Beyond Countering Extremism: What About Everybody Else in the Middle East?

When the White House convenes its “summit” on countering violent extremism on February 18, experts and officials will no doubt come up with a few good ideas about how to limit the appeal of terrorism. But when most Americans think about the Middle Easterners, they see problems not people. They see endless war; they see terrorism, they see religious fundamentalism, and they do not want much to do with it. While focusing on the problems and sometimes horrors, we do not see schoolteachers, carpenters, students, engineers, NGO leaders, artists, and all the other people in this “troubled region” who are just trying to raise families, educate kids, and secure some reasonable future. For many of those people, their view of the United States is clouded by their perception of the United States as being in constant war in their backyards, at war with Islam, and perceiving them in general as terror risks to be dealt with by drones and special forces.

Attendees of the summit to counter extremism will certainly call for greater international cooperation and some countries will announce a few new programs. That is fine if done with intelligence and is actually based on some data that is readily available about sources of radicalization. We and our allies have actually learned quite a bit about radicalization in the last ten plus years and we should not start reinventing the wheel just because we are spooked by the savagery of ISIS thugs. The United States, for example, has learned to focus on fostering the resilience of communities where there is potential for extremists. But this summit (that is not really a summit at all, a term so misused as to be meaningless) will and should have a limited scope. Our ambitions toward the people of the Middle East should not be so limited. It is well past the time that we start treating it as a strategic instrument of power rather than a nice thing to do while the only “real” action is in the “kinetic” world of drones and special forces.

Soft Power and Strategic Power

Professor Joe Nye invented the term “soft power” to describe government-supported people-to-people contacts. He said we needed a lot more of this kind of power to balance the perception that the United States operates only with weapons in hand in the Middle East. I agree fully with Nye but I never want to hear the term soft power again, and not because I “don’t understand it” as claimed by Donald Rumsfeld who did not understand Iraq either, but that certainly did not get in the way. Having spent a good portion of my diplomatic career in the Middle East, I do understand this form of power in some detail and it is anything but “soft.” So, with or without Professor Nye’s permission, I am interring, hopefully forever, the term “soft power” so that it no longer gets in the way of a serious discussion of genuine instruments of power and influence available to the United States. Public, people-to-people diplomacy is one of the most effective tools of foreign policy that the United States possesses.

Elements of Public Diplomacy That We Know Are Effective

When I ask my expert former public diplomacy colleagues who serve or have served in the Middle East what are the most effective instruments of public diplomacy, they to a person immediately reply that exchanges—bringing foreigners to the United States and sending Americans abroad—are the most effective tools in actually building constructive views of each other’s societies. Not social media, not official television and radio stations, not military information operations, not advertising campaigns, not speeches by politicians, not crafting our messages more cleverly, but actually real people meeting and interacting with real people outside their own national and cultural bubbles. We have data to show the effectiveness of these programs to support the enormous amount of anecdotal evidence that demonstrates that exchanges not only change attitudes, they change lives.

As Ambassador to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007, I focused on two efforts: 1) supporting US troops who went through Kuwait going to and from Iraq (who, for better or worse, had almost no interaction with the local population), and 2) convincing young Kuwaitis, and their parents, that they should study at US universities. The numbers of young Kuwaitis going to the United States for their studies had declined precipitously after 9/11. They were afraid to go, afraid they would be misunderstood and mistreated—and some were. Afraid of the cross examination at the immigration that could lead to lengthy detainment as inexperienced immigration officers determined to fully implement their own zero risk policies. Due mainly to the Iraq war, Kuwaiti attitudes toward the United States were frankly abysmal, even in a Kuwait that remained grateful for the US leadership in liberating their homeland in 1991. But by 2004, a generation was coming of age with little or no memory of that liberation. I found that virtually the only way to create a greater and more sympathetic, nuanced understanding of the United States was to get people to go and see for themselves. We not only encouraged university studies, but also high school exchanges and English teaching programs. We also made full use of the flagship US exchange program—the International Visitors Leadership Program that brings people from all different fields to the United States for structured visits in the field of their expertise or interest to communities all around the United States.

Strategy: Double Down on Exchanges

At the White House on February 18, the President should announce that he is doubling the resources going to exchange programs of all types with the Middle East. He should emphasize that countering violent extremism is important and that the United States will fight terrorists relentlessly. But he should also remind his audience that there is more to our relationship with the Middle East and we will demonstrate that with vastly expanded people-to-people exchanges involving students, professionals, civic leaders, and all the other people that do not fit into the elite category with which we conduct routine foreign relations. Nurturing relationships with a broad swathe of citizens of the Middle East will not eliminate extremism or even immediately mitigate anti-Americanism. However, a richer more diverse set of contacts will form the basis of healthier political relationships over time, beginning to dig us out of the deep hole that we have helped dig in the region.

Doubling the size of the existing programs should not be difficult; we are starting from a low baseline. The total amount of spent in the Middle East on exchanges is in the range of $35.6 million, (figures were last compiled for 2013 by the US Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy and are distorted by funds coming from temporary supplemental appropriations for Iraq).

The cost of doubling the program is equivalent to a minor rounding error in the Defense Department’s requested FY2015 budget of $495 million. The President’s FY2015 budget requests $642 million for the Reaper drone program alone and another $225 million for the Gray Eagle surveillance drone program. A $13 billion Nimitz class aircraft carrier burns up about $34 million in five days of operations.

Doubling the size of the program would require more personnel to administer it, but not double the cadre involved already. The infrastructure for exchanges is in place, the expertise among public diplomacy professionals is deep and there is a capable retired bench of exchange professionals to draw on. Local communities around the United States offer volunteers to assist some exchange programs. Part of an enhanced exchange budget should support these essential local outreach groups. They are the face of America for many exchange participants.

US universities should also be doing more to attract foreign students and enrich their experience. Universities have generally done a terrible job of keeping in touch with their alumni in the Middle East. These former students hunger for contact with their alma maters, but only a few have had regular contact. This is a community of shared interests, along with the alumni of exchange programs, that we underestimate as a sounding board and a source of ideas on how best to pursue broad common interests in the Middle East.

A Few Things to Avoid in Public Diplomacy in the Middle East

Stop labeling everything a war and going to battle against concepts rather than dangerous people. Both Americans and Middle Easterners are weary of war and wary of any new declarations of war. It was a mistake for PM Manuel Valls of France to declare war on Islamic extremism, just as it would be for President Obama to do so.

We are in an armed conflict with a small sub-group of Middle Easterners, their foreign fighters, and their financial supporters. Going to war against vague concepts of Islamic extremism will only be understood in one way in the Islamic world—a war against their religion. Nor should we, as a government engage in religious debates about modernizing Islam, or go about identifying “moderate” Muslims, as if some authorized religious authority could certify them. Such attempts would conflict with our own values as Americans and would be counter-productive for our foreign policy.

We should also not worry too much about better ways to fashion our “messaging” in the Middle East. I recall of friend of my late mother-in-law who visited Morocco with us. He was surprised to receive no response when he asked waiters in clear and increasingly loud English for “American coffee.” We need to understand our audience and not constantly underestimate their intelligence. We need to evaluate whether some of our official radio and television efforts are even bit players in the expanding Middle East media market. We should not think of blanketing social media as a nifty substitute for personal contacts. We should always remember that how we tell our story is far less important than having a good story to tell. Policy matters.

Change the Game

The United States will have many reasons to be involved in the Middle East for many years to come. Employing people-to-people contacts as a strategic instrument of our long-term approach is essential if we have any hope of shifting attitudes and creating an environment of trust and shared interests to replace the atmosphere of fear and loathing that through which we are living now.

Richard LeBaron, US Ambassador (ret.), was the founding Coordinator of the US Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Strategy. He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron

Image: A boy stands on rubble as people try to put out a fire after what activists said were airstrikes followed by shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, February 9, 2015.