no longer conclude that jihad is somehow not as bad as terrorism.

Feith predicted State would react to the proposal by “reviving old arguments” about “how the real problem is anti-Americanism, based on our policies in the Mideast and in support of Israel” and assert that the root cause of terrorism is poverty. Both are positions he rejects.

Asked to respond, Bruce Sherman, BBG’s director of strategic planning and development, said in an email that the board “sees no contradiction between high-quality, independent journalism and support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Telling people the truth and engaging audiences in constructive dialogue, two core BBG activities, is especially critical to countering extremist lies and ideology from the Taliban-infested” tribal areas of Pakistan to the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-controlled territory of northern Mali. “The U.S. wins when audiences listen to us and trust what we are telling them.”

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