US losing the message war

US losing the message war

US losing the message war
What, exactly, does the United States stand for in the Middle East? More important, what would the average Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian or Yemeni say that it stands for? The suggestion that the United States is retrenching might seem absurd, given that Yemenis can hear the buzz of drones overhead.
Day by day, with chaos blossoming, it becomes clearer that if we do have a strategic narrative for the Middle East, we certainly have not articulated it effectively. In marketing terms, we are not making the sale.
Other nations could be forgiven for failing to grasp our priorities and values. “Don’t do stupid [stuff]” may make sense to the US public, but it means little to the rest of the world, and it means nothing to those vulnerable to the evangelism of groups such as the Islamic State. What role will US foreign policy play in their choice? Have they come to see US power as a threat? If we don’t think seriously about the way our strategy plays out in the eyes and lives of such people — if we don’t think about the narrative — we will lose them for a generation.
This cuts to the core of the policy challenges we face in Iraq and Syria. Many wonder, with good reason, how we can reliably identify moderates to arm and aid, questioning whether today’s moderates will turn out to be tomorrow’s extremists. We know with certainty, though, that the Islamic State and militant groups like it will fill their ranks with those who have been given no reason to trust in politics, let alone nonviolence. Preventing radicalization is difficult; de-radicalizing hard-liners is nearly impossible. So it is smart for nations such as the US, Turkey and Jordan to build ties with resistance leaders and invest in them as a tool to preempt extremism.
The US, acting in coalition with regional partners, should offer a better choice. Our commitment to this narrative must be active, visible and credible, keeping in mind that the prison at Guantanamo Bay hobbles our pitch, as torture did, and as the drone campaign threatens to do if it is not better justified. While Adm. Mike Mullen was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he assigned two staff members the task of drafting a new US strategy. That narrative seems prescient now for its description of the new strategic environment, because it emphasized the need to work with other nations to design a common approach in an open world. The goal is a strategy shaped together with the Middle Eastern world, borrowing the best impulses of the bottom-up Arab Spring and the traditionally top-down US approach to engagement. Our promise to the Middle East must be one in which collaboration helps the people of the region achieve shared values by a route of their own choice. Make no mistake: We risk losing the argument. The Islamic State is mastering information warfare.
What to do? Many perceive drones is our foreign policy, and it certainly isn’t an adequate narrative. For every militant our airstrikes might kill, left behind are scores of Iraqis and Syrians whose only contact with the US came by way of a Hellfire missile. Instead, we need a dynamic partnership with Middle Eastern citizens seeking stability, economic growth and freedom from corruption.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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