The ‘missing battle’ of 9/11

To fight terrorism, the US must resume its use of soft power.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Ten years after 9/11, the United States has a new window of opportunity to regain the initiative in the “missing battle” of the campaign against terrorism. That is, the sustained soft-power effort to win the battle for hearts and minds in predominantly Muslim countries.
The US and wider Western response to the September, 2001 attacks has been dominated by counter-terrorism and military might. While key successes have been achieved, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the overwhelming emphasis on hard power has fuelled controversy across much of the world.
Even former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the problem when, in 2006, he asserted that the United States “probably deserves [only] a ‘D’ or a D-plus’ as a country as to how well we’re doing in the battle of ideas” [in the anti-terrorism campaign], and that “we have to find a formula as a country” for countering the jihadist message.
However, the death of Osama bin Laden, especially when taken in combination with the ongoing ‘Arab Spring,’ offers a new window of opportunity for policymakers to re-emphasize the importance of soft power in the campaign against terrorism. As US President Barack Obama has emphasized, this must include an “alternative narrative” for a disaffected generation in predominantly Muslim countries.
According to the just-released annual findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in nine of 13 key countries for which relevant time series data is available, significantly fewer people think favorably of the US in 2011 than before 9/11. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in predominantly Muslim countries.
In Turkey, for instance, US approval ratings have declined precipitously, from 52 percent in 2000 to 10% in 2011. In Pakistan, the fall-off is from 23% in 2000 to 12% in 2011.
Of the predominantly Muslim states which Pew surveys, only Indonesia (where Obama lived for several years as a boy) has a majority – 54% – currently expressing favorable views regarding the US. However, even this number has fallen – from 75% in 2000.
This decline in attitudes toward the US in predominantly Muslim countries (which is also replicated, albeit not as severely, in many other parts of the world) is so serious because of the corresponding erosion of US soft power – the ability to influence the preferences of others derived from the attractiveness of a state’s values, ideals and government policies. History underlines the key role that soft-power instruments (which include diplomacy, economic assistance and strategic communications) have played in obtaining desirable outcomes in world politics.
For example, the United States used soft resources skillfully after the World War II to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions, such as NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and the UN.
The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigor that combined soft and hard power.
LIKE THE Cold War, the challenges that are posed by the campaign against terrorism cannot be met by hard assets alone. This is especially so as the anti-terrorism contest is one whose outcome is related, in significant part, to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilization.
This factor is, ironically, very well understood within the top echelons of al-Qaida. For instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri has asserted that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media... We are in a media battle for the hearts and minds.” Similarly, bin Laden also emphasized the importance of communications, noting that “the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”
It is precisely in this context of winning Muslim “hearts and minds” that, ten years after 9/11, Obama now has such a precious political window of opportunity to re-launch the campaign against terrorism.
Seizing the moment would require the United States to give a higher priority (as it did during the Cold War) to activities such as public diplomacy, broadcasting, development assistance and exchange programs.
US public diplomacy is in particular need of revitalization.
Here, Obama should fully resource and implement the “Strengthening US engagement with the world” strategic initiative launched last year. This identifies many priorities, including better combating the messages of violent extremists, and ensuring that US policy is better informed by an understanding of attitudes of foreign publics.
Such a re-launched anti-terrorism campaign would continue, of course, to include a significant military and counter-terrorism component. However, barring a major new attack on the US homeland, or that of a key ally, hard power could be de-emphasized in relative importance, including through the planned withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan from 2011-13.
The writer is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly a special adviser in the UK government, and senior US politics analyst at Oxford Analytica.