Opinion

America's woeful failure in the war of ideas

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, it would appear, has only now figured out something important about counterinsurgency warfare and started talking about it: You need to be as capable, competent, aggressive and swift in the war of ideas as you are on the battlefield.

You need to be able to counter your enemy's propaganda, primarily to the citizenry whose hearts and minds are the prize, and to the rest of the world, as well.

That's true. We should. In wartime, words and pictures are to information warfare what bullets and bombs and fuel are to a military commander going into battle. Information in wartime isn't exactly rocket science, and it certainly isn't the latest in high tech.

Our government information/propaganda machine should have rolled into Kabul right behind the Army paratroopers and Marines or even those Special Forces guys on the little ponies—and into Baghdad right behind the Army tanks that blasted through Saddam's defenses so quickly they nearly interrupted a Baghdad Bob press conference where he was denying that the Americans were anywhere within 50 miles of the capital.

Shudda-Wudda-Cudda. But we didn't.

We should have had a satellite TV broadcast package on pallets sitting at the airport in Jordan, waiting for the signal to fly in as soon as the Baghdad airport was secure. It should have been up and broadcasting news and soap operas and opinion programming within 24 hours of landing.

It wasn't. Pentagon civilians never gave much thought to winning Iraqi hearts and minds because their favorite Iraqi exiles and neoconservative philosophers had said that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators. The only problem would be policing up the flowers and chocolates that grateful Iraqis threw at the arriving troops.

Three violent years later, Rumsfeld has begun to sing a different tune. The Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists, those "dead-enders" whose uprising is perpetually in its last throes, "have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted," Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

He talked about new means of communication such as BlackBerries and cell phones and e-mail and 24-hour news channels. Well, they aren't that new, and they're the media, not the message.

Maybe it's the message, not the media, that's the problem.

Neither aggressive, skeptical reporting nor enemy propaganda is to blame for the fact that the Bush administration is still trying to explain why it invaded Iraq in the first place, and why it did so without making adequate preparations for the aftermath. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fed gullible officials the bogus notions that Iraq was in league with al-Qaida, was buying uranium in Niger and was in hot pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.

That nonsense didn't come from our enemies; it came from Mr. Rumsfeld's friends.

Nor have the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison damaged America's cause in the Islamic world and torpedoed its moral authority everywhere because they were reported. They've done that because they happened—and because after 17 official investigations, only nine junior enlisted soldiers have been court-martialed and we're still no closer to learning the truth about who authorized, encouraged or tolerated such conduct.

Who ordered Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the terrorist detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to take the Tiger Teams to Iraq and to Abu Ghraib in late summer of 2003 to teach interrogators and prison guards how to "soften up" and then break Muslim detainees?

Rumsfeld, in his speech, downplayed the significance of the atrocities at the prison and questioned the news media's decision to pay attention to them. "Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment," he said, noting that more pictures recently surfaced about abuse that was previously reported.

He blamed what happened at Abu Ghraib on "people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq, who did some things that they have since been punished for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

Instead of working as swiftly to get the truth out as the enemy does to broadcast its lies and propaganda, the Pentagon's response has been to hire a public relations firm to pay Iraqi reporters to produce good news, to secretly pay Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American military personnel and to merge public relations with psychological warfare.

Instead of shooting the messengers, Mr. Rumsfeld might consider re-examining the message that American policies, American actions and, yes, American mistakes are sending not just to Iraqis and other Muslims but to the whole world. The truth might set you free.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young

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