TCS Daily

We Invented It. Let's Use It

By Hampton Stephens - August 24, 2005 12:00 AM

As the "global war on terrorism" enters its fifth year, it has become increasingly evident that the United States and its allies are involved in an ideological war, in which propaganda and moral suasion will play a large part. Some Bush administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have recently jettisoned the "GWOT" moniker in favor of the less martial and more comprehensive "struggle against violent extremism." National security advisor Stephen Hadley has also begun emphasizing the ideological nature of this conflict, recently telling a reporter that the United States is involved in "more than just a military war on terror" and must offer an alternative to the "gloomy vision" of Muslim extremists.

A key part of any foreign policy aimed at winning such a battle of ideas is public diplomacy -- government-funded efforts to communicate directly with foreign publics, largely through broadcasting. The role of Radio Free Europe in the Cold War, for example, is an undeniable testament to the power of this tool of statecraft against an ideologically motivated enemy.

But U.S. public diplomacy has not changed much since it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire, even as communications technology has advanced dramatically. The Internet is the fastest growing medium for spreading political ideas, but government-funded broadcasting has not progressed much beyond the old media of radio and television. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are aggressively using the Internet to promote jihad. If adherents of a medieval ideology like militant Islam can adopt modern technology, then the United States government -- which, after all, helped invent the Internet -- should be able to use it to promote values like liberty and democracy. Fortunately, tentative progress is being made in Internet-based public diplomacy -- but more still needs to be done.

Until recently, an Internet strategy was disturbingly absent from U.S. public diplomacy programs. After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States launched two Arabic broadcasting services, Radio Sawa and Alhurra television, but government broadcasters have seemed to ignore the promise of the Internet as a tool of public diplomacy. Comparing the Internet presences of Al Jazeera, the most popular television network in the Muslim world, and Alhurra, the American-funded network designed to compete with it, illustrates this point.

In 2002, in only its second year of operation, Al Jazeera's Web site received more than 161 million visits, according to the network. Both its English and Arabic sites have all the features one would expect from a news organization, such as searchable archives, the ability to sign up for e-mail news alerts and a section of special reports on important subjects. Al Jazeera's "Iraq Under Occupation" report begins like this:

"U.S. and British occupation of Iraq is regarded as the re-emergence of the old colonialist practices of the western empires in some quarters."

Those who see evidence of anti-Western bias in that sentence might hope Alhurra is providing Arabic-speaking Internet users with a different view of U.S. intentions in Iraq. Until very recently, a visit to Alhurra's Web site would have left them disappointed. From the network's founding in February 2004 until last week, Alhurra's Web site was not merely less sophisticated than Al Jazeera's site, it could scarcely be called a Web site at all. The only information available at was the schedule for the network's television programming, directions for tuning into its broadcast signal and a few words describing the network's mission. There were no links to other Web pages. (The old Web site can still be viewed here.) Radio Sawa's Web site does host short print articles and audio clips of Sawa programming, but it is not nearly as comprehensive as Al Jazeera's site or, for that matter, as good as the Web sites of the vast majority of comparable professional news operations.

Fortunately, this unacceptable situation improved this week when Alhurra's new Web site went online. Although the new site appears to lag behind Al Jazeera in some respects, such as the quantity of news stories available, it is a step in the right direction. For example, it will provide access to streaming audio and video feeds of Alhurra programs.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors plans to expand the scope of audio and video streaming across all its Web sites and make better use of new Internet technologies like Real Simple Syndication, according to a spokesman. The sophisticated Voice of America site is perhaps an example of what is to come. (There are VOA news sites in several languages, but not in Arabic.) The BBG says it is also researching ways to get around access restrictions that governments like China and Iran put on VOA sites.

This is all good news, but more has to be done. Of the $591 million the BBG will spend on international broadcasting in fiscal year 2005, just $6.9 million, or about 1 percent, will go toward Internet services, according to the BBG. U.S. public diplomacy must not simply catch up with the latest online technology, it must lead the way in using the Internet to promote American ideals. An effective Internet public diplomacy strategy would involve much more than building slick sites for disseminating news, it would take advantage of the Internet's strengths in networking and interactivity, using blogs and social networking applications, for example, to build moderate Muslim communities online. As an ideology, Islamic totalitarianism is positively archaic, but we should not forget that tomorrow's extremists are assuredly members of the Internet generation.

Hampton Stephens is freelance writer and a graduate student at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. His blog can be read at


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