blogenlust
12.01.2004

Information Wars


We're fighting two wars in Iraq these days. The first is against the insurgency, and depending on who you believe, we're facing an uphill climb. The other war is for the hearts and minds of the Arab world. This war is more difficult because as we try to fight the first war, we're simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot in the second--afterall, the killing of innocent people is virtually unavoidable in urban combat. Moreover, whereas the first war is fought on the battlefield, the second war is often played out on Western and Arab cable television. In this regard, according to the LA Times, the US military is trying to bolster its offensive in the information war.
The Pentagon in 2002 was forced to shutter its controversial Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), which was opened shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, after reports that the office intended to plant false news stories in the international media. But officials say that much of OSI's mission -- using information as a tool of war -- has been assumed by other offices throughout the U.S. government. Although most of the work remains classified, officials say that some of the ongoing efforts include having U.S. military spokesmen play a greater role in psychological operations in Iraq, as well as planting information with sources used by Arabic TV channels such as Al-Jazeera to help influence the portrayal of the United States. Other specific examples were not known, although U.S. national security officials said an emphasis had been on influencing how foreign media depict the United States. These efforts have set off a fight inside the Pentagon over the proper use of information in wartime. Several top officials see a danger of blurring what are supposed to be well-defined lines between the stated mission of military public affairs -- disseminating truthful, accurate information to the media and the American public -- and psychological and information operations, the use of often misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle. [...] Advocates of these programs said that the advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the powerful influence of Arabic satellite television made it essential that U.S. military commanders and civilian officials made the control of information a key part of their battle plans. "Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it's never been before," one senior Bush administration official said. "We'd be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage." [...] Advocates also cite a September report by the Defense Science Board, an outside panel that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which concluded that a "crisis" in U.S. "strategic communications" has undermined American efforts to fight Islamic extremism worldwide. The study cited polling in the Arab world that revealed widespread hatred of the United States throughout the Middle East. A poll taken in June by Zogby International revealed that 94 percent of Saudi Arabians have an "unfavorable" view of the United States, compared with 87 percent in April 2002. In Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, 98 percent of respondents held an unfavorable view of the United States. The Defense Science Board recommended a presidential directive to "coordinate all components of strategic communication including public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting, and military information operations." Di Rita said there is general agreement inside the Bush administration that the U.S. government is ill equipped to communicate its policies and messages abroad in the current media climate. "As a government, we're not very well organized to do that," he said.
While I certainly can understand the desire to pursue these types of activities, I'm not sure it is in our best interest. The Arab world already doesn't trust us, and information like this will not do anything to alleviate those concerns. On top of that, where do these psy-operations stop? If they're using CNN to get to the insurgents in Fallujah, they're probably using CNN to get to people in the United States. That would actually explain a lot... If you're interested in another perspective on the same issue, check out Control Room. You'll see that the public affairs/psy-op division of the US Army is just as important to our efforts (perhaps more) as the soldiers on the ground. You'll also see that the efforts of these PA/PO divisions are received by an incredibly skeptical, and often hostile, Arab media and population. The problem that we're facing in the information war is that even when you put lipstick on a pig, in the end you're still left with a pig. Lying and deceiving people about our military actions in Iraq isn't going to make them more acceptable. On the contrary, waging a smarter and more efficient war will likely do more towards winning the hearts and minds than the spin doctors on the television. Unfortunately, I think we're past the red line in both wars in that there is nothing we can do at this point to change things in our favor.