By Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX)
On September 11th, 2001, America changed. Since then the United States has been at war with violent Islamic extremists who plot and plan against us every day. We have sent American troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat them in combat. Our intelligence and special operations forces have fanned out across the globe to disrupt terrorist networks and deny them safe havens. And we have cooperated with friends and allies to reinforce existing counterterrorism resources and build new coordinated capabilities. While these actions are necessary to defeat the jihadist threat against the United States, they are not sufficient to do so.
To truly defeat terrorism, we must also wage and win the war of ideas. Success in the debate between moderate and extremist voices within Islam is necessary if we are ever to secure a lasting peace. Unlike traditional kinds of diplomacy, such as education and cultural exchanges, the goal of the war of ideas is not to persuade people to like America and its policies. Instead, the aim is to make sure negative attitudes toward America and its allies do not take the form of violent extremism. These efforts are often called “strategic communication.”
Winning a war of ideas is an endeavor in which America has traditionally been quite successful. During the Cold War, the United States passed ground-breaking strategic communication legislation like the Smith-Mundt Act, established the U.S. Information Agency, created Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and undertook other measures to fight communism and totalitarianism abroad. These measures, along with containment and President Reagan’s defense spending, helped bring down the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Today, we are a world away from the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially when it comes to communication. This is largely a result of the widespread adoption of cellular technology, the proliferation of broadcast, and the advent of the Internet. Initiatives that once served U.S. interests abroad may now hinder them. For example, language in the Smith-Mundt Act ties the hands of U.S. strategic communicators to counter online jihadists. Some on-air contributors to Radio Farda and Radio Liberty are prone to curious assertions that many Americans may be surprised to hear from taxpayer-funded “pro-American” radio.
Now is the time to explore and spread creative strategic communication ideas and to revisit existing legislation. To help reinvigorate the discussion, I have introduced H.R. 489 a bill to improve how America directly communicates with people across the world. This bill would establish an independent “Center for Strategic Communication” that would coordinate America’s message across our government. It would provide research on attitudes and media trends in foreign countries and build expertise on how we can better communicate around the world.
There is no one right answer to winning the war of ideas, and any solution requires bipartisan consensus. A solid first step is establishing the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Caucus in the House of Representatives, which I have done with Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA). Our goal is to bring together a bipartisan group of Representatives with an interest in waging and winning the war of ideas. As the 9/11 Commission Report reminds us, “If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us.” America can’t afford for that to happen.