Losing the War of Ideas, Winning the War of Realities

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In his historic address to the joint session of Congress nine days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush famously declared that “freedom and fear are at war.” In subsequent years, the Bush Administration has variously identified corresponding strategies to combat terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and securing the homeland. Less heralded, but no less significant, has been the imperative of winning the “war of ideas.” However, the resources dedicated to this conflict has been far less than those committed to waging war against Afghan Taliban and Iraqi insurgents. Neglecting this front has had just as many consequences for American foreign policy as has the zeal with which the military component of the global war on terrorism has been waged. In spring 2005, the GAO found that three and a half years after the terrorist attacks, the US government had launched several public diplomacy efforts, but still lacked an overall strategy. Last July, almost six years later, GAO testified a strategy had finally been formulated, but still didn’t know how to conduct the underlying research to ensure objectives were being met. James K. Glassman, the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, only assumed office this past June. Fortunately, while American may still be unprepared to wage a war of ideas, American ideas are nonetheless succeeding in a parallel “war of realities.”

The war of realities denotes the real world domain where fantasy ideologies posit a future superior to democratic liberalism but only deliver death and destruction, where the continuing vitality of authoritarianism is at best a fa├žade, at worst the cruelty of tanks crashing across sovereign borders.


In the war on terror, President Bush declared Iraq the “central front,” and Islamic jihadists concurred, flocking to the country to partake in the defeat of the hated United States. Sunni Muslim extremists compounded the chaos that erupted in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s ouster and severely undermined American plans to remake Iraq as an exemplar constitutional republic at peace with its neighbors. Coming together as Al Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Sunni extremist insurgents launched terrorist attacks against American forces and civilians. Al-Zarqawi is alleged to have participated in the grotesque videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Berg. In September 2005, al-Zarqawi declared war on Iraqi Shia, leading to sectarian violence across the country.

Al-Zarqawi persisted and allegedly masterminded the February 2006 bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra, which set off a sectarian civil war and the deadliest period of the American occupation. Sunni extremist fury was not limited to Shia but directed at fellow Sunnis as well. In the Anbar province, the local insurgency had virtually succeeded in driving the Americans from the area, but Sunni extremist persecution of Sunni moderates compromised their gains. Sunni moderates rebelled against the excesses of Sunni extremist control, resulting in the now famous “Anbar Awakening;” courageous Sunni moderates allied themselves with the Americans and contributed to the turnaround in that region. In combination with the surge, the American counterinsurgency campaign has achieved tremendous gains. In the past year, the once-fragile Iraqi republican government has taken the initiative against local militias and just this week, the US and Iraqi governments have come closer to agreeing on a withdrawal date.


While the quadrennial Olympic Games are touted as an opportunity for a nation to showcase its progress, the 2008 Beijing Games will probably be remembered for underscoring the fragility of the PRC regime. In the lead up to the Games, the PRC leadership regimented everyday life down to the most mundane detail (what to say, how to speak, what to wear) to ensure foreign observers would only see what they wanted to show them. When the Games were launched, spectators marveled at the uniformity and precision of 15,000 men and women only to learn later Chinese Olympic organizers had to “remind” performers to smile and that numerous elements had been faked. The singer had been replaced because she was not telegenic. The fireworks display had been achieved via computer-generated graphics because the city’s skyline was too polluted. Finally, representatives of ethnic groups, some repressed by the government, were actually ethnic Chinese. All the actions were defended in the national interest. Less amusingly, the PRC leadership was hyper-sensitive to attempts at dissent, ensuring permitted protest zones remained empty, sequestering thousands of dissidents under house arrest, and maintaining censored access to global media on the Internet.

In a cruel whitewash, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, dismissed such criticisms and asserted "China… has opened up to the world. … The world has learned about China, and China has learned about the world." Nonsense. The world only learned what the Chinese people have known for a long time – the PRC leadership is deathly terrified of relinquishing any measure of control. If authoritarian politics and free market economics has brought the PRC regime legitimacy, then why the exercise of all-encompassing control? The Games did not confirm the arrival of China as a superpower; they only substantiated the many criticisms leveled against this dictatorship.


With the breach of Georgian borders by Russian tanks, former satellites of the Soviet Union were dramatically reminded of the grave threat posed by Moscow. While American overreaching on Kosovo may have set a poor precedent regarding the respect of sovereignty, there is a gulf of difference between a Serbian dictator bent on ethnic cleansing and a Georgian president eager to anchor his country firmly in the West.

While Russia claimed it acted to defend fellow countrymen in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ukraine and other former vassals saw through the deception and readily joined their embattled comrade. America could not dispatch diplomats or troops so the presidents of Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania rallied to Georgia by joining President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi. Knowing all too well of how the Russians prefer to pursue security, they have been stalwart in defending the integrity of Georgia as well as their own independence. Within days, Poland agreed to long-delayed plans to join the American anti-missile defense system.

Ultimately, the war of ideas will not be lost because it is no longer waged by America alone. America’s war of ideas is one readily enjoined by nations and individuals who have prospered because of America’s endeavors in preceding battles. America may continue faltering in arming itself in the “war of ideas,” but in the “war of realities” the actions of others speak much louder and still persuade many men and women to be at ready with words and deeds in defiant defense of liberty.

Capt. Christopher Allen, a military police advisor, holds hands with Iraqi Army Sgt. Maj. Mohammad Ghazi on Tuesday in Mosul, Iraq. The gesture is a traditional way Iraqis show friendship. Strange as they may appear to Americans, many advisors on military transition teams adopt Iraqi mannerisms like these as they build rapport with those they train. STARS & STRIPES

Chinese students are blocked by police officers as they try to march to anti-Beijing Olympic protesters near the Olympic Park in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, April 27, 2008. AP

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia (L-R), Lech Kaczynski of Poland, Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania attend a news briefing in Tbilisi August 13,2008. REUTERS

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