“We are losing war of ideas because we
are not in the arena the way we were in the Cold War… just at the moment when
there is this ferment for democracy breaking out.” So said Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton in her recent testimony before the United States Congress. It is
worth quoting her at greater length.
“We invested so much money and effort
over so many decades to get behind the Iron Curtain, to talk about what democracy
was, to keep the flag of freedom unfurled in people’s hearts, to get our messages
in through every means of short wave radio and smuggling Bibles, and we did all
kinds of things just to give people a sense that they weren’t alone, and that maybe
their ideas about the human spirit were not subversive. Well, we don’t have those
messages going out
Why don’t we have those messages going out
anymore? Have we lost the ideas behind them? Or have we lost the means to transmit
them? To answer the latter question first, we should recall that in 1999, under
President Bill Clinton, the United States Information Agency, the principal institution
for the conduct of our side in any war of ideas, was eliminated. This was purportedly
done as part of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. In other words, the
war of ideas was over or, to put it in Francis Fukiyama’s words, the “end of history”
had arrived. He meant by this that the model of a democratic constitutional regime
with a free market economy stood undisputed and uncontested in moral terms throughout
the world. This model would be implemented globally in a faster or slower manner,
depending upon local conditions, but there stood no competing ideology to its moral
The logical conclusion to such a view would
be the dismantlement of the organizational apparatus for the conveyance of these
ideas. The agency was eliminated because it has lost its mission. I recall the congressional
testimony of Dr. Joseph Duffy, USIA’s last director. When queried over the mission
of the Voice of America, he answered. “I’m not sure we should be broadcasting
to the world. We should be listening to the world
However, history had not ended. Or perhaps
one should say that others envisaged a different end of history than that of Mr.
Fukuyama. In his “End of History” article, Salman al-Awdah, one of bin Laden’s spiritual
mentors, spelled out an alternative version that culminates with the destruction
of the US He said, “The oppressors are the swords of Allah on earth. First Allah
takes his revenge by them, and then against them. The same as Allah has used, in
Islamist eyes, the United States in order to destroy the Soviet Union, so he will
take revenge against the Americans by destroying them.” This version of the end
of history was delivered at our doorsteps on 9/11 at the cost of some 3000 lives.
History had apparently resumed or, to those less under the influence of Hegel, it
had simply continued.
Weapons missing in the war of ideas
However, the resumption of history found the
United States bereft of the institutions with which to fight a new war of ideas.
Let us consider for a moment what is missing from the days of the Cold War. At the
height of the Cold War, USIA had some 10,000 employees (including foreign nationals)
and a $1 billion budget. In 1999, USIA’s functions were dispersed to the State Department
and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The senior-most official in the war of
ideas became the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a
third-tier State Department officer, whose status speaks volumes about the severity
of the demotion that “war of ideas” issues suffered. Within the State Department,
public diplomacy functions were further dispersed to regional and other bureaus,
making coordination and control a major problem.
The State Department should not have been expected
to do both diplomacy and public diplomacy, as they sometimes conflict. Public diplomacy
attempts to reach the peoples of other nations directly over the heads of their
governments. This can make the State Department’s job more difficult, as its responsibility
is to work with the heads of those same governments and maintain good relations
with them. The two missions should not reside in the same institution. Public diplomacy
has suffered as a result. In short, since the dismantling of USIA, there has been
no central US government institution within which policy, personnel, and budget
could be deployed coherently to implement a multifaceted strategy to win the war
of ideas over an extended period of time.
As a result, as Secretary Clinton said, the
US is largely absent from the field.
On its part, the Broadcasting Board of Governors
(BBG) inherited all non-defense government broadcasting, including the Voice of
America. The BBG became a stand-alone agency run by part-time board members, most
of whom have had no experience in foreign policy or public diplomacy. The eight
Board members exercise executive power, to the extent that eight CEOs can, and are
not directly accountable to anyone.
Since the professional backgrounds of the governors
have been mainly in American mass media, they have sought to replicate that media
in government broadcasting by refashioning much of it with American pop culture
– Radio Sawa being the primary example. Over the past decade, the BBG has seen fit
to eliminate VOA’s services to Brazil in Portuguese, to Russia, to India in Hindi,
to the Arabic world, and now to China in both Mandarin and Cantonese. There seems
to be a perverse logic at work here, in which it has abandoned attempts to reach
the most important audiences in terms of our national strategic interests about
who we are, what we are doing, and why.
In the Arab world, the VOA 12-hour, content-rich
Arabic service was replaced with a 24-hour pop music station featuring the likes
of Britney Spears, Jay Lo, and Eminem. The intellectual premise of this effort,
as explained to me by the chairman of the board when I served as the director of
VOA, was that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.” Radio Sawa has been
proclaimed a success in attracting large youth audiences. However, as the dean of
journalism in Jordan informed me, “Radio Sawa is fun, but it is irrelevant.”
In a war of ideas, performing a lobotomy on your enemy might be a good move. It
is almost unheard of to perform a lobotomy on yourself, and then to declare it a
success. How would you like to have a superpower adolescent in your neighborhood?
We might pause here to reflect more accurately
upon what exactly it was that did bring down the Berlin Wall as, actually, MTV broadcasts
did not reach into eastern Germany. We are so far into the global war on terrorism
that the conflict that defined most of the century that preceded it has almost receded
from view, along with the role ideas played in bringing it to an end. As a foot
soldier in the Cold War, I did not think I would live to see its conclusion.
I vividly remember the day in 1990 when I read
a statement in the Soviet press by Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo chief of Soviet
ideology, that he had come to understand that Leninism was based upon class struggle
and hatred, and that this was “evil.” The chief of Soviet ideology had used the
exact same word to describe the Soviet system as had President Ronald Reagan. Excitedly,
I faxed his remark around Washington. Yakovlev’s words meant the end of the Cold
War and the Soviet empire. The actual deeds of its dissolution soon came in their
Words and the restoration of their relationship
to reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small thing since,
for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. Therefore, the huge lie about
humanity in Communism remained undetected by them. A recovery of meaning was essential
before a real challenge could be presented to the East. No single individuals did
more for this restoration than John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, who insisted upon
calling things by their proper names. Naming Communism for what it was required,
first of all, the refutation of modern nominalism and radical skepticism. You cannot
use “evil” as an adjective until you know it as a noun.
Everyone now celebrates “our” victory over
Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism,
but within the West as to what Communism meant. The anti-anti-Communists in the
West were frightened by the Pope’s and Reagan’s vocabulary for the Soviet Union
because they feared it might lead to war, but also because the use of the word “evil”
had implications for themselves with which they were extremely uncomfortable. As
English writer Christopher Derrick once said, the only real iron curtain runs through
the soul of each one of us. If we can know what “evil” is, how then does that apply
to our own lives? Rather than face up to the answer to that question, many preferred
to attack the people using it and to explain the Cold War away as just another variation
of power politics and realpolitik. Communism was simply a mask for traditional Russian
imperial expansionism and could be dealt with similarly. Power dealing with power
can reach an understanding.
So long as this view was regnant in the West,
Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism
had the clear advantage, and gained it on the field with stunning geographic advances
in Central Asia, Africa, and Central America, and strategic advances in both conventional
and non-conventional weaponry. So great was the progress of the Soviet Union in
the 1970s that anyone looking at these factors alone would have expected it to win.
Those expectations were defeated by a factor outside of those calculations.
Reagan was the first political leader to use
the moral vocabulary of “evil” to describe the Soviet empire in the recent era.
The reaction was hysterical. How reckless could Reagan be? Yet the President calmly
responded that he wanted them, the Soviets, to know that he knew. This acknowledgment
inspired great hope behind the Iron Curtain. Then, finally, the Soviets used the
term about themselves. Once the proper vocabulary was employed, it was over. Semantic
unanimity brought the end not in the much-feared bang, but a whimper. Truth turned
out to be the most effective weapon in the Cold War. Truth set free the imprisoned
peoples of the evil empire.
Part of that truth was expressed religiously.
The religious alliance against the Soviet Empire could be broad because the contest
was between atheism and religion of any kind. The US Cold War strategy used religion
to undermine the Soviet bloc – Jews in Russia; Muslims in Afghanistan; and Christians
in Poland, for example. Who could imagine during the Cold War that religion could
be turned against the United States,
not so much within it, as in alienating Muslims in large parts of the Islamic world
key to US strategic interests? Unlike the Cold War, the contest with Islam is in
terms of one kind of religion against something else, either secularism or another
religion, or, in Islamic terms, between belief and unbelief.
The Islamist vision of America
It is essential in a war of ideas to understand
the ideas one is at war with. This includes an understanding of how we are seen
from the Islamist side. What is it about United States or the West that so repels
the Islamists that they are driven to destroy it? Read the following statement and
then guess who said it.
“This great America: What is its worth
in the scale of human values? And what does it add to the moral account of humanity?
And, by journey’s end, what will its contribution be? I fear that a balance may
not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of its people. And
I fear that the wheel of life will have turned and the book of time will have closed
and America will have added nothing, or next to nothing, to the account of morals
that distinguishes man from object, and indeed, mankind from animals.”
When I was recently lecturing to a group of
mid-career American officers, one of them guessed it was Winston Churchill. Wrong.
The answer is Sayyid Qutb, the chief Egyptian ideologue of the radical Islamist
movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks our destruction. In Arabic, qutb means the pole
around which the world revolves on its axis. The entire Islamist world revolves
around the thinking of this man, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966, but whose thought
has spread from the Philippines and Indonesia to Morocco. You can be sure to find
his writings at the foundation of any radical Muslim group today, including al-Qaeda.
The value of Qutb’s quote is that it so clearly
illustrates the moral judgment on America
that is behind the Islamist movement. This is such an important point that it deserves
another example. One member of the team that carried out the first attack on the
World Trade Center in 1993, Mahmoud Abouhalima had this to say in an interview:
“The soul, the soul of religion, that is what is missing.” The 17 years he had lived
in the West, Abouhalima said, “is a fair amount of time to understand what
the hell is going on in the United States and in Europe about secularism or people,
you know, who have no religion. I lived in their life, but they didn’t live my life,
so they will never understand the way I live or the way I think.” Abouhalima
compared a life without religion to a pen without ink.
“An ink pen, a pen worth $2000, gold and everything
in it, it’s useless if there’s no ink in it. That’s the thing that gives life, the
life in this pen… the soul. The soul, the religion, you know, that’s the thing
that’s revived the whole life. Secularism has none, they have none, you have none.”
Statements like these are easy to find and
appear almost daily in the Muslim media. Notice that these critiques do not addresses
any policy problems. Those
who insist that America’s public diplomacy nightmare in the Middle East is only
due to its policies mistake the fundamentally moral nature of the attack. In fact,
there is no policy the US could change in the Middle East that would reverse this
moral condemnation, including the abandonment of Israel. When Qutb wrote his statement
in “The America I Have Seen” in the early 1950s, Israel was not the major issue
it is today nor were we seen as the sponsors of the autocracies in the region.
Hiding the light on the hill
Why, then, have we ended up in this situation?
Most of us do not see ourselves as immoral and materialistic; why do others? The
United States has failed to present its true self and the problem has only gotten
worse with the spread of American pop culture through globalization. Instead of
using public diplomacy and its powerful broadcasting tools, like the Voice of America,
to counter the impression of America that pop culture creates, the United States,
as I have mentioned, has chosen to reinforce this impression by officially embracing
The first thing the United States needs to
do is address the moral critique of America as a godless, secular, sex-obsessed
society immersed in materialism. Just when the moral basis of American life may
be eroding, it is precisely this basis that it most needs to present to the Muslim
world if it is to defuse the contempt and anger American popular culture provokes.
In other words, an essential part of the war of ideas is our own self recovery.
Absent that, the United States will be seen, as it is now largely seen, as a purveyor
of its will through brute force.
Obama’s failed outreach to the Muslim
How will we raise the standard in this new
war of ideas? In his inaugural address, President Obama said that “our security
emanates from the justness of our cause.” However, security can emanate from the
justness of a cause only if others share the same conception of justice. That, after
all, is the substance of what wars of ideas are about. How, then, is President Obama
conveying that sense of justness, particularly to the Muslim world?
Obama’s initial Muslim outreach effort came
in his June, 2009, speech in Cairo. It followed and should be contrasted to the
speech he gave in Accra, Ghana immediately prior to it. In Accra, the president
spoke some hard truths about what is required for sustainable democratic governance
and how African countries had failed in the past. He did not flinch in his denunciations
of African strongmen or widespread corruption. These hard truths were absent from
his Cairo speech. In other words, he spoke powerfully to the poor (Ghana) and meekly
to the powerful (Egypt), or truth to the poor and fantasy to the powerful. The differences
were pronounced. Why?
The only rhetorical strategy that can make
sense of the Cairo speech is: instead of confronting the unreality of the world
in which most Arabs live (which would have generated resentment), Obama decided
to embrace it, enter into it, and then try to change it from within by changing
the meaning of some words. As Egyptian writer Tareq Heggy said in reaction to the
speech, “it is as if he (Obama) is a magician.”
This magical approach produced Obama’s absurd
claim that al-Azhar, instead of being an intellectual backwater retarding Muslims’
ability to enter the modern world, was a light to the world and laid the foundations
of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. There were other such gaffes, including
his praise of Muslim tolerance in “Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.”
However, the Muslim presence in Spain and the period of the Inquisition did not
historically overlap, making the comparison ludicrous. Even some American history
was distorted to serve this view. President Obama said that “it was not violence
that won full and equal rights” for the black people in America, but “a
peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.”
Somewhere in there the Civil War got lost. Also, President Obama said that, while
Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have elected women heads of state, “The
struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life.”
In addition, the president proclaimed that
“in ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront
of innovation and education.” If one is speaking of the ninth century in Abbasid
Baghdad, this was certainly true. However, according to the UN Arab Human Development
Reports, written by Arabs themselves, the level of education in the Arab world is
the worst in the world but for that of sub-Saharan Africa. These distortions and
fantasies were received with understandable enthusiasm by the audience.
However, despite the absurdities of some of
the remarks, obviously delivered as obsequies to the Arab world, the president did
try to express and advance the principles of equality and democracy within the Muslim
world. The problem is that such attempts are bound to fail when they do not address
the principal obstacles to their acceptance. In fact, none of these obstacles were
mentioned except in the most general way, and never as being in any way Islamic.
It is, after all, “the dignity of all human beings,” which Obama vigorously
espoused, that is at question in
Islam according to its own revelation and legal doctrines which are inimical to
the proposition that all people are created equal. Why not simply say this?
The magic of language
Perhaps President Obama did not say this because
he thinks that not saying it makes it no longer so. Rather than conforming his words
to reality, he tends to think that reality will conform itself to his words. He
also sees the source of the problems in the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world,
in the United States itself. This would explain his propensity to apologize (we
are the victimizer; you are the victims), and then to pretend – or rationalize.
Pretend, for instance, that the problem in Iran is nuclear weapons instead of the
nature of the Iranian regime. Perhaps it was the hostility of the United States
that provoked them to seek nuclear weapons. Therefore, let us reassure them of our
peaceful intentions. Look away when the Iranian people are in the streets demonstrating
against a stolen election in the hopes that the regime will, out of gratitude, reach
an acceptable nuclear compromise. In other words, the nature of the Iranian regime
is irrelevant so long as it does not possess nuclear weapons. This ignores the fact
that is the nature of the Iranian regime which makes its possession of nuclear weapons
Pretend that Syria is not subverting Iraq,
your ally, and is implicit in killing American soldiers in that country, and demurely
turn away in hopes that by doing so Syria will give you a deal to stabilize Iraq
and Lebanon. Pretend that Syrian President Bashar Assad is a reformer, and perhaps
he will become one. This mistaken mission of giving Arabs a new vision of themselves
from within their own delusional world was reflected in Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton’s extraordinary remark about President Assad that what “we have tried
to do with him is to give him an alternative vision of himself.” Apparently,
he has not embraced his doppelganger and is perfectly content with his old self,
which he maintains in power at the cost of hundreds of Syrian lives.
Magic does not work in the foreign-policy.
It is, in fact, simply another version of realpolitik, disguised in a self-abasing
form of false humility. The infamous phrase that the Obama administration is “leading
from behind” means that it will advance American principles only when they
are thrust upon it by external events – in other words, when it is realpolitik to
do so. Otherwise, it is most content as a power, although a weakened one, dealing
with other powers. Obama’s Middle Eastern strategy has reflected his rhetorical
approach to Ghana and Egypt. Speak powerfully to the weak or weakened – demanding
that Mubarak and Gaddafi leave office – and meekly to the powerful – not making
such demands on Bashar Assad or Ahmadinejad.
In May, 2011, President Obama made his next
major outreach speech to the Middle East. In it, he seemed to abandon the realpolitik
of the Cairo speech. In the spirit of “leading from behind,” he belatedly
endorsed the Arab revolutions and finally delivered a form of his Ghana tough love
speech. He directly addressed the problems of Arab tyrannies and corruption. He
also generally intimated that the Arab Spring had made the late Osama bin Laden
and his ideology obsolescent. It is true that bin Laden’s name was not chanted during
any of the uprisings. However, neither was the United States’, nor were there any
statues of liberty constructed, as was famously the case in Tiananmen Square in
1989. In fact, a case could be made that the Arab Spring demonstrated the irrelevance
of the United States more than it did al Qaeda’s. Obama’s “leading from behind”
did not impress Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies
in Qatar. He said,
“He should have said something from the
very beginning, but we’ve been waiting… Most people have realized that what the
US does or does not do is no longer important, because people took matters into
their own hands and decided their own future. So why should people care what he
says? America is no longer an issue.”
President Obama also failed to notice that
these uprisings have come close to achieving one of Al Qaeda’s principal goals –
the elimination of the apostate authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North
Africa. What is to replace them is still very much up in the air. That is why bin
Laden, in his posthumously broadcast audiotape, saw in the Arab Spring such potential
for the achievement of al Qaeda’s aims. That this might be the case did not seem
to occur to the president, other than by his saying that the changes made may not
be to the immediate tactical advantage of the United States, which would nevertheless
accept them if they were produced democratically. This is confusing process for
Obama characterized the uprisings as democratically
inspired and therefore deserving of American support. What will happen, however,
will very much depend on how Islam is understood in the respective countries of
the Arab Spring. Curiously, though, the word Islam did not appear once in President
Obama’s lengthy speech. It is the dominant interpretation of Islam that will determine
whether any of the vaunted democratic goals he enunciated can be achieved. Obama
said that this is “a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” rather
than as it is. But what the world “should” be is exactly what is at issue within
Islam itself. The president’s speech assumed that Egyptian aspirations are identical
to our own. This is a somewhat bipartisan view. James Glassman, president George
W. Bush’s last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on May 19 that “Muslims
deserve and desire freedom as much as everyone else.” This statement is very
appealing, and there is certainly an element of truth in it.
Is the Arab Spring a rejection of bin Laden?
However, one must ask whether the desired freedom
is truly based upon the proposition that all people are created
equal. How many Egyptians actually believe that Copts and Muslims, men and women,
believers and nonbelievers are equal – to say nothing of Jews and Muslims? Where
is the underlying support in their culture for the truth of this proposition? If
it is not there, it will be freedom for some and oppression for others. How many
share the view of Osama’s former bodyguard (now resident in Yemen), Abu Jandal,
that politics is illegitimate because “when you accept the other as he is then you
are in agreement with his infidelity and lowliness”?
Pretending that this is not so does not make
the problem magically go away. Assuming that the Arab Spring was a rejection of
bin Laden does not necessarily make it one. In fact, Dr Tawfik Hamid’s analysis
of several thousand readers’ comments on the Al Jazeera and al Arabiya websites
in response to the death of bin Laden showed: “67% support for Bin Laden, 19%
against Bin Laden, and Unclear answers 14%.”
Bin Laden, after all, was just another product
of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose spiritual leader, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi,
addressed crowds of several million Egyptians in Tahrir Square at a victory rally
on February 18th. He praised the “youth of the revolution,” as “the new
partisans of God.” It is the Muslim Brotherhood that is currently
positioned to take maximum advantage of the Arab Spring, bringing the Islamist dreams
of Sayyid Qutb one giant step closer to reality. Speaking of current events in Egypt,
Naguib Sawiris, one of the founders of the Free Egyptians Party, which promotes
liberal and secular policies, lamented that, “they have substituted the dictatorship
of the Mubarak with the dictatorship of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s where Egypt
is going now.” What does Obama propose to do to prevent this from happening?
He proposes some economic programs. These are
not to be gainsaid, as the doubling in the price of wheat over the past year could
by itself imperil a democratic transition in Egypt. However, one wonders why president
Obama did not choose to remind Egyptians of some of their own history. After some
60 years of British presence in Egypt, Egyptians were left with a constitutional
monarchy in which the basic human freedoms were enshrined, along with the rule of
law, a functioning parliament, a relatively free press, and an independent judiciary.
In a military coup in 1962, Gamal Nasser overthrew
the constitutional monarchy and changed the constitution. His successor, Anwar Sadat,
amended the constitution, enshrining Sharia as the main source of legislation, and
Hosni Mubarak amended it again. The end result was a one-party, authoritarian state.
Imperial powers did not do this to Egypt; Egyptians did it to themselves. Through
another military coup, it appears that Egyptians may have the opportunity to choose
again. It would not have been amiss to remind them of the criteria by which to make
a choice that can lead them out of this sad history and back to the freedoms that
they once enjoyed – not as a legacy of the British, but as their own. This would
require more than the litany of specific human rights that Obama enumerated in the
speech. It would require a natural theology to undergird them, and a sincere examination
of whether that natural theology is compatible with Islamic revelation. It is not,
of course, for a non-Muslim to answer the question as to whether it is or not, but
it is perfectly appropriate, indeed, vitally necessary, to pose it.
Muslim writer Irshad Manji, author of The
Trouble with Islam Today, writes that “bin Laden and
his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged
relentlessly and visibly.” Obama chooses not to do this, preferring to pretend
that it has gone away. He seems to believe that speaking of it brings it into, or
at least sustains its existence, while not speaking of it denies it existence.
This nominalist, or magical, approach is reflected
in the tortured rhetoric the Obama administration uses to portray the current conflict
in order to avoid any mention of its nature. Consider the verbal gymnastics engaged in by
the Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in her description of a terrorist
attack as a “man-caused disaster” or of war as an “overseas contingency
operation.” The President’s counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan, said that jihad, rather
than presenting a moral problem, “is a holy struggle, an effort to purify for a
legitimate purpose.” (Conceding legitimacy to your enemy in a war of ideas is not
a good move.) On February 10th, Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper told a congressional committee that the Islamic Brotherhood is a “largely
secular” organization. Muslims could not care less what Brennan or any other non-Muslim thinks jihad
is. And they would be, at least, bemused by the secular description given to an
explicitly religious organization like the Muslim Brotherhood. The only people
Brennan, Clapper, Napolitano and Obama are confusing is the American people.
Why the semantic obfuscation? Self-delusion
is one problem and ignorance is another. Many in the secular West find it hard to
believe that anyone takes religion seriously anymore. Since they have lost their
faith, they don’t have the ability to comprehend the terms of faith in anyone else’s
life. In fact, their
incomprehension, their obliviousness to the sacred, is one of the things that inflames
Islam against the West. President Obama’s
National Security Strategy defines America’s opponents as “a loose network
of violent extremists.” Whereas the Obama administration is reluctant to speak
of a “war against terrorism” (which is, admittedly, a misnomer itself), it is apparently
at ease in defining the opponent as “violence.” What about non-violent extremists?
Do they present a problem? The Obama administration now supports a role for the
Muslim Brotherhood in a reformed Egyptian government on condition that it “rejects
violence and recognizes democratic goals.” If the Muslim Brotherhood’s defined
aim of creating a Sharia state in Egypt is achieved peacefully, is it any less inimical
to US strategic interests than if it were reached violently?
Does truth really lead to tyranny?
Confusion over these matters are sure signs
that the United States is suffering from the same kind of conflict within itself
over the nature of the threat that it is facing that it suffered from during the
Cold War. There exists the same reluctance to name things for what they are and
therefore to do the things that are necessary.
One reason for this reluctance resides in President
Obama’s relativism. In his book, The Audacity of Hope, he discussed the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He
wrote, “Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered
liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology
or theology or ‘ism,’ and any tyrannical consistency that might block future generations
into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into
the cruelties of the Inquisition…” In other words, truth leads to tyranny.
Truth does not set you free; it imprisons.
This statement would have amazed the American Founders, including John Adams who,
when reflecting back upon the principles of the American Founding, claimed that
“those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature. And I could safely
say consistently with all my then and present information that I believe they would
never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.”
How do you fashion a public diplomacy strategy
based upon the belief that the United States does not represent any permanent truths?
As was mentioned earlier regarding the Cold War, a form of absolutism fighting a
form of relativism always has the upper hand. Who wants to die to prove that nothing
is absolutely true? How exactly is one supposed to promote this idea? By playing
pop music, and hoping that the walls come tumbling down?
In the current war of ideas, we have lost the
means and we have lost the message. We won the Cold War because we developed the
means, and we recovered the message. If we still have something to tell the world,
if we still stand upon the embrace of a universal truth as the foundation of the
“justness of our cause,” then we will be impelled to find the means to
reach others with this truth. If not, we will have lost ourselves for reasons having
nothing to do with the challenge of Islam. Public diplomacy should aim for a new
Yakovlev moment of semantic unanimity – a point at which the moral illegitimacy
of the radical Islamist vision is self-confessed, a point at which its adherents
admit that its central tenets are “evil.” We cannot expect them to use this vocabulary
if we do not.
Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts.
His most recent book is The Closing of
the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.
This paper was delivered at a seminar on “Fighting the Ideological War:
Strategies for Defeating Al Qaeda”, organised by the Westminister
Institute on May 25.