Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Playing for Keeps in the Information War

Today's must-read op-ed comes from Michael Rubin, the eminent Middle East scholar (and expert on Iran) at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Rubin's article, published in the Wall Street Journal, outlines Tehran's long-term strategy for influencing and dominating events in Iraq, just as it has in southern Lebanon.

As Rubin notes, the Iranians use a variety of tactics to gain influence and control in a targeted region, including bribery, intimidation and information operations. The importance of the information tool cannot be under-emphasized; Tehran learned long ago that propaganda is one of their most effective techniques, resonating among the Shia underclass and even the western media. Just hours after the Samarra bombing last week, Tehran's propaganda machine was already in high gear:

"The Iranian government sought to direct public anger toward Washington. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed "intelligence agencies of the occupiers of Iraq and the Zionists." Iran's Arabic-language al-Alam television repeated the accusations on Feb. 23. Because al-Alam is broadcast terrestrially, it is particularly influential among poor Iraqis who cannot afford a satellite dish. Furthermore, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), a movement aligned to Tehran, blamed U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for the attack. "Certainly he is partly responsible for what happened," Mr. al-Hakim said."

Coincidence? Hardly. Some analysts believe the Tehran's information campaign is designed to deflect attention away from possible Iranian involvement in the bombing. While that possibility cannot be ignored, the episode also illustrate's Iran's ability to quickly shape and marshal public opinion within its sphere of influence.

And the U.S. response? Initial hand-wringing, silence, and (finally) some optimistic statements about the improving security situation. Unfortunately, that posture does little to address the long-term problem of stemming Iranian influence inside Iraq. Conventional wisdom held that Iran could never mount a Lebanon-style takeover of Iraq, due to (a) ideological and theological differences between the Shia of Iraq and their neighbors in Iran, (b) efforts to "grow" a democracy in Baghdad, and (c) the presence of U.S. military forces in the region. But even those obstacles are not insurmountable, and Tehran will use all available measures to expand its influence among Iraq's Shia majority.

As Rubin notes, Tehran's combination of charity, intimidation, coercion and propaganda proved instrumental in installing Hizballah as their proxies in south Lebanon, and they believe the same approach will work in Iraq. Obviously, it's too early for Iran to declare victory, but the mullahs are a patient lot, and willing to invest the time and resources required to win hearts and minds within Iraq. And sadly, U.S. failures in the information war have actually made the Iranians' job easier:

"It is in the info-war that Washington has stumbled most severely. The U.S. operates in Iraq as if the country is a vacuum. Sheltered within the Green Zone, diplomats are oblivious to enemy propaganda. Resistance to occupation is Hezbollah's mantra. It is a theme both the Badr Corps and firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army adopted. Why then did Foggy Bottom acquiesce on May 22, 2003 to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 which formalized U.S. and Britain as "occupying powers." What U.S. diplomats meant as an olive branch to pro-U.N. European allies was, in reality, hemlock. With the stroke of a pen, liberation became occupation: Al-Manar and Al-Alam barraged ordinary Iraqis with montages glorifying "resistance." They then highlighted U.S. fallibility with images of withdrawal from Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia."

Rubin reminds us that Iran's Arabic language TV service aimed at Iraqi audiences (Al-Alam) began broadcasting three months before its U.S.-funded counterpart. Today,
Al-Alam remains a centerpiece of the Iranian strategy, well-funded and rewarding anyone who can provide footage that is damaging to the U.S. Meanwhile, American efforts to establish a free and independent Iraqi media have been hampered by revelations that the U.S. "paid" local papers to run favorable stories. In reality, we need to use every means at our disposal to generate positive coverage in the Iraqi media, but the episode illustrates how American idealism often hinders the accomplishment of a critical mission, in this case, achieving victory in the information war.

A powerful and though-provoking article--one that should be read by anyone interested in Iraq, Iran and our future in the Persian Gulf region.

1 comment:

phil said...

"And the U.S. response? Initial hand-wringing, silence, and (finally) some optimistic statements about the improving security situation."

Unfortunately this is the all too common pattern in how the US operates in the information war. I have come to believe that the solution to our information war and public diplomacy problems lie outside of government. We have seen how effective the liberal dominated news and entertainment media in the US is at disseminating its message globally. There is no way that a government agency operating within the political, bureaucratic and financial limitations inherent in any gov't program can successfully compete against private media. However those of us who are pro-American, pro-liberty and who want us to win this war, could create a non-profit media organization designed specifically to wage the information war. This organization could create books, movies, spoken-word audio programs, posters, brochures, give speeches around the world, write op-eds in foreign papers, offer workshops and conferences on America and the ideals and practical skills necessary in free societies etc. There are so many things that can be done and in a private organization we would be free to experiment to figure out the most effective methods. The reality is that we are going to have this same discussion about the inadequacy of the gov't's information war next year and the year after that and so on. But we can act now and be entrepreneurial and actually make a difference in the information war while the State Dept sits around twiddling its thumbs.