war on the rocks

A Foreign Diplomat Just Taught America How to Win the War of Ideas

August 14, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

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It is conventional wisdom in Washington that the United States is losing the “war of ideas” to the Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, al Qaeda, and even the Taliban.  All those forces of entropy and intolerance that practice and support terrorism are somehow proving superior at messaging to the country with Madison Avenue advertising, Silicon Valley innovation, Hollywood image-making, the 24-hour news cycle, and permanent political campaigning.

We evidently have been losing this war for some time, because the late Richard Holbrooke questioned just after September 11th 2001 how it was we were losing the war of ideas.  Salon Magazine concluded we were continuing to lose in 2004.  As Secretary of State in 2011, Hillary Clinton testified to Congress we were still losing it.  West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center just released a report concluding we’re losing by even more now.

It is difficult to determine in real time, and our track record of assessing our relative strength is abysmal — recall the CIA assessed in 1954 that the Soviet economy would outpace America’s.  But our jeremiads serve the valuable function of improving our performance, as James Fallows has argued. Even more important is the inspirational performance that sets a high standard for us all to work towards.  As General Jim Mattis (ret.) argues, “in combat, attitudes are caught, not taught.”  In the diplomatic fight taking place in the Middle East, a British diplomat has set just such a shining example this week.

The United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, is departing that post and penned an amazing love letter to the country.  It is by turns despondent, critical, and even funny — please read it.  Fletcher shows how well he knows Lebanon’s people in all their diversity and their politics in all its dysfunctionality.  He describes his actions, argues his country tried to make a difference, gives a ringing endorsement of all Lebanon is capable of achieving for itself.  It is an unabashed plea to care about a country on the front lines of the war against the virulent forces that are destroying the Middle East.  By his actions as ambassador and his words in leaving, he shows a template for winning the war of ideas.

Ambassador Fletcher closed saying “it has been a privilege to share this struggle with you.”  If we would win the war of ideas, being in the fight on the side of those we want to win is essential.   If we are losing the war of ideas, it is because we are offering advice from the sidelines, rather than being as pungently engaged as has been Britain’s Tom Fletcher.

Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Image: Beverly & Pack, CC