18 Oct 2006

The Ultimate Weapon of Our Time

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Daniel Pipes says the West must learn to win the media war.

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen once determined the outcome of warfare, but no longer. Today, television producers, columnists, preachers, and politicians have the pivotal role in deciding how well the West fights. This shift has deep implications..

With loyalties now in play, wars are decided more on the Op-Ed pages and less on the battlefield. Good arguments, eloquent rhetoric, subtle spin doctoring, and strong poll numbers count more than taking a hill or crossing a river. Solidarity, morale, loyalty, and understanding are the new steel, rubber, oil, and ammunition. Opinion leaders are the new flag and general officers. Therefore, as I wrote in August, Western governments “need to see public relations as part of their strategy.”

Even in a case like the Iranian regime’s acquisition of atomic weaponry, Western public opinion is the key, not its arsenal. If united, Europeans and Americans are likely to dissuade Iranians from going ahead with nuclear weapons. If disunited, Iranians will be emboldened to plunge ahead.

What Carl von Clausewitz called war’s “center of gravity” has shifted to the hearts and minds of citizens from force of arms. Do Iranians accept the consequences of nuclear weapons? Do Iraqis welcome coalition troops as liberators? Do Palestinian Arabs willingly sacrifice their lives in suicide bombings? Do Europeans and Canadians want a credible military force? Do Americans see Islamism as presenting a lethal danger?

Non-Western strategists recognize the primacy of politics and focus on it. A string of triumphs — Algeria in 1962, Vietnam in 1975, and Afghanistan in 1989 — all relied on eroding political will. Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, codified this idea in a letter in July 2005, observing that more than half of the Islamists’ battle “is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

Personally, I think that a WWI or WWII style crackdown would put an instant stop to fashionable journalistic treason. Throw one Seymour Hersh in the can, and watch the rest of the cowardly community of scribblers run for cover. But Pipes is obviously correct, an effective Ministry of Information is worth more than an armored corps in today’s world.

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Dominique R. Poirier

This problem has different sides and different names. The matter may be named propaganda, active measures, perception management, influence, information warfare, psyops, or soft power…
In my opinion, Joseph S. Nye is right when he says that America is lacking “soft power.” What he means is that America does much less efforts than before in “selling”, or “touting herself, even though substantial measures have been effectively taken since 2001.
Abroad, Americans are too often perceived as arrogant, relying too much on force and constraint, etc. In 2004, Joseph S. Nye wrote in Foreign Affairs:

“Anti-Americanism has increased in recent years, and the United States’ soft power—its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them—is in decline as a result. According to Gallup International polls, pluralities in 29 countries say that Washington’s policies have had a negative effect on their view of the United States. (…)

The United States cannot confront the new threat of terrorism without the cooperation of other countries. Of course, other governments will often cooperate out of self-interest. But the extent of their cooperation often depends on the attractiveness of the United States. (…)

When Washington discounts the importance of its attractiveness abroad, it pays a steep price. When the United States becomes so unpopular that being pro-American is a kiss of death in other countries’domestic politics, foreign political leaders are unlikely to make helpful concessions (witness the defiance of Chile, Mexico, and Turkey in March 2003). And when U.S. policies lose their legitimacy in the eyes of others, distrust grows, reducing U.S. leverage in international affairs. (…)

Yet the world’s only superpower, and the leader in the information revolution, spends as little on public diplomacy as does France or the United Kingdom—and is all too often outgunned in the propaganda war by fundamentalists hiding in caves. (…)

Soft power had become so identified with fighting the Cold War that few Americans noticed that, with the advent of the information revolution, soft power was becoming more important, not less. (…) It took the September 11 attacks to remind the United States of this fact. But although Washington has rediscovered the need for public diplomacy, it has failed to master the complexities of wielding soft power in an information age. Some people in government now concede that the abolition of USIA was a mistake, but there is no consensus on whether to recreate it or to reorganize its functions, which were dispersed within the State Department after the Clinton administration gave in to the demands of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The board that oversees the VOA, along with a number of specialized radio stations, has taken some useful steps—such as the establishment of Radio Sawa to broadcast in Arabic, Radio Farda to broadcast in Farsi, and the Arabic-language TV station Al Hurra. The White House has created its own Office of Global Communications. But much more is needed, especially in the Middle East. (…)

American technology is widely admired, and American culture is often more attractive than U.S. policies. Given such widespread (albeit ambivalent) moderate views, there is still a chance of isolating the extremists. (…)

In the wake of September 11, Americans were transfixed by the question “Why do they hate us?” But many in the Middle East do not hate the United States. As polls consistently show, many fear, misunderstand, and oppose U.S. policies, but they nonetheless admire certain American values and aspects of American culture. The world’s leader in communications, however, has been inept at recognizing and exploiting such opportunities. (…)

The development of effective public diplomacy must include strategies for the short, medium, and long terms. In the short term, the United States will have to become more agile in responding to and explaining current events. New broadcasting units such as Radio Sawa, which intersperses news with popular music, is a step in the right direction, but Americans must also learn to work more effectively with Arab media outlets such as Al Jazeera. (…)

In the medium term, U.S. policy-makers will have to develop a few key strategic themes in order to better explain U.S. policies and “brand” the United States as a democratic nation. (…)

Public diplomacy needs greater support from the White House. A recent Council on Foreign Relations task force recommended the creation of a “White House Public Diplomacy Coordinating Structure,” led by a presidential designee, and a nonprofit “Corporation for Public Diplomacy” to help mobilize the private sector. And ultimately, a successful strategy must focus not only on broadcasting American messages, but also on two-way communication that engages all sectors of society, not just the government. (…)

Wielding soft power is far less unilateral than employing hard power—a fact that the United States has yet to recognize. To communicate effectively, Americans must first learn to listen.”

However, and still in my opinion, any improvement of soft power is unlikely to miraculously fix all our problems, but just to counterpoise too negative perceptions. When I see the complexity and the intricacies of our modern conflicts, which have even no official existence in some cases, we have to forget yesterday’s security rules. The XXth century was marked by absolutes I find impossible to apply, or enforce, in our today’s world. The war against Hitler and the struggle against communism had to be won, and the only possible policy was absolute victory, or/and unconditional surrender.
In a more complex and more ambiguous post-war world, we do not always face the same clear cut total threat or need to employ the methods of total war. So, for the most part we have to discard notions such as “unconditional surrender” as a military or political objective. In none of the three worlds we live in will, and can, complete victory usually be required or reasonably expected. The problem is that, for the masses, at home as abroad, the pill is going to be hard to swallow.


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