WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- All conflicts are at some level "wars of ideas." Even archaic, almost forgotten ones, like the brief war between France and Austria in 1859 over Italian national emergence, convey some sense of a struggle for "hearts and minds."
That war was a short, glorious episode, in contrast to darker traditions of European bloodletting. In two neat engagements, Magenta and Solferino, the French defeated the Austrian army and thus insured the ultimate reunification of Italy.
Certainly there was no state strategic communications effort to rival our trinity of Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy and PSYOPS. But this hardly mattered to European opinion, and especially to Italians -- in spite of Louis Napoleon's cynical calculus to acquire large bits of alpine Piedmont as Italy's reward for French help.
That was because the French "idea" in that war of ideas had natural authority. Everyone knew the context for French intervention, and all about their legacy of revolutionary ideals and Napoleon Bonaparte's vision of heroic nationalism. Even as a faux emperor, Napoleon III was nonetheless the recognizable inheritor of a positive tradition that in propaganda terms he could play to the hilt -- which of course he did.
In this war the United States' ideas -- and the U.S. story of this war -- have no such authority. Indeed in the past year Muslim support that was fairly widespread in the wake of 9/11 has evaporated. Attitudes toward the United States across the world of Islam are highly negative and continue to harden. Furthermore, the various "ideas" and stories from the other side -- the enemy -- are sympathetically transmitted and disseminated, not merely by enemy "public affairs," but by the mainstream Muslim media itself.
We find ourselves in a particularly arduous strategic information environment. In our example, Napoleon III operated comfortably in the still received context of a glorious French ideological tradition, with an instantly recognized "idea brand." Frankly France was also up against a very weak, even a "loser" competitor in European civilization -- the Austrian Empire. In stark contrast the United States finds itself waging a war of ideas within an alien civilization that it has managed to further -- almost irreparably -- alienate.
The strategic information situation today represents a threefold challenge to the United States' info-warriors. Addressing this situation, let alone countering it, is arguably beyond the reach simply of honest self-appraisal -- going through a thorough checklist of things not done or done badly. In truth the U.S. propaganda campaign in this war has failed because:
-- It was too self-referent -- it's all about us, and what we want
-- Its vision of the situation and cultural context was just plain wrong
-- It permitted the enemy to turn our own work against us
The situation requires that the United States explicitly address the fundamental problem of "message authority" rather than continue to pretend that the normal (and initially expected) prescription for a "war of ideas" still applies. It doesn't.
Right now there is no "war of ideas" because U.S. ideas have no authority among Muslims. The U.S. strategic information enterprise must undertake an effort that is both unexampled in and orthogonal to its traditions. These traditions stressed argumentation and presentation, but assumed a shared context within which this war of ideas would be played out.
This means that the enemy and the larger cultural context in which they operated could understand and relate to U.S. ideas. In other words there was enough of a shared worldview and belief system that U.S. propaganda arguments would at least be received and treated.
In World War II, the European Theater of Operations offered a familiar and receptive landscape for the strategic information campaign, especially outside of Germany. But even Japan, which on the surface looked like a completely closed world, had been a member with serious standing in the orbit of Western civilization long enough so that channels for our message still existed, and these channels would open considerably, and play a considerably positive role, in the post war transformation of Japan.
Likewise in the Muslim world, many societies like Indonesia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states seemed to have inclined decisively toward the West in recent decades. But this environment has three aspects that distinguish it from all World War II information venues:
-- It is not simply a question of Muslim attitudes turning sharply against the United States in the past year. More significantly, these attitudes have gelled into an Ummah-wide worldview whose very anti-Americanism is now a symbol of Muslim identity and the Muslim future. In other words a shared negative vision of the United States has become a passionate rallying point for collective Muslim purpose.
-- Furthermore, any locally targeted U.S. information effort is almost instantly shared across the Muslim world, and becomes yet another call to action in the face of urgent external threat. Radical Islamists moreover do not have to make this case. Muslims who share a collective vision of what is going on and what needs to be done -- and yet who may not be active supporters of the "terrorists" -- are the ones making the case.
-- Finally, the emerging center of gravity within Islam is not where the United States has invested its support -- rather it continues to invest in the old line Muslim establishment. But the dynamic center is among the New Islamists, who represent a growing movement across the Muslim world. Their vision is not distinctly understood by the U.S. information campaign, which tends to lump all Islamists together as "radicals." By not seriously parsing Islamism, and choosing which Islamists it can support, the United States is driving positive elements in the Muslim revival, if not directly into the arms of the jihadis, then to an ever-stronger vision of the United States as the enemy of Islam.
At this point in the conflict the U.S. strategic information effort is essentially supporting the narrative of the jihadis. If it is to have a hope of conveying its own message, it must first create the conditions where that message can be heard on its own terms. This means deconstructing the mental architecture that immediately turns the U.S. message into yet another daily motivational element in the narrative of Muslim struggle. And the only way to do this is to find a way to speak Muslims with authority -- which means the authority of their language and their ideas.
How to create this foundation for "message authority" -- meaning, how to get them to listen to us, rather than simply letting them plug what we say like unexamined artifacts into their story?
We must remember that entering a propaganda situation in which we lack message authority is something historically new to us. Mythic U.S. experiences like World War II (or even most of the Cold War) encourage us to assume, a priori, the existence of predominant authority in our message of human freedom and democracy: not unlike the example of France in the 19th century believing it naturally represented progressive nationalist ideas. The fact that we have no comparable message authority in this war means that before we attempt to gain authority we must try to understand why we have no authority in the first place. This means understanding the message that we are actually conveying, rather than the message we think we are conveying.
So the first order of business is to do a rigorous self-appraisal: Is our message too self-referent? By assuming message authority, are we simply reliving past triumphs, while in reality speaking only to ourselves? Has it in fact become all about us?
The second step is to unflinchingly approach the enemy and their social and cultural orbit. Part of the problem with being unconsciously self-referent is that we project some of what we want to see in the world of the enemy and call the desired result, reality. We need urgently to know their world as they know it, and that calls for an exercise in cultural empathy that is unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, for most people in the United States.
Third, once we truly take their measure, we must decide what constituency in the world of the enemy is its true center of gravity. With whom do we really need to establish message authority? Arguably we can do this only with a part of the spectrum of the broader belief system within which the enemy resides. Moreover, this choice needs to be our positive propaganda choice. We need to deliver our most encouraging and hopeful good news to the very center of gravity in the enemy's world.
Finally, the enemy himself must be addressed; not to try to sway him, or even to diminish him, but to limit the damage he does by turning our messages against us. We must acknowledge that this is exactly what enemy groups have managed to do so adroitly and unerringly up to now. Thus the message authority that we establish with the actual enemy must be all about stripping them of the enormous authority that they have acquired, in part by effectively turning our former authority against us.
(Michael Vlahos writes on war and strategy at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He was commissioned to write this paper by a senior executive at the Department of Defense. This is Part One of a four-part series on the subject of exhuming the war of ideas.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)