The recently issued report of the 9/11 Commission questions how Osama bin Laden, “a man in a cave,” can do a better job of communicating than the United States, the world’s leading communicator. The observation strikes right at the heart of the difficulties we face in winning the war on terrorism.
The members of the commission understood that there is a price to pay for losing the war of ideas — one that is far higher than the cost in blood and property that was lost in the event that the commission investigated. We must do a better job at communicating our principles and practices to the world. Their international legitimacy must not be taken for granted.
If today’s terrorists succeed at portraying us to the world as impious, intolerant, hedonistic and self-indulgently weak, the consequences will reach beyond declines in our international popularity. Debased currency reduces consumers’ spending power; debased ideas strand those who benefit from them.
With notable exceptions, the world’s nations generally agree on, even if they do not always act in concert with, some important principles: A prohibition against first use of nuclear weapons; the independence of sovereign states and rights of citizens to control their own government; a proscription against force to seize the territory of others; unalienable human rights and basic rules of democracy as the ends and means of United Nations action; and the desirability of free trade, to name a few.
These principles are good for us, good for our allies and friends, and good for the cause of political liberty and democracy as a whole. In one form or another, most of these ideas come from the United States and represent America’s success at leadership in the world. Indeed, taken as a group they represent a world order — one that would be very different had the Nazis, Japanese warlords or Soviets won out.
The result of even the partial discrediting of the world’s leading democracy would be a parallel discrediting of our ideas. In the immediate future, this is not likely to hurt us domestically, but it could have profound consequences globally.
Imagine, for example, how Islamic states ruled by radical fanatic orthodoxy would look upon such international occasions as the U.N.’s Year of the Woman. What sort of international sanctions are likely to be enforced against a state ruled by a Muslim dictator who is developing nuclear weapons, or who has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people? How would today’s generally accepted understanding of minority rights fare in a world infected with the ideas of bin Laden and Wahhabism? In a world where ideology is called upon to justify the beheading of innocent kidnapping victims — and only a few blink — how will human rights come to be interpreted?
The answer, of course, is that ideas matter deeply. And those that burn brightly — even if only for the short span of six decades, as millions of Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Russians over the age of 30 understand — can have a powerful and baleful influence.
Because we are a republic based on ideas, and because the ideas are so ingrained and successful here, we sometimes take them for granted. Nowhere in government does collective certainty in the inviolability and unassailability of our ideas take a more visible form than in international broadcasting.
Iran, the seat of state-supported international terrorism, has four 24-hour international television government; a proscription against force to seize the territory of others; unalienable human rights and basic rules of democracy as the ends and means of United Nations action; and the desirability of free trade, to name a few.
These principles are good for us, good for our allies and friends, and good for the cause of political liberty and democracy as a whole. In one form or another, most of these ideas
stations. American international broadcasting has one, the recently inaugurated Arabic-language channel Al Hurra. Last year, Beijing’s international broadcasting operation, China Radio International, announced an increase in its worldwide English-language broadcasts to 24 hours a day from eight.
As a result of a tightening budget, the Voice of America is now broadcasting in English for 19 hours a day, down from 24 hours in 2003. American international television broadcasts to Iran amount to less than six hours per week. For Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state, American international television broadcasting’s time adds up to a total of four hours per week. Voice of America recently increased its radio broadcasts to 12 hours daily to Pakistan — a nuclear weapon-armed Muslim state with an invidious terrorist movement knocking at the government’s very door — but the antennae and transmitter are weak, Soviet-era equipment living on a scarce diet of spare parts fast reaching decrepitude.
Is this enough to win the war of ideas — or, at least, not lose it? I hope so.
Giving voice and image to our ideas will not immediately reverse today’s anti-Americanism. But the stakes are very high.
The 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that we “defend our ideals abroad vigorously” acknowledges the terrible ideas that motivated those who carried out the attacks. The commission’s report offers sensible proposals on how to counter those terrible ideas. None of the proposals would have a longer-term effect than the redoubling of our effort to tell the Islamic world who we are and what we stand for.