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"Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War"

Posted By Grim • [May 07, 2007]

That is the title of a new book by Dr. J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C.  (Dr. Waller has a fairly interesting background that space won't allow me to cover -- you're welcome to Google the gentleman.)  His Institute describes the book's intent as being a set of "right now" solutions for America's serious problems in the information war, "an immediate-term strategy that requires no bureaucratic reorganization or major budgetary changes."  The idea is that you can enact these changes right now, without the impossible turf-fights and interagency fights and fights between Congress and the Executive and... right.

That suggests a strategy that is less ambitious than Waller's actually is.  He is proposing nothing less than stripping the State Department of its leadership role in speaking for America.  His reforms would make that leadership the job of the Department of Defense.

A review of his ideas and suggested program follows.

At 148 pages, Waller's piece is lean to have as much to say as it does.  He begins by defining the relevant types of communications that the American Federal Government does:  public diplomacy, public affairs (led in the military by Public Affairs Officers, "PAO"), information operations ("IO," including psychological operations, "PSYOP"), all of which is gathered under the general heading of "Strategic Communications."  The goal of Strategic Communications is to understand the attitudes of foreign populations, and manipulate those attitudes in beneficial ways.

The State Department says there are three main goals:

I.  To offer people a vision of America that showcases our culture's message of hope and opportunity, freedom and respect for all under the law.

II.  To isolate and marginalize extremists, while working to undercut their message that America and Islam conflict.

III.  To foster a sense that America and good people everywhere have common interests and values.

Nice goals, but we have a serious problem:  an enemy that is much faster on its feet than the American government can be.  That enemy also has a strategic communications plan, one that is constantly at work -- one that is, in fact, its main weapon in its war with America.  They are wholly focused on this goal, and they are faster than we are.  So far, they are therefore successful in undermining every aspect of our 'three goals.'

As Waller notes, every act of the terrorist groups is more about scaring the people who remain than it is about achieving whatever the particular act was.  Where a conventional military captures a city (say) because it needs to secure its supply lines (say), a terrorist organization carries out its particular act -- perhaps a bombing -- not to destroy the thing bombed, but to convey a message.

In order to combat the enemy's strategic communications, Waller says, we need two things:  we need to be faster, and we need to start thinking of these communications as a battlefield.  We've got messages; the enemy has countermessages.  They have messages; we have to counter those.  We need communicators who are trained as warriors, who see the need to respond at once, and to keep hitting the enemy's message until it collapses.

This is not the mindset of diplomats.  It is the mindset of warriors.  Waller says:

That means that the war of ideas cannot be run out of the State Department. State has vital roles to play, and its public diplomacy and public affairs roles are crucial. However, diplomats by their purpose and training are not warriors and should not be expected to become warriors. At the same time, since public diplomacy so dominates the U.S. message-making system and public expectations are so high, the State Department must become far more visionary, innovative, agile and adaptive in delivery of messages to the world. Public diplomacy must be a fundamental part of a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy.  The Department of Defense has taken the lead in transforming the nation’s strategic communication with the world. It too has critical roles to play in crafting and delivering America’s messages, both of military and non-military natures. The military services have the warfighting mentality that creative and effective message-making requires.

This point, not made explicit until the conclusion, is hinted at throughout the piece.  Public diplomacy -- though important -- is too slow to be useful.  Information Operations "is... strictly a military term," which is a subtle but powerful criticism of State's leadership in crafting America's message.  "The U.S. must be unashamed of using strategic influence," Waller says. "Within the broad field of strategic influence, the U.S. must be equally unashamed about waging ideological warfare against the enemy."

Waller says there are three major changes needed in how we approach the information war.  (1) We need a new focus on neutralizing and defeating the enemy's ideas (breaking their myths, I normally call this); (2) We need to work to control anti-American sentiment, and reverse it where we can; (3) we need to engage the private sector, not only companies and NGOs but individuals, so we too can have access to fast-moving information warriors, whose good ideas can be enacted without the heavy weight of bureaucracy.  (I would be remiss, at this point, not to mention MilBlogger Cannoneer No. 4, who has long been calling for civilian 'irregular information militia' to fight for America in areas where law or bureaucracy kept the government from doing so itself.)

There are five chapters in which Waller explains how he thinks we can do so, right now.  All of them contain key insights that are worth your time and consideration.  In the interest of brevity I will touch only on a few of particular interest to me.

Religion & Ideology:

One of his central points is that the kind of radical Islam we are fighting is an ideology, not a religion.  "Therefore the U.S. can combat radical Islamism freely without being concerned about fighting a religious battle."  A great deal hinges on this assertion, which is thoroughly argued -- and yet.  It seems to me that, in radical Islam, we have a thing which is both an ideology and a religion; I do not agree that we can fight radical Islam without engaging, and indeed taking sides in, a religious battle. 

There are two ways we can do this.  We can set ourselves up against Islam; or we can enlist in a civil war on the side of the Muslims opposed to the radicals for reasons of their own.  For all that we've heard about the propriety of keeping out of civil wars, I think the latter is the right choice.  We need to be helping the parts of the Islam religious establishment that are not at war with us to win control over the minds of Muslims.

Waller is entirely right, however, to suggest that sometimes we can't do this directly.  "There are many other issues that people will support," he says, "as long as the United States is not the messenger."  This is right.  In many parts of the war of ideas, people who are not our enemies will still have to distance themselves from America (through hostile rhetoric, perhaps) to increase their credibility with others who dislike America.  We have to learn to recognize the people who are doing this, and differentiate them from those who are trying to wage war with us. 

Then, we have to build them up.  We can't do this by offering our support, as it's not our support they need to be credible.  What they need is the image of being a successful counterweight to America.  In "The Gravity Well," this was described thus:

We can offer gifts -- not just physical gifts, like aid, but the gift of recognizing the organization as important and taking the trouble to respond to it.  If the organization is seen as being able to influence America, its gravity well will grow in power. The other way we can influence its power is to reinforce its stories.  We should pay attention to its claims and, insofar as we may, help them to come true. 

When we get a Muslim organization that is trying to show its flock that it can restrain America without violence, we should take some trouble to respond to it.  We should show we think they're important.  We should help lend some credence to their myth, so that those who hate America's influence in their lives -- that is, the group of people who are the terrorists' recruiting pool -- will be drawn toward the better organization instead.

Self-Imposed Limits:  The Smith/Mundt Act 

Waller rightly recognizes that this -- a law that forbids us from carrying out information warfare operations when they might also have an effect on US citizens -- is a self-imposed limitation that we need to throw off.  What I think he glosses over is that the law is not merely a relic of the FDR administration, but a principle that has been restated time and again in American law.  Most recently, it was restated by the Reagan Administration in Executive Order 12333, whose limitations are built into our basic military instruction (See FM 3-05.30 / MCRP 3-40.6).  Therefore, it's not just a change in the law that's needed -- we'll need to retrain, at least on this point, our entire IO/PAO establishment.

MilBlogger Mike Lawhorn, a PAO, objected to Waller on this point also.  "However, I don't believe that many IO proposed abroad are 'shut down' by PAOs afraid that the effects may unintentionally reach Arabic speaking US citizens, thus violating Smith-Mundt."  Without casting blame on the PAOs of the world, it is fair to say that this point of law and training has a powerful chilling effect.  One thinks of the Lincoln Group's placement of (entirely true) positive stories in the Iraqi press, without labeling them as paid for by the US military.  The possibility of those stories being translated or otherwise getting back to the American citizenry without their provenence being known was one of the charges leveled by those who objected to Lincoln's activities.  The resulting furor led to top-down reviews of an obviously wise tactic.

This self-imposed limitation is a serious problem, as Waller rightly recognizes.  It needs to be reconsidered.

The Power of Ridicule:

Chapter Five is devoted to the virtues of ridiculing the Islamist enemy.  This is an outstanding point, and one that deserves a great deal of attention.

Waller rightly says that we often offer our enemies a distinction they don't deserve:  by speaking of them as threats 'to America,' we allow them to inflate their stature in the eyes of the Islamic world.  They could not be threats to something as powerful as America if they were not also great; they thus appear to be far closer to equals than they are.  What is needed is ridicule.

Ridicule is dangerous, because it can make enemies where there were no enemies before.  But it can also be useful, in that it can keep people from joining your enemies who might otherwise have done so.  No one -- and especially no one from an honor/shame society like Islam -- wishes to be laughed at.  We should do a great more laughing at these "terrorists."

Such ridicule has to be carefully targeted.  It needs to aim, not at Islam, but at the terrorist and his radical ideology.  Done carefully, Waller notes, "Ridicule raises morale at home; [it] strips the enemy/adversary of his mystique and prestige... erodes the enemy's claim to justice... deprives the enemy of his ability to terrorize... eliminates [his] image of invincibility; and [d]irected properly at an enemy, ridicule can be a fate worse than death."

The number one thing we need to do is break the enemy's myths.  He wishes to be seen as a great warrior, holy even in the eyes of God, a bringer of Divine wrath, a dispenser of justice.  We should show him as he is:  a killer of the weak, unable to hold a town or a bridge against a platoon of Marines, a hider in holes, a coward and a murderer -- chiefly of fellow Muslims.

Ridicule works.  It "sticks," as Waller says, because "the target can't refute it."

Conclusion:

This is an excellent work, one that deserves to receive serious attention from military officers and others interested in the current conflict.  Waller demonstrates a firm grasp of the subject, which is to be expected, but seasons it with information that shows he is a well-educated gentleman:  anecdotes from Greek history, American military history, the Torah, and other similar topics enliven the monograph.  It is an impressive piece.

It will not, however, achieve his institute's stated aim -- there is no hope that these reforms can be enacted without a huge turf battle.  The State Department will recognize that this paper, if taken to heart, would eliminate them as the central voice of America to the world.  That they may deserve to be eliminated from that role, which they have filled since the days of Benjamin Franklin, is not a thing they will consider.

Yet they do.  Waller is perfectly correct that they have failed to adapt, and cannot adapt in the necessary ways without adopting a warrior's rather than a diplomat's mentality.  The best diplomats are also warriors, are warriors first -- the pen achieves its goals more readily if the sword is resting in plain sight.


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