In many ways the Cold War was a conflict of ideas. America and its allies stood for freedom; the Soviet Union, for oppression. They built walls to fence people in. We built towers to broadcast over those walls.
Dissidents such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky drew inspiration from our ideas. The Soviets had nothing to offer but propaganda and were far less successful at generating enthusiasm for their side.
Fast-forward to the war on terrorism. Our enemies can't defeat us on the battlefield. Saddam Hussein's once-vaunted Iraqi army was crushed within weeks, while the Taliban in Afghanistan crumbled in a matter of months. But our enemies are succeeding, in a way that the Soviet Union never did, on that crucial, nonmilitary front: public diplomacy.
"Violent extremists," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told the Council on Foreign Relations, "plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people." That's why, he says, the most crucial battles of this war may well be fought in "newsrooms in places like New York and London and Cairo."
But we can't compete successfully in the arena of ideas without understanding what we're up against. It follows, then, that we need to do more opinion polling in other nations. Yet our government does very little such polling. It's time to change that.
The federal government needs to set up an independent research organization to track foreign public opinion. This organization would hire foreign specialists to conduct surveys and analyze foreign opinion. Its job would be to feed the information back to U.S. policymakers to inform our actions and help us forge a sensible communications strategy.
And what must we communicate?
The goal isn't to deliver propaganda. Our government needs simply to tell the truth. We must impart the bedrock principles of American values: liberty, free markets, human rights and the rule of law. But the style and the tone of the message should be tailored to appeal to different audiences and packaged for different ethnic, religious and demographic groups.
We already have many of the weapons needed to win the battle for public opinion.
Satellite dishes are proliferating in Middle East homes, and that's to our benefit. After all, dictatorial regimes (such as North Korea or Saddam's Iraq) must control what their people can see or hear. They know "the truth will set you free," which is why they fear the truth. We, on the other hand, need to get the truth onto those satellite dishes and into radios and televisions.
Instead of merely attempting to influence listeners with slick programming, the United States should encourage the growth of private media, which would weaken local government's control of information. We should give all Middle Eastern news outlets greater access to spokesmen who can deliver America's positive message in Arabic. Finally, we should use U.S.-controlled channels to give balanced news and to counter misperceptions.
The United States is popular when our message gets out.
When our servicemen went into Pakistan to help it recover from a devastating earthquake, a military communications team went along. "Because of the many lives that our helicopters saved and the mountain of relief supplies that they delivered," Rumsfeld says, "it was not long before the favorite toy in Pakistan was a small replica of a Chinook helicopter." Imagine the power of that positive message repeated throughout the Middle East.
Our message of opportunity and prosperity will trump the fear and hatred spread by our enemies -- provided we get the truth out. They can't defeat us head-to-head. We must make sure they don't beat us by capturing hearts and minds.