On war of ideas part 2: 9/11 as theater
A scant three years after the abolition of the USIA, on September 11, 2001 Islamic terrorists struck in the heart of America, destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing more people than the attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the US into the Second World War. It was soon discovered that the majority of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a country closely bound to the US by trade, defense treaties and by the huge number of students it sends to study in American universities.
That and the mobs in the streets of the Middle East dancing and cheering ecstatically, brought home in the most dramatic way possible that American power and cultural influence did not coincide with American popularity.
Soft power had become so identified with fighting the Cold War that few Americans noticed that, with the advent of the information revolution, soft power was becoming more important, not less.
It took the September 11 attacks to remind the United States of this fact. But although Washington has rediscovered the need for public diplomacy, it has failed to master the complexities of wielding soft power in an information age (Nye:2004: 18).
Almost immediately a startling variety of interpretations were offered. Startling because by the standards of any previous war that began with an attack on American territory, soul searching over the reasons why we were at war seemed as important as the fact that we were at war.
If indeed we were at war. Some public figures on the Left such as Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill proclaimed that the attack was just retribution for an immoral, imperialist American foreign policy. More importantly, they did so with impunity. Though evoking some public censure, their jobs were secure and they were certainly not arrested or imprisoned for sedition nor were they threatened by mob violence, as happened to German-Americans in the First World War or members of the American Nazi Bund during the Second.
This does not suggest the behavior of a nation that believes itself to be at war. Others urged that the attacks be dealt with as a criminal justice matter. (I received an email communication to this effect from spokesmen for a libertarian organization within days of the event.) On the other end of the political spectrum, Norman Podhoretz proclaimed it to be the first attack on American soil of World War IV (Commentary: 2004).
So is this “war on terror” really a war or something else? If so, is there a propaganda front?
The Cold War notion of public diplomacy was found to be totally inadequate – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, that it was stood on its head. Nor has a new paradigm emerged. Christopher Ross wrote shortly after the events of 9/11, “The degree of apparent hostility to the United States and the depth of unfamiliarity with U.S. society – its values, accomplishments, and aspirations – that recent events have brought into dramatic relief have surprised even those who work in foreign affairs” (2002: 80).
This misses the point entirely. The attacks were not planned and executed by men unfamiliar with US culture and society, they could not have been. The 9/11 hijackers were familiar enough with US society to function within it for years while they scouted the ground, made their preparations and got their flight training at American aviation schools.
The mobs that danced in the streets were familiar enough with American pop culture, and the jihadists have proven themselves adept in using New Media technology such as digital videocameras, computer editing and the Internet. Osama bin Ladin taunts the US from his hiding place on professional news quality videos. Al Queda makes and markets DVDs of the murder of captives throughout the Arab lands.
During the Cold War, the peoples of the Soviet empire, to the extent they had any accurate knowledge of American society, longed for a standard of living and comparable lifestyle. In contrast, the jihadists are most often affluent and educated members of their own societies who are intimately familiar with American culture and values – and loathe them.
Ron Robin wrote, "By all accounts, contemporary public diplomacy appears trapped in a time warp… The dismembering of national narratives – the result of what Paul Bove has described as the “transformation from territory-based power to network-based power” – has yet to affect U.S. information management. The fact that the bipolarity of the cold war has not been transformed into a unipolarity of a hegemonic America, but rather into the “advent of heteropolarity” characterized by “the emergence of actors that are a different kind… connected nodally rather than contiguously” still eludes public diplomacy…"
The principle strategy of cold war public diplomacy was the inundation of target populations with information, mostly because their adversaries restricted public access to media beyond carefully monitored official channels. “fifty years ago,” observes Joseph Nye, “political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information.” Such strategies have little bearing in a media age dominated by “the paradox of plenty” in which “a plentitude of information leads to a poverty of attention (2005:3-4).
The US is the premier military and industrial power in the world, one that resistance movements in developing countries have no realistic hope of overcoming militarily, no matter how extensive the damage they do or how often the US retreats from any given theater of operations. The US and Europe are together the primary producers of media content in the world, the greatest contributors to that “paradox of plenty”. The Islamic jihadists have no realistic hope of overcoming the West militarily (though a long-term demographic strategy may well overcome Europe in the future) or as a producer of media content anytime in the near future.
After 9/11 while various experts and pundits were debating whether this was an act of war or criminality, and if war what kind, the composer Karl Stockhausen may have stumbled on an important insight – and was vilified for it. He called 9/11 “the greatest work of art of all time”.
"Despite the repellent nihilism that is at the base of Stockhausen’s ghoulish aesthetic judgement, it contains an important insight and comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9-11 that the competing interpretation of it in terms of Clauswitzian war. For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy – not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless" (Harris: 2002:3).
The Islamic jihadists have mastered the technology of New Media, but any new entrant into the media market has to contend with that “poverty of attention” caused by the information flow from the West. This they have overcome by turning acts of war into grand theater.
Another cultural analogy that suggests itself is the American Indian custom of ‘counting coup’. Among the Plains Indian peoples who considered warfare to be manly sport, prestige and honor were gained by daring acts such as riding into the midst of ones enemies and striking one in an insulting fashion, or sneaking into their camp to steal their horses (their most prized possession). Afterwards the warrior who had counted coup would recount his deeds to an audience in his tribe as a kind of performance art accompanied by song, dance, pantomime etc.
Arab culture, like Plains Indian culture, is considered by social scientists to be a ‘macho’ or ‘honor culture’. Such are characterized by display behavior, the acting out of ones pride - and rage at insults to it. Modern media has provided a world stage for display behavior and modern technology has made it more destructive than ever before. I suggest that terrorist attacks on the West are conceived in the spirit of performance art or counting coup. Though terrorism has produced real benefits in terms of concessions from the West, that too is secondary to the satisfaction from the expression of rage and revenge for wounded honor. The mighty West is humbled by the hit and run tactics of the jihadist warriors – and in full view of the world audience. Thus making the Islamic jihadists some of the foremost media content providers in the world, making up in drama what they lack in quantity.
"The terror attack of 9-11 was not designed to make us alter our policy, but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves: It was a spectacular piece of theater. The targets were chosen by al Qaeda not through military calculation – in contrast, for example, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – but entirely because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized by the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life: A mere handful of Muslims, men whose will was absolutely pure, as proven by their martyrdom, brought down the haughty towers erected by the Great Satan. What better proof could there possibly be that God was on the side of radical Islam and that the end of the reign of the Great Satan was at hand?" (Harris:2002:8).
If this analysis has any merit at all, then all previous paradigms of public diplomacy are useless in this case. Demonstrations of the superior power of the West are offset by even a single successful terrorist act, the image of which is spread throughout the world by the media. The superior wealth and standard of living of the West is interpreted as corruption and contemptible weakness. Offers to share the largess of the West has the opposite effect to that intended, and is invariably seen as infuriatingly patronizing. Giving gifts is the privilege of a superior in a tribal honor culture.
Ultimately the Cold War was won because enough information about the greater standard of living in the West was spread to the Soviet block that even the Communist elites wanted to “eat at the same table” (in the words of a student of mine in Poland). This motivation is not applicable to the Islamic jihadists. And while it is probably true that a majority of Arab Muslims who are not jihadists would prefer not to live under the repressive autocracies of the Arab countries, we have seen that 1) they have yet to demonstrate that they can free themselves from the most brutal of them without help, and 2) receiving that help is humiliating to them and inculcates a desire for revenge.
There has yet to be discovered a paradigm of propaganda/ public diplomacy for this new kind of war, a new way to communicate directly with the populations that supply recruits for the jihadists, while bypassing the governments that provide covert funding and support for them. The propaganda/ public diplomacy that helped bring down the Soviet Union addressed a population starved for information and who were unhappy with the media provided by their states. Arabic media is by contrast, a rapidly growing business, popular throughout the Arab lands and increasingly in the lands of the Arab diaspora. Communism attempted to impose an artificially designed ideology on cultures that were basically Western to begin with, where Western media acted as a subversive influence. Islamic jihadism is an organic outgrowth of ancient indigenous cultural patterns that are pre-Islamic in their roots and are now reinforced by modern media technology.
If, as Clauswitz said, war is diplomacy by other means, then perhaps public diplomacy is war by other, less lethal means. The West has a challenge to arrive at a new paradigm of ‘public diplomacy’ or unabashed ‘propaganda’ or even ‘cultural imperialism’. If not met then it may well be that total war and the brute simplicity of caesarism is the only alternative.