Two funerals recently captured worldwide attention: James Brown’s and Saddam Hussein’s. They would seem to be unrelated. What could possibly connect the throbbing beat of James Brown’s music and Saddam’s regime of terror? Strangely enough, the answer is "the war of ideas". According to President George W. Bush, the "war of ideas" against radical Islam will be decisive in the war against terrorism. In a Wall Street Journal interview last year, he said: "the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment." Bush is right, but how are we supposed to do that? You cannot defeat ideas with bullets, but only with other ideas. Here is a suggestion: Why don’t we broadcast our ideas and attack theirs? Stay tuned for the answer.
A war of ideas is a struggle over the very meaning of existence for which people are willing to die. Ideas at this level define and provide the purpose to people’s lives. When antithetical ideas of this kind clash, the struggle is total. The United States has been through this before – when the Nazi ideologues said that race superiority defines the value of life, and then when Communists said that class membership does. In both cases, the West, led by the United States, fought for the truth that every individual is endowed by God with inalienable rights. Many gave their lives to defend this truth.
Now, we are in another struggle – this time against Muslim radicals who assert their perverted standard of faith as the litmus test for life or death. Share it or die. They serve an angry god who demands human sacrifice, first from other Muslims who do not subscribe to their darkness, and then from us. To fight this new "war of ideas", we require a firm conviction in the justice of our own cause, and the means to explain it to our enemies and our friends.
When we have been through this before, we have done it well. US international radio broadcasting – the Voice of America and surrogate radios like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – helped to win the "war of ideas" in World War II and the Cold War. Are they helping to win this new war against the "ideology of hatred" at the source of today’s international terrorism? What are they using for ammunition?
Believe it or not – at least in the Arabic and Persian worlds, the spawning grounds of terrorism – the answer, shades of James Brown, is pop music. In a policy that beggars belief, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the government entity in charge of radio broadcasting, shut down VOA’s Arabic service in 2002 and most of its Farsi service in 2003, and chose pop music as the principal means to convey our side in the war of ideas to the entire Arab Middle East and Iran. For the majority of the airtime on Radio Sawa (50 minutes of the hour) and Radio Farda (the two 24-hour radios in Arabic and Persian), America is represented by everyone from Eminem, to J. Lo, to Britney Spears in the fight against terrorism. (If you find this hard to believe, you can listen in on their websites.) Why at a time of utmost gravity, would the US government do something like this, especially when no other successful international broadcaster, like the BBC, has?
The answers are on record from BBG members themselves. Radio Sawa’s progenitor, media mogul Norman Pattiz, while still serving his Clinton-appointed term on the BBG in 2002, told The New Yorker that "it was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall." (Not Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn.) Unfortunately, when the Bush appointees arrived on the board, things did not go much deeper. In October 2002, the new and now still serving chairman of the BBG, Ken Tomlinson, approvingly quoted his Naval Academy graduate son: "her (Britney Spears’) music represents the sounds of freedom." Based upon these breathtakingly superficial assumptions, the Board of Governors demoted the war of ideas into the battle of the bands. Is MTV winning the "war of ideas"?
After several years of broadcasting Britney Spears to the Levant, has the average radical mullah died of apoplexy and the average Abdullah come to love democracy and forsworn all but internal jihad? Apparently not. According to a State Department report on Radio Sawa by the inspector general, "it is difficult to ascertain Radio Sawa’s impact in countering anti-American views and the biased state-run media of the Arab world." Or, as one expert panel assembled to assess its value concluded, "Radio Sawa failed to present America to its audience."
The BBG has achieved part of its objective in gaining large youth audiences in parts of the Middle East, such as in Amman, Jordan, where it has an FM transmitter. However, as senior Jordanian journalist, Jamil Nimri, told me: "Radio Sawa is fun, but it’s irrelevant." Can this be a surprise to any adult? We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music, so why we should expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way defies reason. The act of condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the very part of the audience that we should wish to influence the most – those who think.
I know this first hand. In the spring of 2003, across a field of rubble in Baghdad, an angry young Iraqi journalist accosted me and demanded, "why did you stop broadcasting substance and substitute music?" This change in format has provoked other questions: Are Americans playing music because they are afraid to tell the truth? Do they not have a truth to tell? Or do they not consider us worth telling the truth to?
Alternatively, others, who believe that the United States is a degenerate country, suspect that the US is consciously attempting to subvert the morals of Arab youth. Those who worry over the moral health of their own societies despise the vulgar part of American popular culture, as many Americans do. Since that part of American culture is already available in their societies, why is it being officially reinforced by US government broadcasts? Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes recently said, according to Cal Thomas, that "the Muslim world mostly regards our freedom as licentiousness. They get their impressions of the United States through our media… That's the ‘entertainment’ and image we export, so why should they not conclude this is who we are?" Indeed, why not? Does Ms. Hughes listen to our government radios?
Becoming the caricature of ourselves is bad public diplomacy. Rather, the job of US international broadcasting is to present before a 9/11 what much of the world saw only after it – the sacrifice, bravery, and piety of the American people as part of a complete picture. By presenting this picture, we might even prevent the miscalculations of those who believe they can attack the US with impunity because they have been led to believe, often by our popular media, that it is a weak, irreligious and morally corrupt country.
Radio broadcasting is needed in the "war of ideas," but it has to deal in ideas to be effective. The "MTV message" is not only something that commercial broadcasting can do, it can do better than government-funded radio. Government broadcasting is needed when the United States must communicate an important message to a key audience that it would otherwise not hear. Music, appealing to the emotions, may have a role in this kind of broadcast mission, but only if it is part of a larger idea-based strategy. Commerce-based strategy is profit dominated. Government-based strategy is policy and idea dominated. Only when the policy is to make a profit are the two the same. Combating terrorism and winning the "war of ideas" are altogether about something other than profit. As Edward R. Murrow said, the cash register does not ring when someone changes his mind.
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. Where are the ideas we are supposed to win with, and why are they not on the air? Unfortunately, the beat goes on.
Robert R. Reilly was the 25th director of the Voice of America, and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.