Less PR, Better Policies? Getting America's Strategic Communication with the Muslim World Right
AEI Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
About This Event

In a widely-reported article for the October 2009 issue of Joint Force Quarterly, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes that when it comes to strategic communication, the U.S. is bungling its outreach to the Muslim world. But he goes on to argue that this is Listen to Audio

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not because the U.S. lacks proper communication tools, but rather because America's message lacks credibility. He writes, "I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

Admiral Mullen has laid out an interesting alternative view of the problems besetting Washington's public diplomacy and outreach to the Muslim world. Is he right? Or, in fact, is America also lacking both the tools and the right message to reach Muslims? At this AEI event on September 17, leading scholars will offer their insights on these pressing questions.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, SEPTEMBER 17, 2009--Opening the panel with a discussion of Admiral Mullen's widely reported article in the October 2009 issue of Joint Force Quarterly, "Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics," AEI resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies Gary Schmitt said "there is a lot of common sense to what Admiral Mullen is saying: our actions do matter." In his article, Mullen argued that the United States is bungling its outreach to the Muslim world, not because the United States lacks proper communication tools, but rather because America's message lacks credibility in the eyes of many Muslims. AEI's guest panelists shared Admiral Mullen's assessment that our actions need to be properly explained, and they offered their own insights into how to improve America's public relations efforts with this pivotal segment of the world's population.

In his opening remarks, Jeff Gedmin of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty emphasized that it is critical for the United States "to create an agenda, to think through our policies, to develop the capability to execute those policies, and to push for their implementation." This, according to Gedmin, is what the United States "need[s] for effective public diplomacy and strategic communication." Crediting Admiral Mullen with starting an important debate, Gedmin argued that America's "actions alone don't suffice" in the area of strategic communication. Gedmin lamented the fact that "the U.S. didn't gain much street credit" in Muslim capitals such as Riyadh, Tripoli, and Damascus when the United States deployed its military to protect Muslim lives in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In the final analysis, Gedmin concluded, "the U.S. has to over-perform and over-inform, challenge the message of extremism, and invest in a policy of patience" if its efforts at effective strategic communication are to succeed.

"Trying to make even a modest course correction" in the large ship that is strategic communication, "is very difficult," Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy remarked. Above all, Satloff argued, U.S. strategic communication needs to do a better job at underscoring our "common values and shared interests" in an effort to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and the world's Muslim communities. Striking a note of distinct self-criticism, Satloff said the United States "has adopted an almost bigoted attitude toward the Muslim world." According to Satloff, the United States seems to believe the Muslim world is "somehow not ready for serious engagement." In essence, Satloff decried the notion that the United States does not treat Muslims as seriously as they should be treated. Satloff argued that Admiral Mullen's article did not go quite far enough. In his view, the United States "should judge Muslims by their actions" and hold them to the same standards that we hold ourselves.

"The test of a good piece, such as the one by Admiral Mullen, is its ability to generate a strong debate," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Drew University in his opening statement.  Echoing some of Satloff's remarks, Ibrahim stressed that it is essential "to look at what Muslims do and not just what they say." To this end, Ibrahim emphasized the need on the part of the Western world in general, and the United States in particular, to disaggregate and demystify the term "Muslim world." It is not possible, Ibrahim contended, to treat the entire Muslim world in a uniform fashion as though it were one cohesive community. With this in mind, Ibrahim argued that there is "a hidden, subtle admiration for the U.S." in the Muslim world on which the United States should capitalize to improve its standing with the world's Muslim communities. Ibrahim said the Muslim world's sincere appreciation for America's strong democratic institutions, technological knowledge, and unrivaled centers of higher learning can serve as a catalyst for a renewed rapprochement. Most importantly, however, Ibrahim emphasized the central importance of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policymaking.

In closing, the speakers agreed that effective strategic communication must be based on three critical elements: it has to be local and specific; it has to be credible and independent; and, above all, it has to be fast to ensure America's enemies do not stand a chance in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.



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Speaker biographies

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI. Her research areas include the Middle East, South Asia, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. Before coming to AEI, Ms. Pletka served for ten years as a senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Since joining AEI, Ms. Pletka has developed a conference series on rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, directed a project on democracy in the Arab world, and designed a project to track global business in Iran. She was a member of the congressionally mandated U.S. Institute of Peace Task Force on the United Nations, which released its final report in 2005. She recently coedited Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats (AEI Press, 2008) and coauthored the 2008 AEI report Iranian Influence in the Levant, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI, where he is director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies. Prior to coming to AEI, he helped found and served as the executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a Washington-based foreign and defense policy think tank. Previously, Mr. Schmitt was a member of the professional staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and served as the committee's minority staff director. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at the White House. Mr. Schmitt coedited  with Thomas Donnelly Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources (AEI Press, 2007). Mr. Schmitt has written books and articles on a number of topics, including the founding of America, the U.S. presidency, intelligence, and national security affairs.

Jeffrey Gedmin
is the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague. Previously, he served for six years as the president of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. From 1996 to 2001, he led the AEI-sponsored New Atlantic Initiative, formerly a coalition of international institutes, politicians, journalists, and business executives whose goal was to revitalize and expand the Atlantic community of democracies. His articles on U.S. foreign policy and American public diplomacy have appeared in numerous newspapers, including the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a professor of Sociology. For most of his career he taught at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and he is also the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. Mr. Ibrahim first became famous for his scholarship on the sociology of Islamic extremism. He was the first Arab sociologist to study Islamic extremism and he was granted unprecedented access to Islamic radicals detained by the Egyptian government in the wake of the assassination of the late president Anwar al-Sadat. He has written numerous important works on the future of democracy in the Islamic world. In July 2000, Mr. Ibrahim was arrested by Egyptian state security officers for attempting to monitor Egypt’s notoriously rigged election system. His arrest became a cause of international protest by Western governments, newspapers and major human rights organizations. Eventually the U.S. Congress and White House threatened to suspend all U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt unless he was released. The Egyptian supreme court ultimately did order his release, but the Egyptian government charged him again last year for “defaming Egypt” through his work for greater democracy in Egypt.  In late August 2008 Mr. Ibrahim was convicted in abstentia and sentenced to prison should he ever return to Egypt.

Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He first assumed directorship in 1993 and returned in 2004  two years of living and researching in Morocco. There he served as the Washington Institute's director for policy and strategic planning and oversaw its major programs and research projects. Mr. Satloff has written widely on the Arab-Israeli peace process and the political repercussions of Islamic politics on regional stability, in publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on television and radio, including the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, and National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He is the author and editor of a number of works, including War on Terror: The Middle East Dimension  (Washington Institute, 2002), After Arafat? Succession in Palestinian Politics (Washington Institute, 2002), U.S. Policy toward Islamism (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000), The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror (Washington Institute, 2004), Hamas Triumphant: Implications for Security, Politics, Economy, and Strategy (Washington Institute, 2006), Assessing What Arabs Do, Not What They Say: A New Approach to Understanding Arab Anti-Americanism (Washington Institute, 2006), and most recently, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands (Public Affairs, 2006).

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