September 12th, 2012

Observations on Embassy Attacks

The above picture depicts a man waving the flag of declared enemies of the United States over US government property on the anniversary of September 11. Some reflections on what the incident tells us about strategy and policy follows. My friend Dan will have a more complete analysis in the morning.

First, Mark Ambinder notes the following:

At the same time, we live in a world where American provocateurs can easily arouse the militancy of Muslim extremists who are more ubiquitous than even I would like to admit, or, at the very least, allow bad people to use extant anti-American sentiment to whip crowds into frenzies.  In either case, innocent people, including Americans, die.

While this is true, we should dig a bit deeper. If the rantings of a preacher most Americans have never heard of are enough to whip up frenzied mobs abroad whose rage can be manipulated by local political figures, the issue here is expressively not Terry Jones. Rather, it is the way we think about our method of influence abroad. The admittedly panicked US Embassy in Cairo reacted to Jones’ provocation by attempting to engage through social media, tweeting that it “firmly reject[ed] by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of other.” This statement’s failure to stand up for free speech has been noted by others, but it is worth noting how the embassy and consulate attacks cast doubt on a cherished American idea about how it will win the wars of the future.

One of the enduring cliches of the post-9/11 era is that the United States is engaged in a “war of ideas” against its adversaries. Victory in such an conflict would be contingent on developing and selling a winning message. Antulio Echevarria has critiqued this idea by noting that the idea of a purely ideational conflict neglected the actual role of physical events in determining the outcome of “wars of ideas.” But another flaw in this idea is that it presumes that the United States and foreign audiences are using the same standards to judge the information competition. Some Americans may consider domestic culture as a enduring strength that will help make foreigners appreciate the United States, pointing to the supposed role of Western popular culture in undermining the Eastern bloc through samizdat bootlegs.

Actual operational analysis of jihadist doctrine has found a remarkably consistent idea among militants that American popular culture constitutes a kind of organized information warfare designed for the purpose of subversion. This viewpoint is actually not limited to Islamist militants. As Timothy L. Thomas has observed, military officers in Russia subscribe to a belief that the West won by waging a “Third World War” by means of popular culture and information to subjugate the Soviet Union. Other military theorists have written similar sentiments about the importance of “public opinion warfare"  and warned of the risks to domestic stability from Western popular culture. The book Occidentalism contains a repository of loathing of Western culture from individuals ranging from 19th century Russians to al-Qaeda. To be fair, Western states have had moments of panic too over what they viewed as information wars against them, but never to the degree often seen abroad.

The implications of these beliefs for US policy is that foreign audiences may be convinced that the US is waging war against them even if the United States government has little to do with the cultural product they find objectionable. To be fair, many of those audiences live in societies with a far different relationship to news, propaganda, and governance than many Americans are accustomed to, as well as have strikingly different attitudes about free speech. And this brings us back to the unfortunate Mr. Jones. If we do live in a globalized world with instant communication, anyone with a Twitter or YouTube account can become a Terry Jones. And they have a right to do so under the Constitution.

Angry mobs were convinced that Jones was part of an insidious American plot to wage war on Islam, despite the fact that the US Embassy in Cairo bent over backwards to assuage their anger and deny a United States government connection. If we subscribe to the idea that American soft power originates from American society, we must reckon with the problem that foreign audiences are already primed to believe that seemingly innocuous aspects of American culture constitute acts of coercion against them—and that any time a crank yells into a microphone we instantly go “off message.”

To play the game of the “war of ideas” as conceived in popular American discussion is to play a game with little appreciable strategic return on investment if it can be instantly undermined every time an American soldier makes a cultural mistake or a village idiot makes a home movie.  That is why the anger at Jones is ultimately misplaced. He is bigot that thrives on attention, for sure. But the US government will always be obligated to protect his right to make a fool out of himself. What is the alternative? Censoring every Jones that comes along? This is not Southeast Asia, where malcontents are suppressed to preserve social harmony, or Europe, where bigots and cranks are prosecuted by the state.

We have already condemned Jones’ actions to little effect. Anger instead should be directed at the criminals who violated diplomatic norms by assaulting the American embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi. Anger should also be reserved for the foreign governments that shirked their sovereign obligations to protect US diplomatic property and personnel. This is not say that we should toss out the entire idea of information operations, public diplomacy, or military information support. Any tool the United States can employ to realize its interests should be used, and IO, PD and MISO all have valuable roles to play as instruments of national power. But we should be realistic about what they can achieve.

And if we are talking about sending the wrong message, the image at the beginning of this post sends one that certainly damages the United States brand in ways that many often underrate. From 1979 to tonight, we have a troublesome habit of allowing rent-a-mobs of armed “students” and “protestors” to gain access and control over US diplomatic facilities. Perhaps the consistent failure to secure these facilities, prevent entry. and exact costs on governments that fail to protect them plays a role in their continued seizure?

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng