The U.S. Is Fumbling the War of Ideas Against ISIS

The U.S. Is Fumbling the War of Ideas Against ISIS

Earlier this week, the editor of The Fiscal Times wondered why the US had not engaged in the propaganda fight against ISIS. “If we’re fighting both an army and a war of ideas,” she wrote, “we have to go after their ideas,” urging the Department of Defense into action on that front. However, we have begun to engage on that fight – but not terribly well.

Like other terrorist organizations, ISIS builds itself on an aspirational ideal – in this case, radical Islamist theology and ideology. That has been the case with other terrorist groups of the past too, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Hamas in the Islamist realm. Before that, radical groups like the Weather Underground, Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction, and the Palestinian Liberation Front organized on more Marxist and secular ideologies and narratives. Fighting these groups required more than just a law-enforcement approach; it required winning hearts and minds to keep those groups on the outer fringes of political action.

Related: It’s Time to Wag the Dog Against ISIS

Similarly, the great contest of the post-World War II era hinged just as much on the competition of ideas as it did on arms races and other military measures. The Cold War was all about one ideology definitively trumping another, as the actions of the Soviet sphere and the West made clear that “peaceful coexistence” and détente were unsustainable. Even the Non-Aligned Movement, which has outlasted the Cold War itself, turned into a battleground for the ideological debate and fight between the two superpower-driven poles of economic and political thought.

Recall for a moment how exactly the West prevailed in that ideological conflict. Ground wars took place in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, for instance, and military interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Granada -- almost all of which turned into headaches for all sides.

Except for a tense week in 1962 over missile installations in Cuba, though, that grand generational conflict didn’t get resolved through acute military conflict between the main belligerents. Instead, the big victories came in space, in technological achievement, and in economic development – the lack of which doomed the Soviet Union to collapse in the late 1980s.

All through that time, both sides honed their propaganda craft, although neither would admit to that definition. The US had the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe aimed at the Iron Curtain countries, and an overwhelmingly influential cultural presence. The Soviets had academics and media strategies designed to undermine American/Western arguments for freedom. The Soviet efforts worked within the closed systems of their own satellites, but failed otherwise to win the hearts and minds necessary to produce enough converts to win the ideological battle.

Related: ISIS Invades Social Media and Gets Turned Back

In the generation that has passed since the Cold War, though, efforts to sell Western-style liberty and democracy have dropped significantly. The definitive triumph of free markets and multiparty democracy over the Soviet model convinced many that the tools of ideological debate were not just unnecessary, but perhaps a vestige of superpower imperialism

Voice of America and Radio Free Europe (now rebranded to Radio Liberty) still operate but get little attention in the US, except to debate whether they effectively represent America’s vision of liberty and justice. In July, VOA cut out a significant part of its broadcasts and stopped operating altogether on some shortwave frequencies.

For the last several years we have faced another kind of ideological foe, and now ISIS and other radical Islamist groups have found success in recruitment and fundraising through their own propaganda efforts. The US has belatedly responded through a State Department initiative to blunt the impact of ISIS propaganda on Westerners, most recently in its “Think Again Turn Away” Twitter and YouTube campaign, launched in December 2013. 

Related: The New Price Tag for the U.S. War Against ISIS

The focus on ISIS atrocities and the near-slavery of women in their communities is offered as an antidote to the soft-sell approach of ISIS recruitment videos that have young people traveling to Syria and Iraq to join.

Unfortunately, the State Department appears to be out of practice when it comes to ideological battles. Rita Katz, the director of SITE Intelligence Group, calls the effort “embarrassing” – and worse, counterproductive. In an essay for Time Magazine, Katz dresses down the State Department for wasting its time with one-on-one Twitter conversations that do exactly the opposite of what effective ideological debate should do – engage the fringe to make it mainstream.

Katz notes that one such account, Amreeki Witness, was “thrilled to be noticed by the U.S. Government.” The direct engagement meant that the State Department essentially lent its platform to “launch radical jihadist views toward Think Again Turn Away’s thousands of followers.”

Related: Obama Makes Some Dangerous Bets with ISIS Plan

It gets worse. An Australian leader within Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, celebrated the anniversary of 9/11 with a tweet noting that “the idol of capitalism” had been destroyed “on this day, in 2001.” The State Department responded to that by pointing out that ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi owns a Rolex. Katz reminds readers that the Nusra Front and ISIS are rivals, not allies, and that “the irony is ugly” in engaging in dialogue with an AQ-affiliated terrorist leader on the anniversary of 9/11. That, Katz argues, “provide[s] legitimization to the account of the same people who committed the attacks.”

In the political world, that practice is called “punching down.” In the practice of ideological struggles of the past, it would be the equivalent of offering a podium to a Baader-Meinhof operative at a State Department briefing.  Undoubtedly, the State Department will offer more rational arguments and win the debate, but the debate itself elevates the radical fringe to equality with the norm. It gives the ideological foes of rationality and humanitarian systems equal status – and that will only encourage more recruitment and more effective fundraising for ISIS and other terrorist networks.

The West needs to win the propaganda war against ISIS and other such groups, but we have to relearn the lessons of past age in doing so. Liberty and freedom will win the argument in the long run, but only if we ensure that our ideological framework keeps the dangerous fringe where it belongs, rather than legitimize them into the mainstream that they want to dominate. Silence is not an option, but neither should be handing our enemies megaphones.

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