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Friday, April 04, 2008

On war of ideas part 2: 9/11 as theater

A New Paradigm

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.


  • At 5:06 PM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    "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."

    I would assert that we finally figured it out, but that we lack the capability to employ it on a sufficiently wide scale. The way is person to person. The ultimate purpose of propaganda/ diplomacy/ psychological operations/ etc is to influence people to change their behavior in a way that benefits us. But, the degree of suspicion, conspiratorial fantasizing, and confusion that is so prevalent in the Mideast is incredible. Therefore, simply informing is rarely sufficient to influence.

    Here in the west, influencing can be accomplished by news, speeches, or literature. Obama can stand on a podium and say nothing and this is sufficient to influence many Americans. We face a far more critical audience in the Mideast. The only way to influence is through action - to demonstrate shared interests. Anything less will be defeated by their intense suspicion, conspiracy theories, or the confusion.

    I noticed that many tribal Sheikhs in Iraq are incredibly skilled at interpersonal relations. They are masters of manipulation, gesture, deceit, and are among the best at figuring out what the other party wants, putting themselves into the other party's shoes, and then commencing to say exactly what the other wants to hear. But when it comes to determining reality beyond the world in their immediate vicinity - that portion of the world that they cannot see right now with their own naked eye - their inability develop a rational picture of that world is shocking. I see no other way to influence such people than to do it face to face.

    "If, as Clauswitz said, war is diplomacy by other means, then perhaps public diplomacy is war by other, less lethal means."

    I think you're exactly right.

  • At 10:59 PM, Blogger trollsmyth said…


    Unfortunately, the picture you paint seems to leave us with one repulsively unpleasant response. Since attempts to westernize Middle Eastern Muslims is likely to result only in fanning the flames of jihad, as it is clearly an attempt on our part to corrupt them, any version of our Cold War strategy is doomed to fail. In fact, it would appear that exposure to the West and western ideas makes a person more likely, rather than less, to take up extremist behaviors. The attempted attacks by doctors and med students in Scotland last June would seem to support that.

    Of course, walling off Muslims to prevent them coming in contact with the West isn’t an option, either. So we can’t tempt them with rationalist thought or material wealth, and we can’t ignore them. Which would seem to leave, as the only viable option, taking on the faith itself, head-on. Which is troublesome for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is how it forces us to attack one of the cornerstones of our culture.

    Will there be a part three, dealing with how we properly and safely “defuse” a culture, without savaging our own culture in the process? Or is your aim at this point simply to properly frame the discussion?

  • At 11:03 PM, Blogger Ted said…

    Since we're beating this dead horse again, you already knew the way it was going to be dealt with when it wasn't a week after 9.11.01 before ABCNNBCBS were trotting out the effeminate mullets with psychology degrees from Berkeley to mealy-mouth that we needed to "open a dialogue with" and "develop an understanding of" the murdering Islamic fanatics.
    Bush-whack and the rest of the Rockefeller Republicans as their manner is, tried to straddle the fence, appeasing their backers and bankers with a perpetual, token US military presence in the region (Operation Human Shield?) as an ongoing wealth-transfer mechanism, while persecuting US Marines for doing their jobs in an attempt to appease the left.
    Despite all the WW2 comparisons, I don't see - and am not likely to, either - any "Why We Fight" films or similar "soft power" sales to motivate and mobilize the people, no recruiting drives or war bond sales. What is blatantly visible instead is a willfully ignorant political machine that thinks it can buy the world's friendship with counterfeit money that's becoming more worthless as the presses at the Mint run 24-7. Again the question begs, what war?
    If this sounds like the way the Roman Empire ended, there's a good reason: It is.

    Selling out our values and getting in bed with the rest of the world hasn't provided U.S. with peace and prosperity as the Old-Money, Filthy-Rich assured everyone it would, but it has allowed them to get richer by auctioning your future and collecting the bids.

  • At 7:55 AM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    Worth two reads. Thanks.

  • At 10:44 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Six, you've got a good point, born of experience.

    Much of the world just flat doesn't believe in the benevolence of strangers - and that includes a lot of Europe, in the Balkans for example.

    My own wife and friends in Poland are profoundly suspicious of claims of good intentions divorced from self-interest. And probably should be.

    Your observations on the incredible diplomatic skills of Iraqi tribal leaders corresponds with my experience in Arab souks.

    I noticed that haggling is a social grace with these folks - and probably practice for more serious negotiating as well.

    In a market, after asking a price, you're supposed to use this as a negotiating point. If you absent-mindedly say, "OK," I've known merchants to then name a lower price just to remind you to keep the game going. Or perhaps out of pity for your social ineptness...

    Trollsmyth: "Will there be a part three, dealing with how we properly and safely “defuse” a culture, without savaging our own culture in the process?"

    I haven't the foggiest idea if there even is one.

    I've mentioned elsewhere that one of the cultural blindnesses of America may be the conviction we all share, that all problems have solutions.

    There is nothing in historical experience that guarantees this and much that argues against it.

  • At 7:57 PM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    It is rare that I can disagree with a pessimistic assessment of something pertaining to the Mideast, so I am glad that I have the opportunity to do so now.

    trollsmyth laid out several options and seemed to conclude that he had exhausted all likely ones. Fortunately, we've now found an approach that works in Iraq. And that is why AQI is making it's last stand in Mosul and why the ISF was able to wage battles in multiple cities on short notice this past week with one of their most inexperienced brigades and no initial support from MNF-I.

  • At 6:01 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I very much want to agree with you Six. So to minimize wishful thinking I temper a natural optimism with the Pessimistic Postulate: it's always easier for things to go wrong than for things to go right.

    However, since you've been there and seen it first hand, I find it very encouraging that you are optimistic.

  • At 7:40 AM, Blogger trollsmyth said…


    I'm not sure I understand how things going well in Mosul correlate. Things seem to be going very well in Cheshire and Mosul as well, and yet a handful of engineers and doctors there took it upon themselves to commit acts of terrorism. By popular wisdom, nobody should be less inclined to such viciousness than folks living in the West who have been through the best and most intensive education the West has to offer.

    Though perhaps the problem is simply that MI5 needs to identify who the Shiehk-analog individuals are in Britain? (Though exactly how we wrangle them over to our side without an AQI equivalent around might be a problem.) Or is the hope that if we manage to drain the fever-swamp of the Mideast, that the rest will fall into line?

    Don't get me wrong, I'd love to be optimistic about this. I'm just not sure I see how the success in Mosul can be translated to Cheshire or the Netherlands. How do we convince micro communities in Europe or the larger populations of Asia proper, who haven't had direct experience with an outfit like AQI, to adopt more Western attitudes?

  • At 4:08 PM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    I thought your original comment pertained to the mideast. I, too, see no correlation between Cheshire and Mosul and I have no idea how you solve the problems in Britain.

  • At 6:04 AM, Blogger trollsmyth said…

    Ah, oops! Perhaps I'm taking too wide a view on this. I was looking for a grand strategy in regards nut-jobs globally. Still, if we can damp the fires in the Mideast, that's a great start.

  • At 11:08 PM, Blogger Paardestaart said…

    The way America is seen in the middle-east, or in Europe for that matter, doesn't have very much to do with what it actually does or is, I think; the trouble largely lies on the recipient's side..

    America-bashing has the same function as the attitude of adolescents towards their elders: it serves mainly to define their own identity..The meekness of America's response to the unreasonable harshness and ill will with which it is being portrayed in the rest of the world has something to do with it, I think - we/they do it because we get away with it. Another thing is simply the ungraciousness of poor-relations towards their benefactors.

    I don't see how any amount of diplomacy would change that; given the terrible propaganda the middle-east is spreading among their people diplomacy would be practically powerless.
    In Europe anti-Americanism is a bad habit, which persists because of the luxury of being able to deny reality.
    Europeans have huddled só long safely under the umbrella of Uncle Sam, knowing full well that he can scarcely afford to ignore his natural allies, that they lost touch with reality. Furthermore the proles have never been punished for their ingratitude, and so now we/they resent the fact that we are largely inconsequential in view of the grand scheme of things

    I don't think for instance that "to demonstrate shared interests" is a solution; the rest should be brutally reminded where 'our/their own interests' lie, in forcing us/them to imagine having to face the consequences of our reckless actions..

    To me the matter presents itself in the image of a parent carefully holding an umbrella over the stupid and obnoxious head of a sullen teenager, who in the meantime is viciously kicking his father's shins; the parent all the time reminding himself that he is the grown-up, making allowances for the brat's pubescent folly and feeling responsible for it's safety..
    And we all know what the solution is to that problem, don't we?

  • At 5:35 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…


    Thanks for bringing this up, it's seemed to me for a while that Europe, though the parent of the American nation in a sense, is acting more like the child.

    I'm going to deal with this more later, but carefully 'cause I'm going to say some harsh things.

    About "diplomacy", in the broad sense of the word as opposed to "civil servants wringing their hands, shaking their fingers, and pleading with thugs to stop being so... thugish" I think it can work.

    But a vital component of it is contained in the American folk joke about the Missouri mule, "First you gotta get his attention."


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