Discussion Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas

| September 2009

Mr. Krause is a Ph.D. candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political science department. Dr. Van Evera is Ford international professor of political science at MIT, acting director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and chair of the Tobin Project national security working group.

This paper was first published by Middle East Policy and was selected by Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, for inclusion in the Belfer Center Paper Series.

The United States cannot defeat al-Qaeda by strength of arms alone.  It must also change the terms of debate in the Arab/Muslim world, especially in its radical wing.  How can this best be accomplished?  What strategy should the United States adopt for what is often called the “war of ideas” against radical Islam?

The Barack Obama administration has vastly improved on its predecessor’s approach to the war of ideas.  As a result, the global terms of debate have improved since the change of administrations in January 2009.  But recent U.S. gains are shallow and reversible.  They fall short of the change in opinion needed to defeat the al-Qaeda network.  Moreover, they mainly reflect President Obama’s subtle instinct for public persuasion.  As such, they could be undone by a change in U.S. leadership.  These gains should be consolidated by embedding them in stable policies that will create and sustain favorable terms of debate over the long term.

Accordingly, we survey and assess recent and current U.S. public diplomacy toward the Muslim world and offer suggestions for improvement.  A theme of these suggestions is that U.S. public diplomacy should emphasize dialogue over one-way monologue.  Instead of simply turning up the volume of its message, the United States should provide mechanisms for Americans and the world’s Muslims to talk to one another.

A second theme is that U.S. public diplomacy should emphasize objective facts over propaganda.  A third is that U.S. public diplomacy should convey respect to the audience.  A fourth theme is that the United States should contest the al-Qaeda narrative directly; an indirect discussion that leaves al-Qaeda’s claims unrefuted is not enough.  A fifth is that new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that address pernicious ideas around the world could help defeat the al-Qaeda narrative.  Bringing these NGOs into being should be considered.  A sixth theme is that conflicts involving Muslims feed the al-Qaeda narrative; hence, the United States should adopt a more muscular policy aimed at dampening conflicts involving Muslims as a part of its war of ideas.1


Foreign views of the United States were broadly favorable before the United States attacked Iraq in March 2003, but grew very negative, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, during the years before the Obama administration took office in January 2009.  During the administration’s first months, foreign attitudes toward the United States improved somewhat but remained negative overall.  Foreign views of al-Qaeda have also declined since 2002, but al-Qaeda still enjoys a core of popular support in the Muslim world.  As a result of its own unpopularity abroad and al-Qaeda’s remaining popularity, the United States faces a stiff headwind in its struggle against al-Qaeda.  Its own unpopularity costs the United States support, and al-Qaeda’s remaining popularity is enough to sustain its efforts to find recruits, money and safe havens.

During 1999-2000, public attitudes toward the United States were positive in much of Europe and the Muslim world, averaging 74 percent among those polled in Britain, France and Germany, and 68 percent in Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco.  However, by 2005, U.S. favorability had plummeted to an average of 46 percent in Britain, France and Germany, and to 42 percent in Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco.2

By 2007, publics around the world widely saw the United States as a threat to their countries.  In fact, many people considered the United States to be the greatest threat.  In a poll taken that year, the publics of 17 states, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Russia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Brazil, identified the United States as the greatest threat to their country.3  Remarkably, more Pakistanis saw the United States as a threat (64 percent) than saw India as a threat (45 percent).4  In contrast, the publics of only four states identified al-Qaeda as the greatest threat to their country.5 Large majorities in Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia did not even believe that groups of Arabs carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.6  Instead, they widely embraced bizarre conspiracy theories that blamed the Israeli Mossad, the American CIA or other dark forces.

Public support for the U.S.-led war on terror waned accordingly.  Between 2002 and 2007, public support for U.S.-led efforts against terror fell from 69 to 38 percent in Britain, from 75 to 43 percent in France, from 70 to 42 percent in Germany, from 30 to 9 percent in Turkey and from 20 to 13 percent in Pakistan.7

Foreign attitudes toward the United States improved in the early months of the Obama administration, but remained negative overall.  For example, the percent of Egyptians who are highly confident that the U.S. president will do the right thing in international affairs rose sharply under Obama, from 8 percent in January 2008 to 39 percent in April/May 2009.  However, Egyptians’ views of U.S. foreign policy remained negative.  In April/May 2009, 67 percent of Egyptians still believed that the United States plays a negative role in the world.  Large majorities continued to believe that the United States seeks to weaken and divide the Muslim world (76 percent), to control Mideast oil (80 percent), and to impose its culture on Muslim countries (80 percent).  Sixty percent said that the creation of a Palestinian state is not a U.S. goal.  These numbers are virtually unchanged from 2008.8

Public support for Osama bin Laden in the Muslim world declined sharply after 2002, but remained substantial in absolute terms.  In 2007, 41 percent of the public in Indonesia and 38 percent in Pakistan had confidence that Bin Laden would do the right thing regarding world affairs in 2007 (down from 59 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in 2003).9

The war on al-Qaeda is not an election.  It will not be decided by public opinion alone.  But the negative foreign attitudes reported above matter.  They prevent the United States from gaining important help from individuals and governments, and they leave space for al-Qaeda to find the recruits, funds and havens it needs to stay in business.

Since 9/11, important intelligence has often come from foreign citizens who volunteered information.  Ramzi Yousef, the organizer of the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the foiled 1994 Bojinka airliner attack, was captured in Pakistan on a tip in 1995.10  Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), organizer of the 9/11 attack, was captured in 2003 with help from phone tips.11  A 2006 al-Qaeda plot to bomb a number of planes in mid-air was foiled in Britain by a tip from a member of the British Muslim community, likely saving thousands of lives.12  These instances reassure us that the United States has friends in the Muslim world.  They also show, however, that the United States would have more intelligence if it had more friends.

The harm to U.S. security caused by hostile opinion in the Muslim world is manifest today in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region.  Two dangerous setbacks for U.S. policy are happening there, both stemming in large part from public attitudes in Pakistan, where the United States is very unpopular and al-Qaeda is somewhat popular, especially in the northwest region bordering Afghanistan.  First, the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and poses a serious threat to the Hamid Karzai government.  The Taliban is back largely because it has a secure haven in Pakistan’s northwest border areas, from which it can move at will into Afghanistan, and because Pakistan’s security services covertly give it direct support.13

Second, al-Qaeda’s leadership has also found a secure haven in Pakistan’s northwest region.  It has exploited this haven to scale up its training activities, to support an invasion by its allies of Pakistan’s Swat valley and Buner district, and to plan attacks throughout the rest of Pakistan, as well as in the Mideast and the West.  With this haven in Pakistan, al-Qaeda can stay in business indefinitely and be free to grow in size, develop expertise and continue its search for weapons of mass destruction.  Al-Qaeda burgeoned in the 1990s, eventually developing cells in over 60 countries, partly because it enjoyed a haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where it trained thousands of recruits in safety.  If al-Qaeda is allowed a secure haven in Pakistan for any length of time, this dangerous cycle will be repeated.  Al-Qaeda will expand to become larger and more lethal than it is today.

These twin setbacks reflect distemper in Pakistani public and elite opinion.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda find haven and recruits in Pakistan’s northwest region because they are popular with the people there, while the Pakistani government and the United States are wildly unpopular.  As Jane Perlez of The New York Times reports, “Many Pakistanis ... see the militants not as the enemy, but as fellow Muslims who are deserving of greater sympathy than are the American aims.”14

Pakistan’s security services support the Taliban and give al-Qaeda wide latitude in the northwest partly because the United States has not pressed Pakistan’s government to cooperate fully with its policies.  In turn, Washington has curbed its demands on Pakistan out of fear that public and elite Pakistani support for Pakistan’s government might crumble, bringing on its downfall, if that government became too identified with U.S. policies.15  America’s hands are tied by Pakistani public attitudes.  This is the price the United States pays for being viewed by Pakistanis as the main threat to their country and for Bin Laden’s continuing popularity with the Pakistani people.

Robert Keohane and Peter Katzenstein have argued that “cooperation between the United States and its allies, on issues such as terrorism … has not been disrupted” by anti-Americanism.16  Conditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan offer important evidence to the contrary.  Pakistani anti-Americanism has disrupted Islamabad’s cooperation with U.S. counterterror efforts in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.  The government of Pakistan will not be a reliable ally against al-Qaeda and the Taliban until the terms of debate in Pakistan are changed.  Al-Qaeda must be discredited with the Pakistani public, and the legitimacy of the United States must be restored.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Krause, Peter and Stephen Van Evera. “Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas.” Discussion Paper, 09-10, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 2009.

The Authors