The war on terror in the Middle East is a public relations nightmare for the United States and a bonanza for the terrorists.
We're trying to sell freedom, but we promoted freedom far more successfully for decades with Coca-Cola, Levi's, and rock-and-roll. We are losing the public relations battle because we are failing to grasp its complexity. We've ignored the key PR questions -- "Who is our audience?" and "How can we best influence them?"
The relationship between terrorism and media coverage is incestuous. The French government understood the complexity of this relationship in the late 1980s when Paris was repeatedly rocked by terrorist attacks. European officials did not begin a "war on terror" but conducted a series of still- ongoing special operations at home and abroad to attack terrorist groups at their core.
The European strategy stems from an understanding that, historically, all terrorist groups eventually weaken or self-destruct. This has been the case with groups from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the IRA. As these groups evolve and begin to conduct their violent business, they lose support from the public and are forced to turn inward, especially when they are tracked with competent intelligence. In hiding, they lose touch with the mainstream political movements that spawned them and are forced to focus on survival rather than growth. This growing isolation eventually leads to the decline of the group.
After September 11th, most of the world was on America's side. Even many of those who sympathized with the ideas of Arab extremists were repulsed by the attacks. It was a golden opportunity to weaken the terrorist network worldwide. The day after the attacks, France's largest newspaper, the left-leaning Le Monde, ran a headline that read, "We Are All Americans." The paper would not think of running such a headline today.
We are trying to wage a traditional war on a nontraditional -- and PR-savvy -- fringe element. In the Middle East, such radical groups have thrived under authoritarian regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They radicalize in the face of ineffective governmental response to social and political problems (e.g., health care, poverty, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict).
The U.S. must stop supporting these governments, first because it damages our credibility and goes against our basic principles, but more important, because it is simply not necessary to our survival. The Cold War is over. Countries such as Turkey are proving that Islamic nations can create their own brand of freedom without American intervention. Other authoritarian regimes, such as Iran, will eventually self-destruct with the right economic and ideological pressures, much as the U.S.S.R. did.
We won the Cold War with a combination of ideology, well-marketed cultural and consumer products, undercover operations, and, most important, the internal failure of a system that could not meet the demands of its citizens. Fostering some form of democracy in Middle-Eastern countries would undoubtedly be good, but using force to do so represents a lack of understanding of the complexities involved.
We are losing the public opinion war in the Middle East. We have elevated the status of al-Qaeda far more than the group could have done on its own. Our American marketing savvy seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of reactionary violence. Getting mad or trying to get even won't solve the problem. America needs to get smart.
Tatine Darker is a graduate student in political science at the University of Memphis.