America Should Hire al-Qaeda’s PR Agent

Posted by Matt Armstrong and Ted McGrath

Iraq has become a stage on which terrorists, insurgents, and Coalition forces compete for a global audience. YouTube, blogs, and all other forms of citizen media ensure that every GI Joe and Jihadi has at least a bit part in the theater of public opinion. The result is a new public diplomacy that insurgents understand, and the U.S. State Department doesn't.Today, bullets and bombs often have a much smaller impact than the propaganda opportunities they create--opportunities to influence public opinion and build public support. For the insurgents, the most common weapon of strategic influence is the improvised explosive device. Tactically, IEDs force the military to be more defensive and less accessible to the Iraqi population. The actual death of Coalition Forces from IEDs is secondary to their utility as propaganda. IEDs simply cannot kill enough personnel to reduce or eliminate American operational capabilities. Instead, they give the world the perception that Iraq is explosive. They are also used in insurgent recruiting all over the Middle East. An Islamic version of the story of David and Goliath, IED videos posted on YouTube and elsewhere are the new "war porn." Whereas Americans are addicted to grainy green images of high-tech bombs raining down on the enemy, insurgent supporters prefer images of grassroots combat that sticks it to the Man.

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Bullets and bombs often have much less impact than the propaganda opportunities they create.
While insurgents effectively use images to generate and maintain support-even using graphics, banners, and music in their online videos-the United States clumsily shapes our public image with symbols like the newest "Crusader castle" in the Middle East, otherwise known as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.An example of the shift from the Architecture of Democracy to the Architecture of Fear, the embassy-with its high walls and self-sufficiency that limits contact with the local population-is symbolic of what's wrong with the State Department's approach to public diplomacy. Sitting on prime real estate in the center of Baghdad, it is the largest complex of its kind anywhere in the world, American or otherwise. Built with borderline slave labor imported from outside the region, the unfinished complex enjoys 24/7 electricity in a city that before the war had 16 to 24 hours of power a day but now has maybe six. The construction of this self-contained complex has largely stayed on schedule, in stark contrast to virtually every other reconstruction project in Iraq-including health clinics, water-treatment facilities, and electrical plants, which have had to be drastically scaled down or left unfinished. The result is what Hollywood would call an image crisis, with this particular "deed" overshadowing other public diplomacy programs under way on the ground.Only one of the approaches to public diplomacy above is being copied by others. Guess which one? As the enemy shapes itself into a more and more fearsome force, America's failure to understand or to participate in the war over public perception is not a noble act, but one of implicit suicide. Insurgents can now measure their success in terms of money, supplies, safe houses, and recruits-all of which come at the expense of trust in the United States and its influence on the people.The Administration must stop thinking of foreign audiences as sympathetic and become smarter about how to wage information campaigns. That means realizing that military action is diplomacy, and that embassies are advertisements. So far, the current administration has spent its energies on "Swift Boating" the Democrats, rather than attacking al-Qaeda's image in the Middle East. Insurgents and their propaganda wouldn't stand a chance if our chief public diplomat were half as effective at the image wars.