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Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas
Lessons from Indonesia
By John Hughes
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Rise and Fall of USIA
"America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
America and its allies have been challenged in contemporary times by three dangerous "isms." Fascism was bred and defeated in Europe. Communism, now a pale and shrinking force, was nurtured in the Soviet Union but confronted on a global platform. Islamism, or Islamic extremism, which exploded on American soil on September 11, 2001, is rooted in the Arab lands of the Middle East and has developed a clientele worldwide.
Each of these three pernicious ideologies has necessarily been confronted by military force. Most recently, the United States has found it necessary to wage a war on terrorism against Islamist extremists. The United States must remain engaged in this conflict as long as the practitioners of Islamic extremism continue to conduct a murderous jihad against Americans in particular, but many other nationalities as well.
America has mobilized much manpower and materiel to protect its homeland and carry the fight to the enemy's remote lairs and hiding places. But it is the war of words and ideas that will ultimately determine whether moderate Islam, with which the United States has no quarrel, will prevail over Islamic extremism, whose perversion of Islamic faith is the problem.
It is a contest in which the extremists are proving adept. From the remote terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border they project their anti-American propaganda on Al Jazeera, which is then picked up by CNN and other television networks and broadcast worldwide. Their production of material for television has become increasingly sophisticated. They have become adept at using the Internet to spread their doctrine. The now-famous letter from Osama bin Laden's closest lieutenant, Ayman Al Zawahiri to Al Qaeda's number one operative in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who is now dead, made the strategy clear: "More than half the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media. We are in a media race ... for hearts and minds."
Public diplomacy is the critical U.S. weapon in this battle, rebutting falsehoods, and projecting a truthful picture and explanation of American policies, culture, and freedoms. Traditional diplomacy is usually government-to-government, conducted by diplomats in confidence and behind closed doors. Public diplomacy is open and is usually conducted through media in an attempt to persuade mass audiences, or elites who are influential with mass audiences.
Probably the best-known American instrument of public diplomacy has been the Voice of America (VOA), broadcasting by shortwave radio around the world. Launched in 1942, its first broadcasts were in German, its first director was John Houseman, its first message: "The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth." So it has over the years, while adapting itself to FM and medium-wave radio, television, the Internet, and new kinds of communication. Today it broadcasts in 45 languages to 134 million people.
After World War II, and with the advent of the Cold War, President Eisenhower in 1953 authorized a new entity, the United States Information Agency (USIA). It embraced various existing government information units (with the exception of educational and cultural exchanges, which remained under the State Department) and built a powerful organization to counter Soviet propaganda and to "tell America's story to the world."
The USIA, with VOA operating under its aegis, mounted a formidable, multifaceted public diplomacy operation to implement its mission. It launched a daily wireless file to every American embassy that clarified policy and contained information diplomats could use in engagement with local opinion-makers. It produced a serious publication, Problems of Communism, which reached scholars around the world.
From its printing plants in Manila and Mexico City came a succession of free colorful magazines about America invarious languages. A Russian-language edition became so popular in Moscow that Soviet officials clamped down on it; they sent bundles back to the United States, claiming nobody wanted to read it. That made it a hot black market item for which ordinary Russians paid the equivalent of several dollars a copy.
On the cultural front, the USIA, in tandem with the State Department, sent dance and musical groups — musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman — around the world, including tours to Russia and its satellite nations in Eastern Europe whenever feasible. Among various educational and exchange programs to Africa and the Middle East, the USIA promoted a notable 1953 colloquium featuring Islamic and American scholars at Princeton.
One of the most effective public diplomacy programs brought government officials and politicians, journalists and writers, and artists and opinion-makers from other countries for stays of varying length to observe America in all its strengths and weaknesses. USIA programmers targeted young politicians later to become leaders in their own countries. Such individuals included Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, and Gerhard Schröder. It is tempting to ponder what impact, if any, such a visit to the United States in earlier days might have made upon Saddam Hussein.
Operating abroad as the United States Information Service (USIS), the USIA screened and distributed American movies, as well as documentaries it commissioned itself, from leading American moviemakers. Wherever it could, it opened U.S. libraries and reading rooms in major foreign cities. As a foreign correspondent in Africa and Asia, I found it moving to see these libraries crammed with students doing their homework and taking advantage of the large collections of American books, newspapers, and films.
The USIA also promoted big-ticket items like exhibits of American art and innovative pavilions displaying American products at international fairs. The famous "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev took place in 1959 at an American fair in Moscow. Almost three million Russians visited the American exhibits.
Role of the Radios
Meanwhile, the VOA broadcast straight news bulletins around the clock in different languages to countries all over the world despite Soviet attempts to jam the signal. By law, the VOA was precluded from directing its programs internally, to an American audience. But Americans could pick them up on a shortwave radio. James (Scotty) Reston, the New York Times columnist, did just that, tuning in the VOA's English language broadcast each evening. He told me that it was his favorite newscast. In addition to news there was "back-of-the-book" programming, which included debates and discussions and features on American life and culture. Country music was a hit in many lands, but an enormous audience tuned in to VOA jazz programs. They were introduced with a recognizable "Yankee Doodle Dandy" jingle and hosted by an eccentric but knowledgeable jazz buff, Willis Conover, who became a legend behind the Iron Curtain. When he was allowed to visit Poland, a crowd reputedly of thousands turned out to welcome him at the Warsaw airport.
Another intriguing program VOA developed was "Special English," designed to teach English to foreign listeners. The program was written in a reduced English vocabulary, and narrated substantially slower than other VOA programs. When years later I visited China, I was fascinated to hear bellboys and other staff in my hotel learning English from the VOA.
While VOA broadcast world news to a world audience, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were broadcasting to East Europe and Russia, respectively. The mission of these radio networks was narrower. Staffed by many expatriates from their targeted countries, they were designed to gather factual information about what was happening in those countries and broadcast it back to peoples behind the Iron Curtain where censorship would otherwise bar them from hearing it. They were to be the radio stations that citizens would hear in those countries if they were free.
Originally financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that link was later broken and they became financed by congressional budget and operated by radio professionals, responsible to a new oversight entity, the Board for International Broadcasting.
The evidence is overwhelming that the work of these radio stations and the VOA, broadcasting to captive peoples, played a significant role in keeping the concept of freedom alive behind the Iron Curtain. When Lech Walesa was asked, after the events of 1989, if Radio Free Europe had played a role in the rebirth of freedom, he replied: "Would there be earth without the sun?" Czechoslovakia's Vaclev Havel made his statement symbolically. The day he took office as his country's new president he went to the offices of Voice of America and said simply: "Thank you."
When I became director of the VOA during the Reagan administration, I was moved to receive messages, sometimes by circuitous routes, from listeners in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Some would tell of creeping out into the birch forests in winter snow to listen to the VOA on a hidden shortwave radio. Wrote one man: "Your broadcasts from Voice of America keep the flame of liberty burning in our breasts."
During the political upheaval in the Soviet Union, VOA reporters were trapped on the barricades of the Russian parliament. Using their cellular phones they gave the world the first news of the depth of the Russian resistance. Their reports went straight to the Moscow bureau of the VOA, which beamed them live to the VOA headquarters in Washington, which then broadcast them almost instantly back to millions of listeners across the Soviet Union, buoying their spirits and stiffening their resolve.
There was the extraordinary image of Boris Yeltsin rushing a crucial speech to an aide, who faxed it to America with the words: "The Russian government has no ways to address the people. All radio stations here are under control. Following is Yeltsin's address to the army. Submit it to USIA. Broadcast it over the country. Maybe 'Voice of America.' Do it. Urgent." And finally, another extraordinary image of the isolated Gorbachev, searching for word of his and his country's future by turning, as his countrymen long had, to Radio Liberty and the Voice of America.
With the end of the Cold War, it became logical to examine the continuing role of the government radio stations. In April of 1991, President George Bush announced an independent, bipartisan presidential task force to consider the facts and report back to him in six months. Chaired by me, it contained such prominent Americans as David Abshire, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Richard Allen, assistant to the president for national security affairs in the Reagan administration; Stuart Eizenstat, a special White House adviser in the Carter administration; writer Peggy Noonan; syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg; Abbott Washburn, a former deputy director of USIA; Richard Fairbanks, former special negotiator for the Middle East peace process; Rozanne Ridgway, president of the Atlantic Council; Viviane Warren, a prominent figure in public broadcasting; and Rita Clements, a former first lady of Texas.
The task force took testimony from many experts, pored over several hundred documents and reports, traveled to London to examine BBC international radio programming and to Munich to visit with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty executives, and met with senior officials from a number of Eastern European countries.
The group quickly came to the view that the radio services, which had played such an important role in the Cold War, had a "crucial" role in the post–Cold War atmosphere. "Communist totalitarianism has been severely wounded but has not expired everywhere," they wrote in their final report. "No one knows what comes next. It is important that America continue to lead a peaceful global effort to promote democratic values, particularly in large parts of Asia and Cuba, the last redoubts of a pernicious ideology. In this task, the role of American international broadcasting is crucial." The task force conceded that the "global contest of ideas" would likely move in some different directions in the years to come. It predicted that as the United States continued to promote democratic values, another important issue would surface, namely: "What kind of democracy?" The task force reminded readers of its report that "American-style democracy is not necessarily the same as European-style, or Scandinavian-style, or Japanese-style democracy. We should not dictate precise forms of democratic organization to the world. America itself is different; scholars call it 'American Exceptionalism.' ... [W]hile far from perfect, under challenge in some respects, this way of life is seen as revolutionary and admirable by people all around the world, in the unfree states, in the emerging democracies, and in our sister democracies. ... [M]ost Americans today properly feel that we have something useful to offer the world ... it would be a shame if we did not offer what we have. Such a course is right morally, and right from a point of self-interest. Americans want a world that is user-friendly to our values."
Conceding that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty might ultimately be phased out, the task force maintained that they should continue for some years in a somewhat modified role. Instead of operating as surrogate radio services to nations once under communist domination, they should offer alternative broadcasting to assist newly democratic nations to establish democratic institutions, particularly free and unfettered media.
The value of this proposal was made clear in Munich when a senior Czech official dealing with the media met with our task force. He explained that during the Cold War most Czech journalists had been communists used to writing and broadcasting under authoritarian diktat. When the Cold War came to an end, they had difficulty making the transition to a free press. At joint press conferences with American reporters, the Americans asked all the tough questions while the Czech reporters held back. Our Czech official told us that he summoned the Czech reporters to his office and said the Americans were making the reticent Czech reporters look bad. He urged them to be more questioning of authority. The next press conference was initially better. The Czechs and the Americans both pressed the Czech official conducting the conference. But after the conference was ended, the Czech reporters crowded into the official's office. Still steeped in their old ways of being instructed what to report, they said: "OK, we've done what you wanted. Now what do you want us to write?"
Insofar as the flagship VOA was concerned, the task force recommended substantially increased funding and expanding resources for more shortwave broadcasting as well as transmission with emerging technologies. The task force saw "an indefinite and expanding need" for the VOA to increase its coverage of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
While change might have surged across Eastern and Central Europe and the then Soviet Union, the task force declared: "There remains a world that is fluid, and sometimes dangerous. The [first] Gulf war is a reminder of how conflicts can explode into international ones overnight. The Middle East remains riven with violence and extremism. ... [T]he West is still seen as the Great Satan to some of the people of Islam."
Thus, the task force concluded: "This is no time to abandon or degrade America's great international broadcasting endeavor ... this is the time to enhance, redirect and revitalize the mission ... for now as ever, these unique tools of public diplomacy can serve our nation."
If the task force enthused over the VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty continuing to carry out their separate missions, it had questions about the effectiveness of Radio Marti and TV Marti, created in 1983 and 1989, respectively, to continue broadcasting to Cuba. Cuba under Fidel Castro had been cast as a captive and unfree nation by the U.S. government. The Marti radio and TV operations were thus supposed to mirror the early roles of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — providing for Cubans the kind of information they would have had if living in a democracy. But the Castro regime went to extraordinary lengths to jam Radio Marti and black out TV Marti. Over the years the size of the listening and viewing Cuban audience has continued to raise questions about the efficacy of the Marti operation. In 2010 a report to the U.S. Senate recommended subordinating the Marti operation under VOA.
Radio Free Asia
After the prodemocracy uprising in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, there was a movement in both houses of Congress to launch a new surrogate U.S. broadcasting service predominantly to China but also to other countries in Asia living under totalitarian regimes. "Surrogate," of course, meant that such broadcasting would be cast in the image of Radio Free Europe, attempting to offer the kind of internal news coverage that the populations of these countries would enjoy if they were free.
Excerpted from Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas by John Hughes. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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