July 22, 2008

To combat Islamic terrorists more effectively, the US government should spend some real energy on image management, perhaps hiring a big Hollywood guru. Consider Maliki’s alleged insouciance. It’s good for the mission for us to get slapped down by Maliki if it appeases the honor-obsessed locals. Indeed, it may have a double benefit: slowing down the insurgents and providing a face-saving way for the US to leave under honorable conditions to “respect the will of the Iraqi people.”

By contrast, it’s not good that trials of al Qaeda terrorists are held behind closed doors at Gitmo, where government prosecutors quietly and all-too-slowly go about their business. They should be high drama events on Tru TV, complete with analysis by Geraldo and Nancy Grace. The terrorists should be discussed by shrinks who suggest they’re all repressed homosexuals along with other such defamations. The goal should be to demystify al Qaeda’s foot soldiers, showing them instead as ordinary, angry, and pathetic figures. There’s something antiseptic and tone deaf about the manner of these off-shore proceedings. This is unfortunate, because US commitment, resolve, and the enemy’s ugliness would be manifest in any serious exposure of the trials.

Certainly the whining of a Covington law firm partner—complete with dropped “trou”—that these poor bastards are searched for weapons in the same manner as in US prisons would contrast sharply with the professionalism of military prosecutors and testimony revealing how the satanic manner in which al Qaeda does business, trains its cadres, and views the world.  Today, the procedure-obsessed defense lawyers for al Qaeda and the anti-American international human rights community dominate this discussion. The war on al Qaeda is supposedly the good war even in the eyes of most liberals, but somehow a great number of them lose a lot of sleep over the treatment of al Qaeda’s prisoners, as if the justice of our war against those who attacked us hinges on these guys getting the OJ Dream Team in their eventual trials.

One key feature of insurgencies and fourth generation conflicts—such as ours with al Qaeda—is that much of the war serves as fodder for an information campaign. It’s a campaign for the allegiance and sympathies of the largely unaligned masses, in this case the masses of the Arab and Islamic world. It’s also a campaign by either side to shore up or demoralize the will of the American people. There’s a reason al Qaeda films all their attacks; they want to show how strong they are to their own people and to us through CNN—in effect, their ministry of information. In light of this reality, it’s often better strategically to deprive al Qaeda of prestige than it is to talk about how tough they are. The latter makes al Qaeda look stronger than it really is by making us, on the stage at least, their equal.

Operations like Columbia’s out-foxing the FARC have important lessons. They do not tap into the honor-revenge-cycle of the hyper-masculine Third World, instead subjecting the enemy to ridicule in contrast to the extreme cleverness of the government. Saddam coming out of his hole the way he did had a similar result; I heard a Turkish woman at the time say, “He’s a coward. He should have gone down fighting.”

We need to be a lot more clever. Whack-a-mole attrition strategies won’t succeed in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or against al Qaeda internationally. One thing Americans can do, however, is image management. Consider all the creepy political events where some word like “Trust” or “Leadership” is emblazoned all over the podium. Likewise, our pop culture is one of our biggest exports; we clearly have a deep bench in this area. But for some reason, when it comes to the war, we’re back to the Five O’Clock Follies. The combination of too much force, putting someone like Karen Hughes front and center in the Islamic World, and habitutal hostility to the media within the military is making the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan much more drawn out and “kinetic” than they have to be.


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