Pentagon late to the information war

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- A new wall went up over the weekend in the Pentagon press office, carving out a place for an expanded public affairs staff. It is meant to help the Pentagon shape the news rather than just react to it, to get inside the 24/7 news media cycle. Many of those sitting behind the wall will be bookers, working to get Defense Department officials and their "surrogates" on television and radio, speaking directly to the public.
The Pentagon clearly has a need to update its public affairs apparatus. It is historically reactive to news stories and often slow at that. It can take more than a day to get a response to reports about an errant U.S. bomb or a critical government assessment, and by that time the media has moved on to a new story.
The Pentagon also finds itself confronted by YouTube, podcasts, and bloggers - a sea of media it has never dealt with and which moves at light speed. Inaccurate and misleading -- or honest but negative -- reports take on a life of their own, well outside the reach of the Pentagon to correct them or spin them.
"The difference is today the media is so present, so powerful, so constant, and such a drumbeat. In those (old) days, the newspaper would get a story and people wouldn't read it for a week, and then they'd see it once," Rumsfeld recently told a talk radio show. "Here, anything that's on is on -- every 15 minutes it's on, if something's burning in Baghdad."
Wall-to-wall coverage, almost always depicting bad news, is a problem for the Pentagon as it conducts a counter-insurgent war on foreign soil.
In conventional wars the path to victory is clear: kill more of the enemy than they kill of you, seize the capital, and get a surrender. Progress can be tracked by plotting forward battle lines.
But counter-insurgencies pose a more circuitous route to victory or defeat. They are not about killing more of the enemy: the number of enemy fighters killed in a counter-insurgency rarely outpaces the number of recruits willing to stand in their place.
What has to be attacked is the will of those replacements to stand and fight and the local population to support them, either actively or passively.
The prospect of dying in battle can affect the will to fight, certainly. But in a place where death is commonplace and even celebrated as martyrdom, insurgent will is more effectively targeted by "non-kinetic" ways -- through the development of a legitimate government that provides physical security, basic services like power and water and education for children, economic development, and at the same time address the grievances that drive honest people to support insurgents. Whatever the results so far, that is the plan underway in Iraq.
But there is a more important side to the will equation in the Iraq war: that of the U.S. public to continue to send hundreds of thousands of its military into harm's way. That will only hold if the public sees demonstrable progress toward victory or if it sufficiently fears what would happen if the war is lost.
"The only way we lose is if we give up," said White House spokesman Tony Snow Wednesday.
That is precisely the equation. Insurgent wars are a battle of wills -- which side can outlast the other.
But what Snow does not acknowledge is the possibility that the American public, weighing the cost of the war in blood and treasure with the risks and benefits of loss and victory, is changing its mind about winning.
With Sept. 11, 2001, fresh on their minds and the specter of a nuclear armed Saddam Hussein being touted by the White House, some 70 percent of the country favored the invasion of in 2003. Fresh polls show that proportion has nearly inverted. The public is in the process of deciding whether losing is an acceptable alternative to a protracted war in which "victory" is unlikely to be clear or very satisfying.
By Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's lights, negative media coverage of the war is a major reason for the shift in support.
"It is not that there wasn't dissent in the Civil War; there was -- or even the Revolutionary War, or World War II. I was alive. I'm aware of it; I remember the dissent, and the criticism of President Roosevelt was strong. But the media environment was totally different back in those days," Rumsfeld said in a recent radio interview.
Rumsfeld apparently believes negative coverage is the direct result of terrorist propaganda committees which calculate their actions to affect U.S. public opinion.
"It's the first war in our history that's been conducted in the 21st century with the new media reality of bloggers and 24-hour talk radio and news and video cams and digital cameras and all of these e-mails and wire transfers. And the terrorists are able to manipulate the media. They get up. They have media committees. They decide how they're going to do it. They plan their attacks for the maximum effect," he said.
"The media is telling only the costs to us now, little of the successes," a senior military official told UPI Thursday.
There is no doubt that the information war is heavily weighted on the side of insurgents. They do not issue press releases about their casualties. They do not invite reporters to embed to report on their morale or their challenges. They videotape and release their battlefield success -- a blown up Stryker vehicle or a soldier brought down by a sniper. There is no way to check the accuracy of what information they do issue, so it is proffered up plain by many news organizations, if not as fact, than at least as unable to be verified. But those images are there, shaping perceptions.
The impact that media coverage has on the U.S. public is undoubtedly on the mind of al-Qaida and its offshoot network in Iraq, AQIz. But the current chaos in Iraq, by the U.S. military's own admission, is sectarian - Shi'ite versus Sunni, the settling of ancient or recent scores.
It is no doubt spurred on and exploited by AQIz. But it is solipsistic to ascribe the extremely personal level of violence there as targeting the American audience. That is a disservice to the 6,000 Iraqi murder victims in Baghdad since May, most of whom were killed execution style - hands bound, gunshot to the head.
The decline in American public opinion about the Iraq war may have less to do with terrorist propaganda than the coalescing of facts: the reason for the invasion -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, with the possibility of a nuclear device and that it posed a threat to the United States - evaporated long ago. President George W. Bush affirmed in 2003 that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
As those realities have sunk in, American and Iraqi casualties are piling up and the war, at least in Baghdad, is not going well, as evidenced by the military's public and private assessments.
Maintaining the American will to fight hinges, as always in a war, on making a convincing case to the public that either the United States is winning, or that the ramifications of withdrawal are so grievous as to be unthinkable, that the fight is worth any cost.
Judging by the polls, the White House is failing to convince the public of either. The Pentagon's "public affairs transformation" is its attempt to get into that debate. But blaming the media for not making the case for them is not the answer.