The war we are losing

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

September 4, 2003

An irony of the present chaotic world is that while America’s youth culture has vaulted every hurdle placed by the mullahs of Iran to the guardians of the French language, the U.S.’ political message is not getting through. From Casablanca to Sapporo the U.S. is losing the battle to instill some rationality in examining the problems of an increasing complicated world.

Part and parcel of the problem is, of course, the damage we do ourselves. Americans at home without access to foreign media cannot appreciate how often domestic criticism of U.S. policy, attitudes, and our society are trumpeted in the foreign media to discredit Washington policy. More often than not, it is simply the dominance of the torrent of news which pours out onto the world from our elaborate media. Obviously, nothing can be done about that Ý what we are trying to sell much of the world is this same openness to self-criticism.

Another aspect of the problem, as it is of is with so many, is the lack of U.S. government institutional memory. Only a decade since the implosion of the Soviet Union the whole paraphernalia fighting the cultural as well as the military and diplomatic aspects of the Cold War is gone and forgotten. It is as though the institutions created to fight that war never existed. Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe still exists, but for the most part, it is fighting old battles long since won. One or two efforts created by the Congress are ignored by a State Dept. too sure it knows diplomacy is only for diplomats.

Although we have a life and death struggle to remake Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, a commensurate effort to put our voice into the forefront is being left to others. Unfortunately, those “others” are the unbelievably vituperative kept media of even the so-called moderate Arab states, spewing out slander unimaginable to most Americans were they to read its translations.

We have shot ourselves in the foot, for example, by treating the so-called Al Jezeera network Ý Osama Bin Laden’s favorite propaganda instrument — as objective media. The State Dept. spent millions on a documentary film on how Moslem families thrived in America Ý never, apparently, suspecting even the so-called moderate countries would not air it.

Although we are spending billions on the Iraq effort, apparently little or no thought has been given to introducing massive TV coverage into Iraq, satellite radio and TV for the region. [During the pre-satellite Cold War years we put up booster transmitters in such odd places as Liberia, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, in an effort to get our message through to the Soviet Empire.] An effort by the Pentagon to set up psychological warfare got caught up in turf battles, raising a hue and cry from The New York Times that our leaders were trying to brainwash the public through a feedback of black propaganda from abroad,. It’s now consigned to the tender mercies of White House interagency handling’s dead zone.

Nowhere is the painful situation more apparent than in South Korea. There we allow a combination of nationalist sentiment, a vast network of North Korean agents, a naēve government, and our own incompetence [leaving a major U.S. base in the heart of a crowded and busy city like Seoul] to destroy the good feeling of half century’s alliance forged in blood. We shy away from reminding the South Koreans Pyongyang is responsible for huge civilian as well as military Korean War dead, repeated violations of the armistice, unspeakable assassination attacks on their leaders, kidnapping of their fellow countrymen, etc., etc. Why not remind young demonstrators in Seoul them Ý in their orgy of chauvinism Ý that the North Korean regime has murdered more than two million of their fellow Koreans in induced famine? Why not advertise the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who have fled into China? When defectors walk into American embassies, why not blast their stories into every South Korean home? Perhaps the idea of a special immigration quota for 350,000 Korean refugees in China would somehow shame South Korean public opinion?

No, none of this is going to solve the horrendous problem of a nuclear armed North Korean peddling its wares to pariah states, even nonstate international terrorists. But the U.S. government used to understand that ideas had consequences, that by spreading an exchange of ideas, we were undermining totalitarian structures. And, in fact, it did. No one who has spoken to central and east European intellectuals thinks Ý as those who opposed him in the White House did not at the time Ý that Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” were inconsequential in the final peaceful overthrow of those tyrannies.

It’s time to remember that ideas can be weapons if they are used.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

September 4, 2003

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