Friday, March 25th 2016
“From my experiences in the Cold War and since 9/11, I have formulated a few brief principles for the conduct of wars of ideas. First, do not go into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with. Second, do not go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea. Third, wars of ideas are conducted by people who think; people who do not think are inﬂuenced by those who do. Try to reach the people who think.”
This is just one of the hardheaded statements in a paper by Robert Reilly, “Information Operations: Successes and Failures,” published by the Westminster Institute on its website on November 5, 2013.
Reilly was a Special Assistant to President Reagan from 1983 to 1985, and he also worked at the U.S. Information Agency. He was Director of the Voice of America from 2001 to 2002, and he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy in the Department of Defense from 2002-2006.
Those interested in Public Diplomacy, information operations, broadcasting, and strategic communication will want to read the full paper. It contains so many case studies and lessons that I have broken it up into several sections – (I) Principles for a War of Ideas, (II) The Role of Broadcasting, (III) The Religion Factor, (IV) Voice of America in Afghanistan, (V) Iraq, (VI) Micro Successes and Failures in Iraq. Here and there I’ve trimmed the text, and I’ve reordered some parts of the paper to focus on the topics.
- Successful information operations understand the target audience, have the right message in the right format to reach that audience, and have the means to deliver the message through the media used by the audience. Miss any of these links and you have a failed information operation. You can have the medium but not the message, or you can have the message but not the medium – or you can be without both.
- It is been generally acknowledged that we have been in the new war of ideas at least since 2001. The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2006) stated that “in the long run, winning the War on Terror means winning the battle of ideas.” Until recently, this emphasis was reﬂected in every U.S. government strategy document, including the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (2005), which calls for “countering ideological support for terrorism.”
- This emphasis, however, has not produced results in practice. In fact, the U.S. side has failed to show up for the war of ideas.
- Strategic communication or public diplomacy, the purpose of which is to win such wars, is the single weakest area of U.S. government performance since 9/11. By almost every index, the United States is not doing well. Some say it has already lost.
- After a six-month journey through the Muslim world in 2006, Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said, “I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side had already lost the war.”
- In a threat assessment issued in September 2013, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project, chaired by former 9/11 Commission chiefs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, stated that “even though core Al Qaeda may be in decline, ‘Al Qaeda-ism,’ the movement’s ideology, continues to resonate and attract new adherents.”
- ”How can this be? Why is the U.S. not winning?
- I am using the term “information operations” in a broad sense to include all the activities of public diplomacy undertaken in a war of ideas. There were several huge failures and some tiny successes. . . . . Sometimes the mission was right but the execution was wrong. Sometimes the mission itself was misconceived. Other times there was not even a mission to execute – just a void.
- Failure to do this will be paid, I am afraid, in American lives. Better to win the war of ideas, than have to win a war. That’s simple economics. It is also essential to any lasting victory.
- The single biggest failing on the US side in the war of ideas is that there is no institution tasked with and responsible for the conduct of it – only individual, sporadic initiatives. This is the legacy of the elimination of the U.S. Information Agency after the end of the Cold War. Therefore, whatever efforts are undertaken . . . are done piecemeal and ad hoc.
- This is a product of both organizational dysfunction and intellectual confusion. There are a number of very experienced Americans who know how to conduct the war of ideas in the Islamic world and elsewhere. They need a place to work from and funds to work with. Neither is currently available.
- If we are to have a new strategy against Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, we must ﬁrst understand their claims to moral legitimacy and be prepared to undermine them. There is a theological and spiritual battle underway. We must be prepared to ﬁght it in those terms. If not, as mentioned before, we will concede to our opponent an impregnable “theological safe haven” from which they cannot be dislodged.
- What practical suggestions do I have for now? The ﬁrst thing we should do is stop doing what we are doing because it is not working. It may even be counterproductive. It is not keyed to the essential effort of establishing our own moral legitimacy and undermining that of our enemy. Any activity that we are undertaking in the realm of public diplomacy that is not addressing one of those two missions, either directly or indirectly, is superﬂuous and possibly harmful. We must begin again from the ground up because this problem is not going away.