Rarely has amateurism in American foreign policy in the Middle East been as glaring and shocking as it has been in the past year in relation to Washington’s policy on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the United States during the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to follow more closely than usual news, analysis and political discussions about how the U.S. should respond to the threat of ISIS, and the experience has been frightening.
In almost every aspect of American policy related to Iraq, Syria and ISIS—threat analysis, addressing key underlying causal factors, policy formulation, geo-strategic coordination, military strategy and operations, and public diplomacy—Washington’s approach has consistently asked the wrong questions, identified the wrong threats, used the wrong tools, and applied wrong policies. No wonder it has resulted in cumulative failures.
The most recent disappointment is how the U.S. government (and many other Arab and European states, to be fair) emphasize public diplomacy and offering a “counter-narrative” to ISIS’ message as a key pillar of the strategy to defeat ISIS. This is part of a wider mistaken and failed response to ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other such criminal movements, one that seeks to emphasize and activate “moderate Muslims” and “moderate Islam” or to highlight the brutal and barbaric acts of ISIS as a means of reducing the flow of its recruits. Ever since the idiocy of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror from 2001-2002, the American government has assumed that positive media messages through a public diplomacy campaign would dry up recruits to Al-Qaeda, and now to ISIS.
Well, that approach has proved to be a colossal failure and waste of money, despite a succession of consistently clueless strategies that have spent billions of dollars on television, radio, websites, social media and other means to check the growth of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The result to date is that Al-Qaeda and ISIS today are the fastest growing political brands in the Arab world, and are infiltrating some other parts of the world as well.
What do American leaders need to finally get the point that public diplomacy as a core weapon in the fight against ISIS is no weapon at all, but a terrible self-induced delusion and hoax? It seems that day is still far off, because this week we learn via the New York Times of an internal State Department memo that, “paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine.”
The memo to Secretary of State John Kerry by Richard A. Stengel, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, paints a sad picture of a public diplomacy multi-national coalition in disarray, but also proposes a more focused and enhanced effort to do more of the same kind of messaging using social media to counter ISIS narratives. The Times notes that, “State Department officials have repeatedly said that ‘countermessaging’ the Islamic State is one of the pillars of the strategy to defeat the group. But Obama administration officials have acknowledged in the past that the group is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States is in blunting it.”
The tragedy is not just that public diplomacy procedurally has failed; it is also the profound analytical failure of emphasizing “messaging,” which totally misses the point of why people from many different backgrounds gravitate to ISIS, or simply do not resist it. ISIS and Al-Qaeda can only be fought by cutting out from beneath their feet the combination of policies and conditions in the Arab region that deeply offend and threaten ordinary citizens, and ultimately turn a very small number of them into ISIS recruits.
ISIS’s appeal to those people succeeds because their real life conditions—poverty, corruption, tyranny, occupation, subjugation, colonization, drone attacks, foreign invasions, humiliation, hopelessness—push them into desperate quests for something that offers them an alternative life. Some end up in ISIS—not because of ISIS’ messaging, but because the policies of Arab, Israeli, American, British, Russian and other governments over the past several decades have sucked the life and hope from the lives of hundreds of millions of Arab men and women.
ISIS’ appeal is that it offers a shock-therapy alternative to the dismal conditions that define the precarious lives of perhaps half the Arab world’s 375 million citizens—maybe over 150 million people who barely meet their daily basic needs, have no educational qualifications for decent work, and face a future of almost certain perpetual poverty and misery. That kind of desperation is the consequence of failed governance across the Arab world.
The world’s most powerful country should snap out of its analytical silliness and political dishonesty, and admit that this kind of dark dynamic that is tearing apart the Arab world cannot be fought with Facebook likes.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global