Shocked out of its sense of splendid isolation, America wants revenge. But is anyone thinking of how to win the battle for global hearts and minds?

ARTHUR KENT October 1 2001


Shocked out of its sense of splendid isolation, America wants revenge. But is anyone thinking of how to win the battle for global hearts and minds?

ARTHUR KENT October 1 2001


Shocked out of its sense of splendid isolation, America wants revenge. But is anyone thinking of how to win the battle for global hearts and minds?


Perhaps it's too much to ask of any nation. To take the blows, yet still take time to reflect, to determine not just who to blame and how to retaliate, but also to figure out what might be wrong with its own approach to the world, and do so with heroic self-criticism. But this nation. And those blows. Americans are still gasping with disbelief. A dozen times a day the people of the United States relive the horror in slow motion, on television, and are instructed by sombre newspaper copy that the loss of life at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will surpass any single day at Antietam and Gettysburg, the biggest blood gutters of the Civil War, and also Pearl Harbor and D-Day, and the worst of Khe Sahn and Hue.


Still, reflection, much more than overwhelming military force, is what America and Americans must exercise in their darkest hour. They have no choice: this is their destiny in the third American century, they must re-engage with the rest of the world, especially with the cradles of Islam—the fastest-growing faith on earth—to win back the security the worlds only superpower should, by rights, have already locked permanendy into place.

To that end, the first priority must certainly be to halt the spread of the murderously perverse militancy displayed at New York City and Washington, to choke off the mirage of Islamic populism conjured up by figures such as Osama bin Laden. That’s the counterblow, the quiet strategy, that would damage this self-styled terrorist mastermind the most. To draw away the populations he preaches to, to convince them that the U.S. and other First World countries are not the crass and godless imperial powers their extremist foes make them out to be. Weapons can’t do that, but imaginative and determined diplomatic action can.

Can the U.S. do it? Has the concept of a battle for global hearts and minds even flickered through the stunned consciousness of the Bush administration? Not if Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld is anyone to go by. His pledge that U.S. forces will go after terrorists and “drain the swamp they live in” probably played well to a certain kind of audience at home. But the battle against terrorism is not fundamentally going to be won at home, as Rumsfeld, the man responsible for projecting American power and influence abroad, should know.

Hopefully in the days since the old Cold Warrior uttered this pithy phrase, someone in the Bush administration has whispered in his ear a reminder that one man’s swamp is another man’s home. Afghan families, for instance, are literally captives of the territory held by the Taliban and their notorious Saudi-born “guest” Osama bin Laden. The Taliban’s gunmen have forcibly prevented the people of Kabul and Jalalabad, the country’s most populous cities, from fleeing their homes before the imminent U.S. counterattack. Most Afghans want nothing of the war. But they are prisoners of the swamp.

“That kind of rhetoric is unhelpful,” says Steven Livingston, professor of political science at Georgetown University in Washington. “It opens up a Pandoras box that could lead to all sorts of dire consequences down the road.”

Livingston is among those American academics—and policymakers—who understand that a wholesale review of the nations concept of itself as a global citizen is long overdue. “There’s nothing to be found in U.S. foreign policy, past or present, that would justify the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians,” says Livingston. That said, he adds, “take a look at how our policies in the recent past might be judged by a poor young Afghan, or a Palestinian, or other Middle Eastern nationals."

Such reflection is typically greeted with harsh denunciations by many Americans, especially those holding the reins of power. But Livingston and other American international affairs specialists seek reasons, not excuses, for the actions and popularity of homicidal zealots like bin Laden. The questions have to be posed: how does he draw a crowd and win support—and has past U.S. policy helped fill his tent?

The U.S. wants to drain the terrorist swamp. But most Afghans are prisoners of the swamp.

Livingston identifies four unwitting gifts to militant anti-American propagandists: ■ The slow response by the Clinton administration to the massacre of Muslim civilians during the war in Bosnia. ■ The 10-year crusade against the people of Iraq, who have suffered the gravest effects of UN sanctions against their dictator, Saddam Hussein. ■ The support by the U.S. for regimes in the Arab and Muslim world that are, in Livingston’s words, “less than wholesome,” such as Saudi Arabia. ■ The feeling of Arabs, and others around the world, that the U.S. doesn’t offer a balanced approach to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

On this last, most incendiary subject, Livingston recently visited the Middle East and delivered a lecture to the National Security Council of Israel. “I told them some things that they didn’t want to hear,” he says. That included the suggestion that “the U.S., by allowing itself to be viewed as ignoring the plight of Muslims in general and Palestinians in particular, was inviting the hostility of those populations, and impairing the American role as an effective peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians.”

While these perceptions don’t justify terrorism, Livingston adds, “they do justify an open dialogue.” But if open dialogue, and a critical analysis of foreign policy reverses are what you’re after, best not to go looking right now on the streets of Washington or New York. Most minds are focused on retaliation. One Manhattanite, however, who happily takes on the debate is Chris Wilson, who drives a cab while seeking work in the city’s investment industry. He’s a new and enthusiastically patriotic American: he changed his Romanian name, Servan Carp, when he left his homeland, then a Soviet satellite state, more than 10 years ago.

“I spent most of my life fearing a nuclear war between the Russians and Americans,” he says, laughing. “Now this, here in New York.” He says his background, comparatively worldly by American standards, has left him better prepared to cope with the shock of the terror attacks. He grew to manhood under the Communist dictatorship of Nikolai Ceausescu. Wilson is optimistic about his future, but not about his fellow countrymen’s capacity to redefine their image around the world.

“You can’t even raise the topic of Israel in this city,” he says. “They shout you down; they can’t understand that the rest of the world feels America hasn’t given the Palestinians a fair chance. I’m afraid they [Americans] will never find a way to live in peace with Muslims.”

Prominent national personalities were quick last week to reject any suggestion that American policy contributed to the motivation for the attacks. “If there was no Israel at all,” former New York governor Mario Cuomo told CNN, “we would still have a problem with bin Laden.” Dennis Ross, a former envoy to the Middle East, also gave the traditional view from Washington that the Palestinians must stop their intefadeh. No mention of Israeli settlements, still expanding in violation of UN resolutions.

Complicating matters now, of course, is the pain: most Americans seem hurt, and simply cannot comprehend neighbours and friends who pose challenging questions about their society’s unpopularity abroad, especially in Islamic cultures. There is no connection, no comparison drawn in the American mass media to lessons from the recent past, including major military and governmental failures such as Vietnam, or Guatemala.

In the latter case, the CIA, during the Clinton administration, finally came clean about the agency’s orchestration of the overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954. That miscalculation triggered more than 30 years of war—the bloodiest episode of U.S. bungling and belligerence in Central America. Successive administrations systematically misled the American people about their governments role in Guatemala. Yet to raise this issue today earns only rebuke: the new greater evil posed by suicidal zealots blacks out any faint rays of reflection. And placing the nation on a war footing, scrambling squadrons and launching the fleet, means vanquishing, not entertaining doubts. In this, the U.S. military is well practised, and even a new, relatively inexperienced President can talk the talk before Congress and a worldwide television audience. Strength, confidence, determination—and image; the body language of the superpower poised to retaliate. But question foreign policy? Never.

Which is not to say Washington isn’t reeling with introspection. There’s a good deal of that troubling the intelligence community, a widespread recognition, since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, of the blatant failure of the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus. Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, of the Senate intelligence committee, was pointedly dismissive of CIA director George Tenet this past week.

He called for a powerful new head of the combined CIA and FBI anti-terrorist effort, telling reporters that “we need someone of the stature of a Colin Powell, someone with direct access to the President.”

Sure, remember the Alamo. But don’t be afraid to adapt, and to earn, not just demand, new support.

Shelby called for a hiring drive for new young agents, wooing the best college graduates. And he said the National Security Agency was in urgent need of modernization. Simply put, the nation at the cutting edge of the information revolution lacks hard, reliable facts and leads. Another source, specializing in intelligence oversight, says: “Let’s face it, the investment is running to around $30 billion a year, if you put the CIA and FBI counterterror programs together. That’s a lot of money for the return we’re getting right now, and more and more people are admitting that the setup is messed up, and that we’ve got to get it fixed, and soon.”

So there’s the paradox. Many Washington insiders are quick to note drawbacks in military and intelligence-gathering capabilities, but are loath to question the government’s record in foreign diplomacy. Penetrating examination on one front, denial on the other. This is a weakness that a subversive enemy, such as bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terror cells, can exploit. The Americans may fill the sky with bombers, but zealots still manage to fill the minds of Muslim youths with ideas of violence and revolution.

At its core, foreign policy is the presentation of a nation’s face and soul beyond its borders. Small wonder, then, that this function of statehood has traditionally placed low in America’s national consciousness. The American people haven’t fashioned their nation, this remarkable commercial powerhouse, by looking outward. Neither they nor their governments have spent much time looking over their shoulders, back towards Europe and Asia, regions still regarded as the Old World, part of history, not crucial to industrial progress and the forward-leaning march of American wealth and power.

It is a wonderfully open country; how can any of us who’ve benefited from working in or with this massive economy and the welcoming, competitive people who drive it not acknowledge with thanks the ready welcome Americans have traditionally afforded to outsiders—prior to Sept. 11. Up to now, there’s been the expectation, a naïve belief among many Americans, that all people, all nationalities, regard their nation only with envy and desire. Visitors, and most especially immigrants, should naturally share American enthusiasm for modernity, technological and commercial superiority, bigness and growth.

There’s truth here: proof is buried with the many nationalities of the dead in the rubble of the World Trade Center. But without a reciprocal, international perspective on the part of the United States and its people, the phenomenal success, the achievements of America, will always exist in isolation—a most vulnerable isolation.

Now, it’s a season of change. Television screens that until recently glowed with images of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit and the absurd business of tabloid programming, now radiate with the wrenching truth of death and war. Today, the shared experience is of living and working in a waking nightmare. But there’s an acceptance, too, among many Americans of having woken from a dream, one of detachment, of splendid separation from the dangerous realities of the world beyond their borders.

We all wait, nervously, to see if this nation can rise not just to the security challenge, but to the realization of its failings in the world community. Sure, remember the Alamo. But don’t be afraid to change and adapt, and to earn, not just demand, new support from nations and peoples. That is, after all, what America’s lethal enemy is doing right now.