Required Reading: The Spectacle of War by Andrew Exum

Read Andrew Exum's excellent The Spectacle of War: Insurgent video propaganda and Western response (or PDF version here) at Arab Media & Society.  Andrew describes what I call precision-guided media to mobilize supporters through a combination of traditional media such as radio and television, to New Media like websites, discussion boards, YouTube, and SMS.  Modern insurgents have moved well beyond the international sympathy of the Zapatista to, as Andrew describes, fostering and relying on a re-interpretation of nationalism to mobilize and elicit responses near and far. An excerpt:

A key difference between the kind of insurgent propaganda broadcast by Hizbullah in the 1990s and the kind broadcast by the insurgents of Iraq is that whereas the propaganda broadcast by Hizbullah was often aimed at its enemy, Israel, the propaganda broadcast by the insurgents of Iraq is neither aimed at the Americans nor, for the most part, Iraqis. As evidenced by the languages in which BaghdadSniper is available, much of this propaganda is aimed at inflaming young Muslims spread from Lahore to London. It’s having an effect, too. A recent study by al-Qaeda expert Jason Burke demonstrated that insurgent propaganda videos on the internet had played a significant role in the radicalization process of young British Muslims convicted of planning or carrying out attacks on civilian targets in the UK.

Audrey Kurth Cronin describes the process by which young Muslims are radicalized via insurgent propaganda on the internet, a kind of “cyber-mobilization” revolutionizing warfare to the degree that Napoleon’s levée en masse revolutionized continental warfare at the end of the 18th Century. When the armies of Napoleon marched across Europe, France’s enemies were caught off-guard by the size of the armies and the way in which they were quickly raised from the whole of the population. In the same way, the militaries and security services of traditional nation-states in the West and Middle East could be surprised by the way in which jihadist armies are raised and deployed, drawn as they are from the disaffected children of the Egyptian middle class and the residents of the slums of Paris and London both. For both, the insurgent propaganda functions as a kind of empowering “call to arms.” British journalist Amil Khan, who has worked extensively with radicalized youths in the UK, says the following:

These videos give you an alternative narrative. Instead of feeling like your community is powerless or weak, they give you the sense that ‘your people’ can be strong – and even stronger than the world’s leading powers. It’s a seductive alternative to the self-image many Muslims, you and old, have that their community, the umma, couldn’t organize a picnic much less challenge the world’s only superpower.

One of the most important take-aways from Andrew's article is what he doesn't talk about.  He describes strategic communication by the insurgents that incorporates violent, military footage.  But the political-military objectives have a socio-political foundation based on socio-economic disenfranchisement and cultural, religious, and ethnic connections.  Andrew, naturally, focuses on the American military response to adversarial propaganda and misinformation, but what about the State Department and the other non-military information assets in the United States?  Those are not, unsurprisingly, mentioned.  Why?  Because the Defense Department is the only institution funded and staffed to address adversarial propaganda and misinformation.  It also has the educational float to send its experts to its own educational system for extended periods to devise new doctrine and train the future cadre of practitioners.

Today, as Andrew points out by omission, American public diplomacy wears combat boots as civilian institutions languish, engaged in a kind of neutered beauty contest more typical of the end of the Cold War than the beginning.  For the entire twentieth century, strategic communication that targeted foreign and domestic public opinion had been a civilian function.  From the Committee for Public Information in World War I, the Office of War Information and the Voice of America in World War II, through the United States Information Agency and the numerous language radio stations and other State Department public diplomacy missions such as cultural exchange, strategic and tactical communication, was the responsibility of civilian institutions.  This was called public diplomacy even though, in the words of Edward Gullion, propaganda was "the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing."

In examining America's ability to react and respond to insurgent propaganda, Andrew rightly calls Smith-Mundt into question as a functional barrier to Defense Department operations (Andrew, thanks for the shout out, by the way).  Andrew is correct in attributing DOD inaction on Smith-Mundt, but it should be characterized as a DOD interpretation of the Act.  This interpretation, which is unevenly and at times illogically invoked, is surprising to many on the public diplomacy side of American strategic and tactical communication, especially United States Information Agency veterans.  I noted in a post some six months ago that former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) Karen Hughes was surprised to learn just a couple of months before leaving office that DOD believed itself to be covered by Smith-Mundt.

In describing the imperative for U.S. acknowledgement of the problem, Andrew could have written the following:

As important as any fact in the field of foreign policy today, and perhaps much the most important, is the fact that the Insurgents have declared psychological war on the United States, all over the world.  It is a war of ideology and a fight unto the death.

Andrew didn't write that, though.  Replace Insurgents with Russians and you have a quote attributed to Ambassador Averell Harriman in October 1946.  This was the thinking behind Smith-Mundt: to create and make permanent the  institutions to fight the war of information.  Ironically, Smith-Mundt was passed sixty years ago to address the very failure Andrew discusses.  The Act was not intended as the prophylactic most think of it as today, especially those in DOD.  The purpose of Smith-Mundt was to institutionalize and make permanent civilian strategic and tactical communication capabilities through truthful information propagation, education, and cultural exchange to counter misinformation.  Today, this capacity is too often absent and incapable in the contested spaces to warrant barely a footnote by Andrew on Radio Sawa.  As he notes, our messages are too often silenced on the take-off because of fears of influencing instead of informing.  The messages are too often shaped by how they'll play in Iowa than in the target audience.  Or, they are just plain bad and counterproductive.  This was what Smith-Mundt fixed.

There is more on the Smith-Mundt issue to come.

For now, go read Andrew's article.  It is your weekend or Monday assignment.

See Also: