Stygius: Sloganeering as warfare


The PR contortions over shifting the slogan of the anti-terrorist war from GWOT, to GWOE, to GSAVE, to ‘what-the-hell-ever’ has backfired so badly that it is only reinforcing the perception of administration failure to craft an effective communications campaign to exist side-by-side with its military campaigns. That this problem is self-inflicted is only that much more aggravating to observers who want to see a coherent, national policy that attacks this threat

Instead, we see hackneyed rhetoric uttered as the answer to the failures of past hackneyed rhetoric, when Americans instead are looking for demonstrations of competence from the political leadership. By that I am thinking of President Bush’s Fort Bragg speech, which left me fearing that the president can’t distinguish rhetorical posturing from actual policy. Or, as Fred Kaplan put it recently:

Does Hadley, and do all our other top officials, really believe this nonsense? Are they so enraptured with PR that they think a slogan and a strategy are the same thing and that retooling the one will transform the other? Have we lapsed into the banality of the mid-’70s, when President Gerald Ford tried to beat back 20-percent price hikes by urging Americans to wear gigantic lapel pins that read "WIN"—for Whip Inflation Now?

post indicating that the administration hasn’t even gotten this sorted out internally, nearly four years after September 11, is all the more distressing.

The counter terrorism community is abuzz over the President’s comments yesterday at a principals meeting of the Homeland Security Council. Bush reportedly said he was not in favor of the new term, Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE). In fact, he said, "no one checked with me". That comment brought an uncomfortable silence to the assembled group of pooh bahs. The President insisted it was still a war as far as he is

Oh my. Well, let’s hope they make lemonade out of that one. In the end, Mr. President, it ought to be about winning; and so which intellectual framework is most conducive to winning? At any rate, Johnson’s post transforms another of Fred Kaplan’s questions from merely rhetorical to penetratingly pertinent:

It took four years for the president of the United States to realize that fighting terrorism has a political component?

Don’t stop counting, Fred. Nadezhda sees this internal confusion as a self-inflicted wound created when the invasion of Iraq was brought so speciously under the GWOT aegis. That Iraq has evolved into a crucial front in the war on terrorism is undoubtable,* but letting it subsequently define the GWOT itself in order to legitimize an invasion post hoc has been a PR disaster. When President Bush seeks to remind Americans that Iraq is a “central front” in the war on terror, remember not only the post hoc character of his argument, but also that his rhetoric did the heavy lifting, centralizing Iraq. Nadezhda:

Jim Hoagland, as the first journalist to report on a Global War on Extremism, clearly has an inside track on discussions/debates within the Admin. After Bush’s June speech and the London bombings, Hoagland complained that the President was backsliding on message discipline — that the Iraq war needs to be disentangled ASAP from the longer-term strategy of countering threats from Islamic

As I briefly summarized earlier today, the most salient point in this is the need to completely invert Bush’s centralization of Iraq within the GWOT; victory in both Iraq and the GWOT may depend on divorcing the two as much as possible — make that, if possible.

Looking past this single presidency, it is most likely strategically impossible to de-link the centralization of Iraq in the GWOT, as it has become not only a crucible for foreign jihadists, but a propagandistic rallying point for al-Qaeda’s global ambitions.

Also, it is perhaps politically and personally impossible for the president himself, as he has labored long under illusions that must now be almost psychologically imperative if over 1800 soldiers’ deaths and tens of thousands more casualties are to have been for something greater than himself. However, it only takes one more successful attack on the American homeland for the ‘devastation in Iraq = domestic security‘-thesis to collapse. This strategic brittleness is very dangerous.

Perhaps one way to start this de-linking is using Fareed Zakaria’s latest as a touchstone to identify and focus on the real central front in this war:

What this is about, as Tony Blair has argued, is fanaticism. Radical ideologies of hate and violence have often seduced disaffected young men searching for some great cause. Forty years ago they would have embraced Leninist revolutionary dogma, with Che Guevara as the bin Laden of his day. Today, for Muslims, it is a violent interpretation of Islamic fundamentalism. Born in the Middle East, it has spread like a virus across the Muslim world and into the Islamic diaspora in the West.

The good news is that in the heart of the Muslim world, this ideology is not doing so well. The bombings, increasingly of civilians, are showing Al Qaeda and its ilk in their true light. Arabs are finally denouncing terrorism and also the ideologies that feed it. They need to do much more, and far more forcefully. It’s a cliche, but true, that ultimately only Muslims can win this fight.

But Western countries can do more as well. We’re fighting a military battle against a phenomenon that is largely nonmilitary. In a battle of ideas, no one bullet will win. We must present a positive vision for Muslim societies, be seen as a friendly and progressive force by them and thus strengthen the moderates and liberals.

Another entrance point may be Richard Clarke’s Defeating the Jihadists, which outlines a strategic framework that is coherent, relevant, and — sadly — timely, and doesn’t bother with bullshitting us about Iraq.

This is not to say that out-and-out warfare somehow can’t be countenanced, or isn’t legitimate. Rather, military means exist within the broader set of strategic demands placed upon us. They join ideological, legal, economic, and sociological means. These involve long-term coalitional as well as ad hoc unilateral strategies. Above all of this, however, is a political demand on the Bush Administration and, on Americans ourselves more generally, to stop identifying the tit-for-tat devastation in Iraq as representative of broader success or failure in the GWOT. Doing so is to fall into the grip of a classic insurgency strategy of inflicting losses that become increasingly meaningless as our own shifting, reactive political goals become increasingly inscrutable. In fact, we really have no way to assess how the United States is performing strategically either in Iraq or in the GWOT, but the White House’s incapacity to prioritize does not bode well.

* On the issue of
“fronts”: any “central front” cannot be defined geographically as this centerless battle is not only transnational, the central battle itself is non-spatial; as one British Muslim, a critic of extremist violence,
put it while pointing to his head, "Al Qaeda is inside." Bush’s invocation of Iraq as the "central front" is vacuous in many respects, of course; this respect is perhaps the most disturbing, though.