Friday, October 26, 2007

Seeing beyond the headlines

A New Kind of War?

In the current issue of Azure, the Israeli intellectual quarterly, Noah Pollak studies the campaign of hoaxes and falsehoods that have done so much damage to Israel's image abroad since 9/11:

On June 9, 2006, a beach in Gaza was rocked by an explosion that killed seven members of a Palestinian family. Shortly afterward, Palestinian Authority television released a horrific video showing a 10-year-old girl shrieking amidst the dead bodies on the beach, and Palestinian hospital workers and spokesmen angrily blamed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) artillery fire for the deaths—even though no investigation had been conducted, and the Palestinian accusers had no way of knowing what caused the explosion. The exultant declarations of an Israeli massacre were reported as fact in newspapers and television broadcasts around the world; human rights groups joined in the condemnations; and once again Israel found itself the object of international outrage over the issue of civilian casualties.
If this story and its origins fit a predictable pattern, so did Israel's reaction to the crisis: The IDF immediately ceased military activity in Gaza, and Israeli officials at the highest levels reflexively assented to the IDF's culpability and promised an investigation of the incident.

The last chapter of the story is equally familiar: It was ultimately determined that the Palestinians on the beach were not killed by the IDF. Rather, Hamas had mined the section of beach where the explosion occurred, hoping to defend their arsenal of Kassam rockets against Israeli commando missions. After the explosion, Hamas men combed the beach, removing shrapnel that could be used as evidence. The sensational video that captured the sympathies of credulous journalists and set off a wildfire of opprobrium turned out, upon objective evaluation, to be a mangled skein of spliced footage and puzzling anachronisms. It was, in other words, a fake. The explosion itself occurred some ten minutes after the last IDF artillery shell had been fired into the area, and the shrapnel found in the victims' bodies was not from Israeli munitions. Hamas, in a sloppy attempt at defending Gaza, had almost certainly killed its own citizens.

In the end, none of the exculpatory evidence mattered in the least: Israel had been tried and convicted in the court of world opinion in the first few days after the incident.

Pollak recapitulates other such incidents: the "fauxtography" of the Hezbollah war, the Muhammad al-Dura fabrication, and so on. Pollak does not enter into this discussion to belabor media bias, but rather to draw an extraordinarily important national security lesson:

Israeli strategists and spokespeople must come to understand the immense influence of symbolism, theater, and the repetition of defining anecdotes in modern warfare. This means that Israeli war planners must consider the role played by those NGOs and news organizations engaged in deliberate false reporting. These actors can no longer be conceptually grouped as third parties or neutral observers during conflicts; they are deeply implicated in the warfare itself, and as parties to a conflict their presence must be treated with the utmost seriousness.

The United States is failing equally badly in its own counterterrorism operations, as Andrew Garfield argues in a very important essay in the Middle East Quarterly.

In Iraq, while the coalition fumbles its information operations, the insurgents and militia groups are adept at releasing timely messages to undermine support for the Iraqi government and bolster their own perceived potency. They are quick to exploit coalition failures and excesses; they respond rapidly to defend their own actions, often by shifting blame to the authorities; and they hijack coalition successes to argue that change only occurs as a result of their violence. The slow speed of the U.S. military's clearance process—typically it takes three to five days to approve even a simple information operations product such as a leaflet or billboard—creates an information vacuum that Iraqis fill with conspiracy theories and gossip often reflecting the exaggerations or outright lies of insurgents and extremists.

One might almost say, to adapt von Clausewitz, that modern warfare is PR by other means. And war-winning strategies mean that modern armies most stop treating their communications operations as secondary assignments or (as still too often happens) dumping grounds for officers who have failed at everything else - but as missions absolutely essential to success.

David Frum is a senior foreign-policy adviser to the Rudy Giuliani presidential candidate.,


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