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Battle of ideas matters

Battle of ideas matters
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First Published: Tue, Dec 02 2008. 10 36 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Dec 02 2008. 10 36 PM IST
Last week’s terrorist assault in Mumbai brings into focus one of the biggest challenges facing US President-elect Barack Obama and US allies: How to defeat the ideology that underpins the global jihadist insurgency and unifies its diverse adherents?
The US government needs to resurrect the non-violent practice of “political warfare” and create an agency to manage it. The Bush administration started this process by providing more resources for public diplomacy and appointing prominent officials to oversee the task. But efforts to explain America’s values and ideals to Muslims need to be supplemented with measures that confront the jihadist ideology.
Obama’s administration could use as a model the British Political Warfare Executive, which rallied support for the Allied cause behind enemy lines during World War II, or the US Information Agency, which helped network opponents of communism and undermine Moscow’s intellectual appeal during the Cold War.
A civilian should sit atop this new organization. His or her mission should be to undermine the jihadist ideology that underpins terrorism. We believe this mission is so important that the person should answer directly to the president, just as military combatant commanders do.
US government-supported broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, should be adapted to this mission. But the US government should also provide resources to moderates and networks of reformers abroad. The agency should not rely solely on exporting information and commentary generated in Washington, which has less credibility with Muslims in the broader West Asia and Europe who will shape the future of Islam abroad.
The agency should also be charged with peacefully empowering dissidents within repressive nations by providing them with information and facts to aid their struggle. The US did this in the 1980s by aiding Solidarity with communications equipment, organizational support and other resources in then-communist Poland, in partnership with the Vatican and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). What ended with strikes, protests and finally elections, began as a small indigenous network armed with information—political warfare at its finest.
Obama may be tempted to create such an agency under the auspices of the state department, but political warfare is not a core competency of Foggy Bottom or allied foreign ministries. Diplomats specialize in communicating with other nation-states and are often ill at ease and ill equipped to work with those who may upset relations with other governments.
A significant part of free societies’ success in modern warfare has taken place off the physical battlefield. In World War II, the US fought a war not only against blitzkrieg, buzz bombs and kamikazes, but against fascist ideologies. Likewise, during the Cold War, America sought to undermine the ideology of its Soviet Bloc adversaries, realizing that was the shield of legitimacy without which they could not thrive.
Political warfare does not preclude diplomacy, just as US efforts to undermine Soviet communism did not preclude successful negotiations with Moscow. It’s time to recognize—as US governments have in the past—the importance of fighting and winning the battle of ideas.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Christian Whiton is deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the US state department. Kristopher Harrison is chief of staff to the counsellor of the state department. The views expressed are their own. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Dec 02 2008. 10 36 PM IST