Is the United States really contesting radical Islam around the world as if it is — as President Bush says — "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century"?
Belatedly, the Bush administration has ratcheted up the effort. But critics contend it's still not being conducted aggressively enough, coordinated at a sufficiently high level in the government or designed to change behavior as opposed to public opinion.
One positive development is that, under Gen. David Petraeus, word of Al Qaeda atrocities and repression in Iraq — and rejection of Al Qaeda by Sunni Arabs — is being spread to media around the world.
"Gen. (George) Casey was not much for media engagement," a White House aide told me, referring to Petraeus' predecessor as U.S. commander in Iraq, "but Petraeus understands the need to communicate in all kinds of ways."
So the U.S. command is aggressively disseminating grisly images of Al Qaeda "torture chambers," injuries inflicted on captives and a captured "torture manual" instructing terrorists how to, among other things, gouge out an eye and sever a limb, along with tools discovered to carry out the deeds.
The command also actively publicized discovery of an Al Qaeda plot to blow up a girls' school in a town north of Baghdad in April and multiple incidents in which the terrorist group beheaded children to intimidate Sunnis tempted to cooperate with U.S. forces.
The State Department's Counterterrorism Communications Center, established this summer, has been sending out memos to embassies around the world urging diplomats to get on television and highlight the "Anbar Awakening" and increasing signs — including poll results — that Muslims elsewhere in the world are rejecting Osama bin Laden.
A State Department memo last week encouraged diplomats to point out instances in which terrorists have targeted children or used them as suicide bombers, along with statements from Muslims that killing civilians is un-Islamic.
The new aggressiveness follows years when the administration was criticized for being too defensive, too anxious to show that the United States is not "anti-Islam" and too passive in the face of anti-American propaganda portraying the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as emblematic of U.S. behavior.
The director of the U.S. effort, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, told me in an interview that "what we're trying to do is isolate and marginalize the extremists, who don't represent a majority of people of their faith.
"We need to confront them and their ideas. I call them a death cult — 'death to everyone who disagrees with them' — which wants to impose a rigid interpretation of the faith on everyone."
With now-coordinated action from U.S. agencies, including the Pentagon and CIA, the effort includes a "digital outreach" program in which U.S. officials log on to Islamic Web sites and counter anti-U.S. propaganda and encourage foreign governments and moderate Muslims to speak out against radicals.
Hughes said public diplomacy partnerships are being set up with universities, think tanks and businesses; citizen-exchange programs are expanding, and there's been a 30 percent increase in U.S. appearances on Arab media outlets — 80 percent of the time in Arabic.
And, she said, "a diplomacy of deeds is often more effective than a diplomacy of words," pointing out that U.S. efforts to build schools and hospitals and respond to natural disasters can counter radicalism.
Still, the administration should pay attention to critics like Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who contends that Hughes' effort is too directed at changing poll results and public opinion in the Islamic world — and not enough on actual behavior and political power within countries.
"Public diplomacy is generally viewed in terms of 'why do they hate us and what can we do about it?'" he said, "rather than 'how do we empower anti-Islamists to stop the spread of radical extremism?'"
Satloff said in an interview that "our mission should be to identify, nurture and support Muslims committed to fighting against those who want to impose Sharia law on their countries," and that the U.S. should organize "a loose, but grand coalition of anti-Islamist forces — ranging from orthodox pious Muslims to secular Muslims" to oppose radicals.
He said the United States should be working harder to secure successes like Morocco's defeat of Islamist candidates in recent legislative elections and should press Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to free democratic opposition figures as a means of countering the extremist Muslim Brotherhood.
Satloff said the United States also should be using its influence to stop Saudi Arabia from exporting rigid Wahabi Islam around the world and should establish "alternative examples of excellence" — schools and health clinics — in all major Islamic cities to counter social services and Madrassas set up by Islamist organizations.
And, he said, the ideological struggle needs to be conducted at Cabinet-level, not by the No. 3 official of the State Department.
"There is no single government official at a high level — Cabinet level, four-star general level — whose principal job is to wake up every morning with the mission of waging the ideological struggle," he said, and recommended that policy be coordinated by the National Security Council in the White House.
A White House official countered that Hughes, who is close to Bush personally and heads a multi-agency policy-coordinating committee, probably has as much power as any NSC functionary would.
The question is, how aggressive is Hughes — and the U.S. government — in confronting not only Al Qaeda, but the underlying ideology of radical Islam? Hughes and some of her aides often are so leery of offending Muslims that they hesitate even to use the term "jihadist" because it has a religious interpretation.
And even some officials who defend Hughes admit that the effort to combat radicalism needs more personnel and money — for sure, the $10 million that Congress is denying the U.S. Arabic broadcasting network, Al Hurra, as punishment for a former official's decision to broadcast an interview with the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The issue of how to fight Islamic radicalism needs to be addressed by 2008 presidential candidates as well as the Bush administration. Because Bush is right about the fact that this will be a long war.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)