Thomas Friedman's op-ed this past weekend is spot on with many a post here at MountainRunner, especially my comment last week about replacing Karen Hughes with Karl Rove. If Rove approached international public opinion, especially public opinion in contested physical and mental states (i.e. Middle East and disenfranchised Muslims in the EU), Osama, Sadr, and all the others would be either running scared or panhandling.
Today, the direct impact of bullets and bombs is often much less than the propaganda opportunities and perceptions they create. A famous dead Prussian once said war is a continuation of politics, but the reality today is that war is politics and nearly every act is an attempt to gain strategic influence over friends, foes, and neutrals. YouTube, blogs, and all forms of other media and connectivity everywhere means every GI Joe and Jihadi gets at least a bit part in the theater of information, for better or worse.
Now imagine Karl Rove takes this to heart and instead of the US telling foreign audiences what we want our own people to hear, we tell them the truth about their false idols?
Propaganda coups like Abu Gharib and even the Urban Tourniquet aren't met by American messaging (I dare not use the P-word for in America thou taints thyself on use) based on facts. In fact, they aren't met by anything at all. Remember the "blooper" video of the "fearsome" Zarqawi unable to handle his gun while wearing his spiffy white New Balance shoes? What an opportunity to mock the man, but we were limited because the US had built him up to be something he wasn't (or at least much more than the thug he was). And then there's Sadr and his childlike rants to his subordinates?
The concern over US internal heat must be a significant reason we stay away from the perversions of Islam by al-Qaeda, Taliban, etc. More than one tactical information operation was compromised to the point of being ineffective and a waste by senior US officials meddling in a message so that it didn't offend their sensibilities without regard to the audience.
This is a psychological fight of survival that we are, at best, barely participating in. Those that talk about "winning hearts and minds" are often referring to some neutered beauty contest that ignores the stick that accompanied the phrases origin in history, especially recent counterinsurgency history. Today, we are in an active struggle for minds and will to support our vision and against our enemy's. (This is the real lesson to be gained from re-reading George Kennan today, not containment.)
If we put Rove in charge, he'd sure Swift Boat the hell out of the opposition, exposing the outright lies, criminality, and self-serving contortions of religion propagated by insurgents and terrorists used to so effectively to build themselves up as larger, more powerful, and more representative than they really are. Their success is measured in more money, supplies, safe houses, and recruits at the expense of trust, legitimacy, and influence of the US.
But he is not and the US has become so marginalized by its own actions and by inaction in the information sphere that in places that insurgents and terrorists that we're no longer key targets.
We must also stop shooting ourselves in the ass with stupid behavior and stop ignoring the behavior happened. For too long we've relied on the defense of "that's not who we are, I shouldn't need to tell you." We've burned through our goodwill and we no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Any negative act on our part is thus blown way out of proportion because it simply fits with the mental images the world has been assembling of us.
What if our guys, or even UN or NGO personnel, had serial numbers written on their foreheads with Sharpies? Would it be worse than on the inside of the forearm? Would we allow that in cataloguing technique in the US? How is this different today, in Iraq? Would Rove allow this to happen?
America's failure to not just participate in but to even understand the information war is not a noble act of avoiding "propaganda", but one of implicit suicide as the enemy shapes itself into a more awesome and fearsome enemy than it is, gaining more and more support from around the globe, all at the expense of American national security. To be sure, this does not mean America's foreign policies are not to blame, far from it, but it does not mean we should be silent to enemy propaganda and we must acknowledge and respond swiftly and decisively.
How have we allowed videos of improvised explosive devices killing our guys to become effective promotion materials for the enemy? IEDs are unanswered propaganda weapons that kill Coalition Forces as a convenient side-effect. While IEDs cannot kill enough personnel or destroy enough material to reduce or eliminate American operational capabilities, they influence the public's perception of security in Iraq impacting the debate over the war.
Karen Hughes' apt, and yet incompetent, selection of the phrase "diplomacy of deeds" was more accurate than she intended. Both sides in the conflict in Iraq and the Long War in general are using "propaganda of deeds". For the insurgent/terrorist, it is as designed: using violence to draw attention to, generate publicity for, and inform, educate, and rally the masses behind revolution. The American propaganda of deed is lack of clarification, response, and correction of "bad" actions that then get cast as intentional deeds by the enemy.
We have lots of tactical successes that are slowly adding up to strategic success, the PRTs are doing a heck of job and the prison system is being reformed, but no one would know. No one knows how we're really doing or if we're getting closer to winning because no one counters the bad information. I doubt Karl Rove would allow the enemy to dominate either the discussion or the narrative of the war. Of course, there's the drawback of Karl Rove overplaying issues, so maybe Rove isn't the guy. But, he'd still put together a better international communications strategy than we currently have. If wed had a good to decent communications strategy, we would probably have started with a better action plan because the understanding "diplomacy of deeds" would force it.
(Thanks Sean M for sending me Friedman's op-ed... I'd like to think Friedman read my comments, but somehow I doubt it.)