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U.S. shifts 'hearts and minds' fight

Instead of trying to explain America, it promotes alternatives to extremism.

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Nearly seven years after the 9/11 attacks spawned the question, "Why do they hate us?" and made the repair of America's poor international image a top foreign-policy pursuit, the Bush administration is taking a new tack in the "war of ideas."

Out, or at least de-emphasized, is the effort to explain America and its widely disdained foreign policy.

In, on the other hand, is a focus on defeating terrorism and in particular radical Islam by largely leaving America out of the equation. The plan, instead, is to promote alternatives to radical violent extremism and nurture the local forces deemed best suited to countering it.

"The key" to the new approach is "that the US is not at the center of the war of ideas, [and in that way] we can accomplish our goals with people who don't necessarily like our policies," says James Glassman, the newly appointed undersecretary of State for pubic diplomacy. "The focus becomes defeating an ideology – not making ourselves liked."

In practical terms, the shift means dumping glossy Madison Avenue campaigns about America in favor of helping target populations find alternatives to extremism in everything from politics and technology to sports and religion. The target populations include the burgeoning Arab and Muslim youth populations in particular.

The shift is long overdue in the eyes of some proponents of an aggressive war on terror. They say the United States for too long saw the "war of ideas" as a PR campaign about itself rather than essentially an ideological struggle between two visions for the Muslim world.

"Helping anti-radical Muslims defeat the ideology of extremists is precisely the right strategy for waging the 'battle of ideas,' " says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail.


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