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The Arm of Decision: Den Beste chimes in

Posted by Richard on November 16, 2005

I told you Stephen Green’s post, The Arm of Decision, was important. You did go read it, didn’t you? The legendary Steven Den Beste* did, and he responded at Green noted Den Beste’s response and said he’d listen; you should, too.

In thinking about what the key to victory is in the Terror War, Green arrived at a rather pessimistic conclusion (emphasis in original):

It means, fighting a media war. It means, turning the enemy’s one great strength into our own. Broadcast words, sounds, and images are the arm of decision in today’s world.

And if that assessment is correct, then we’re losing this war and badly.

Den Beste agreed that the press is the "arm of decision" and that the administration hasn’t done too well with that aspect of the war, but he argued that a media war presents problems for the Islamists, too. It begins with "headline fatigue," which simply means that eventually, car bombings in Baghdad get boring:

That means that the terrorists have to come up with increasingly spectacular escapades in order to maintain the attention of the western press. A couple of years ago the new innovation was video decapitations, but eventually the novelty wore off.

But the other side of the coin of headline fatigue is revulsion. Increasingly spectacular escapades become increasingly vile atrocities. They get the headlines, alright, but repel more people than they attract. This week’s bombing in Amman is a good example of that; the reaction to it in Jordan was universally extremely negative on the "Arab Street" and al Qaeda’s apparent anonymous-public spokesmen (online) found themselves trying to do spin and damage control.

When publicity and mind-share are your only real weapons in a war, you eventually become caught between the Scylla of boredom and obscurity and the Charybdis of nearly universal aversion for you and your cause. This is often how terrorist campaigns begin to wind down.

There’s more, and you really should read it all.

My take: Den Beste’s optimism makes sense, up to a point. I think he’s right about a cascade of negative consequences for the terrorists in Iraq and the Middle East: Revulsion leads to more anti-terrorist sentiment and tips from the local population. This leads to more captures and killings of high-level, experienced personnel. That, in turn, degrades the organization and makes recruiting and fund-raising more difficult.

The capture in Jordan of the woman whose bomb belt failed to detonate suggests this may already be the case (emphasis added):

Officials captured al-Rishawi at a safehouse after Al Qaeda stupidly bragged about how a female "martyr" was involved in the operation.

She is the sister of a slain henchman of al-Zarqawi, Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Of course, women in general have little value to these people, but her husband was one of the "successful" bombers. It’s certainly noteworthy that al Qaeda in Iraq is recruiting suicide bombers among the close friends and relatives of its top leadership. Could it be that the pool of available volunteers has shrunk significantly?

Den Beste is also right when he points out that by invading Iraq, we moved the war to the Arab world, instead of letting the battlefield be the West. As a consequence, al Qaeda has been killing mainly Arabs and Muslims, not Westerners, and this has begun to alienate the "Arab street."

But here’s the problem: Den Beste’s optimism about what’s happening in the Middle East doesn’t entirely negate Green’s pessimism. As Green acknowledged, the military in Iraq has wised up — see his comparison between the First and Second Battles of Fallujah. But as he noted, the administration remains largely clueless, and the mainstream media "find terrorists less unattractive than having a conservative Texan in the White House."

The plummeting poll numbers paraded out lately are highly suspect, I’ll grant you — most of the pollsters seem to be deliberately oversampling Democrats. Nonetheless, I’d suggest we’re losing the media war at home.

If that doesn’t change, then it’s a race between the collapse of Arab/Muslim support for al Qaeda (and the Islamist movement in general) and collapse of American support for the war. If we lose that race, and the war, then the eventual backlash may be as grim for the MSM as Green suggested:

When a nation loses a war, it looks to punish the people it believes are to blame. After Vietnam, neither Washington nor our Armed Forces were ever the same again. But if we lose this Terror War, our media will be seen as largely to blame. …

Then the public would demand changes. And they’d probably get them, courtesy of a government looking for scapegoats, real or imagined. Should that day come, we’d lose our free press, and we’d lose our freedoms. We’d lose our country.

I very much hope Den Beste is right, the polls are bogus, the White House gets better at fighting the information war, and Green’s fears turn out to be unfounded. I’m optimistic by nature. But on this matter, I’m quite concerned.

* Prior to his "retirement" in August of 2004, Steven Den Beste blogged at USS Clueless, where his writings about the war against Islamofascism were greatly admired and quoted. If you’re not familiar with Den Beste’s work, read his Strategic Overview, written in 2003. In outline form, it set forth the root cause of the war, why we must fight it, what it will take to win, the US strategy, and an assessment of the situation as of late 2003. This post ranks alongside Eric Raymond’s Why We Fight as one of the most important and oft-linked statements arguing for the war, and I’ve never seen its central points persuasively countered — merely ignored.

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