TOPICS: Winning war of words in drive against terrorism

The war against terrorism is also a war of words — words that capture the ideals of the warring factions. That the terrorists understand this was never made clearer than in the letter written by Osama bin Laden’s principal lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, last year to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader in Iraq. “More than half of the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media,” Zawahiri wrote.

And last week came the 18-page letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, the first from an Iranian leader to an American president in 27 years. The Iranian president concedes that Saddam Hussein was a “murderous dictator.” But he suggests that Bush cannot be a “follower of Jesus Christ,” for having gone to war in Iraq at terrible human cost. He also has harsh words for Israel, which he says has no credibility to exist. He says Hamas represents the Palestinian electorate and suggests that attempts to get Hamas to recognise Israel are “unbelievable.” He also says 9/11 attacks were horrendous. But he makes no mention of the Muslim terrorists’ role in the attacks. His main thesis, clearly addressed to the Islamic world, is that Western-style democracy has failed and that “those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems.”

To counter such fanciful arguments from the Islamic world, the US has been strengthening its response. President Bush has installed his principal media adviser, Karen Hughes, as undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. US government radio broadcasting to the Islamic region, particularly Iran, has been ramped up. But years of downgrading and neglect since the end of the Cold War have taken their toll on the government’s once-effective structure for conducting public diplomacy throughout the world.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the quality of government efforts to engage Muslim audiences abroad points up some serious deficiencies. Some 30 per cent of public diplomacy specialists at diplomatic posts in the Islamic world lack the language skills to communicate with their target audiences. Perhaps the most telling GAO criticism is that there is a lack of overall coordination where core messages, strategies, tactics, and in-depth research and analysis are concerned and a communication plan would “bring it all together.” The GAO suggests that government could take some tips from the private sector in the careful integration of public relations planning.

One of the bright spots is a programme that has brought 600 high school students from the Muslim world to study in the US, and 170 college students for two years study at American colleges or universities. Such programmes, operated both by the government and the private sector, are effective in planting a friendlier view of America and Americans among a sliver of Muslim communities. More of these exchange programmes are thus essential. — The Christian Science Monitor