November 21, 2003
The War Of Ideas Is Not A Popularity Contest- Far too many well-informed and otherwise intelligent people have confused the "war of ideas" the United States is attempting to fight in conjunction with the War on Terror with the question of whether or not the populations of Muslim countries (and particularly Arab Muslim countries) have favorable opinions of the United States. Since survey after survey repeatedly shows that Muslims worldwide have exceedingly poor opinions of the United States, the corresponding but flawed assumption is that the United States must therefore be losing the war of ideas. Case in point is an October 30, 2003 piece on the Slate Website by Daniel Benjamin concerning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's now notorious October 16, 2003 memo on the War on Terror.
Benjamin correctly identifies the importance of the war of ideas within the broader War on Terror, "Rumsfeld observes that we have no 'metrics' for judging how well we are doing in the larger war on terror. Surely a key issue is whose ideas are gaining ground." But then Benjamin commits an all too common error when he says:
"Rumsfeld might also consider polling data, such as the June results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which shows majorities in seven of eight Muslim nations surveyed believing their countries are militarily threatened by the United States-again, much as Bin Laden argues."
Benjamin's assumption is that the United States is losing the war of ideas because the majorities in seven of eight predominantly Muslim countries feel threatened by the United States. However, merely because large majorities of Muslims dislike and fear the United States, it doesn't necessarily follow that the United States is losing the war of ideas.
Finding yardsticks for success in the war of ideas is an exceedingly difficult proposition, but gauging success or failure in that war by asking people in some of the poorest and most powerless countries on Earth what their feelings are toward the richest and most powerful country in history would seem to be a highly suspect methodology. Jealousy is unfortunately a universal human trait and the Muslim world magnifies that flaw with a collective memory of prior power and the realization of present incapacity. Nevertheless, the objective fact of Muslim anti-Americanism does not necessarily doom the United States in the war of ideas it is fighting as part of the War on Terror.
To the contrary, those who focus on the overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward the United States held by Muslims as a "metric" of success in the war of ideas misunderstand the nature of this war. The war of ideas is not some global popularity contest with George W. Bush running against Osama bin Laden for prom king. The war of ideas is an attempt to alter the fundamental thinking of the Muslim world (particularly the Arab portion of the Muslim world) so that concepts antithetical to radical Islam (chiefly democracy, secularism and civil rights) become highly prized while those concepts from which radical Islam draws sustenance (chiefly Islamic supremacy, theocratic rule and state-sponsored religious and sex discrimination) become valueless. In the end, it would of course be preferable if Muslims also loved the United States, but happily, that unlikely outcome is unnecessary in order for the United States to prevail in the war of ideas.
Instead, an evaluation of success in the war of ideas should concentrate on how ideas antithetical to radical Islam are faring in the Muslim world, and in that regard, the Pew Global Attitudes Project gives much reason for hope. Consider that the study also found that:
"Despite soaring anti-Americanism and substantial support for Osama bin Laden, there is considerable appetite in the Muslim world for democratic freedoms. The broader, 44-nation survey shows that people in Muslim countries place a high value on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multi-party systems and equal treatment under the law."
That's unquestionably a positive sign in the war of ideas against radical Islam, which, by definition, refutes freedom of religion and expression, multi-party elections and equal treatment under the law.
What the Pew Global Attitudes Project evidences is that the concepts and ideals the United States wields as weapons in the war of ideas are very powerful and have broad appeal within the Muslim world. So powerful are those weapons in fact, that they likely transcend the antipathy with which Muslims hold the United States. Accordingly, the connection between the successful penetration of pro-democracy and freedom ideals into the Muslim world and a positive view of the United States in that same Muslim world would seem to be tenuous at best.
It is even possible for the United States to prevail in the war of ideas and still be detested in Muslim countries. Indeed, so long as the United States remains at the apex of the world, that is the most likely outcome. Anti-Americanism is a fact of life well beyond the Muslim world and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
The United States has already won a war of ideas at least once in the Muslim world; that's why it no longer confronts a communist threat on top of the Islamist one it currently faces in the Middle East. Nevertheless, victory in that war of ideas did not result in an outpouring of love for the United States among Muslims. To the contrary, the United States' victory over communist ideas actually resulted in an increase in loathing for the United States all over the world. Yet, the United States' victory in the war of ideas against communism cannot be disputed. -- Darren Kaplan (www.darrenkaplan.net)