Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Globalized Media and War

We need first of all to recognize this is a real war. Our enemies are peaceful when they're weak, are ruthless when they're strong, demand mercy when they're losing, show no mercy when they're winning. They understand exactly what this is, and anybody who reads Sun Tzu will understand exactly what we're living through. This is a total war. One side is going to win. One side is going to lose. You'll be able to tell who won and who lost by who's still standing. Most of Islam is not in this war, but most of Islam isn't going to stop this war. They're just going to sit to one side and tell you how sorry they are that this happened. We had better design grand strategies that are radically bigger and radically tougher and radically more honest than anything currently going on, and that includes winning the argument in Europe, and it includes winning the argument in the rest of the world. . . .
Newt Gingrich, Speech to the Jewish National Fund, 15 November 2007.

The blogger Westhawk, whose approach to strategic issues is usually quite sound, had an interesting post yesterday about a New York Times story reporting that mainstream television news has largely given up reporting the Iraq and Afghan wars. Expensive coverage in places where security is difficult; the issues are hard to quickly summarize; and dramatic incidents thankfully fewer has been drastically scaled-back. Westhawk correctly observes:

The Bush administration and the Defense Department have been fighting a war of attrition against both radical jihadist and a hostile global media. These wars are obviously tightly interrelated. It appears as if the Bush administration and the U.S. military have bankrupted the media “enemy.” Now what remains to be seen is whether this success will come too late to affect the outcome against the real jihadist enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cynical observers of the mainstream media have always suspected that the MSM have been little better than war profiteers, guided by the editorial dictum “if it bleeds, it leads”. . .

Most of us agree with Westhawk that America needs “. . .an independent media to keep it informed and to provide a check on government power.” But what checks and balances the checkers ? The powerful and connected media of today (I am primarily thinking of television, the pundit class and the prestige journals) is easily the most important actor on the American political scene: staffed by a knowledge elite increasingly separated by education, inclination, income and interest from its audience. Who are these people accountable to ? What do they believe in ? Naturally, as Westhawk points out ".. .media reporters, producers, editors, and owners seek to influence public policy, not merely report on it."

Really big media and the knowledge class that feed it are among the prime beneficiaries of globalization. However, the existence of big wired media and the natural bias of this animal towards leading with the bleeding creates a serious military disadvantage for entities such as the United States, because adversaries can leverage freedom in their favor. As Westhawk puts it: ". . .modern 'fourth-generation warfare' adversaries see media and information operations as their principal weapon. Bombs, rockets, and rifles exist only to support the media weapon."

By contrast, the US and other westernized free countries with Big Media and open societies pay a disproportionate military price for the free gathering and dissemination of so much information. Sensitivity towards casualties and portrayals of devastation in the media create for large state entails an increasing inability to leverage their size and economic advantages, and make real military use of them. In the context of insurgency, then, as Westhawk puts it "U.S. military planners should anticipate that it will take longer to subdue modern insurgencies than it will take for the mainstream media to turn the U.S. public against a counterinsurgency effort."
To a degree this issue can be got round – remember, “if it bleeds, it leads.” So, the only practical way for wired states with big powerful media entities to conduct a conflict with an amorphous non-state actor is to deprive the visual media of compelling images (i.e. casualties) to cover in the news. As Westhawk says, "The conclusion is that U.S. military planners should figure out a way to fight this era’s low-intensity wars without much, if any, use of general purpose units."

Westhawk’s prescription (at least for low-intensity conflict) seems in general correct, but begs the question of what the US might do if, contrary to all expectations, it ever again has to fight a high-intensity war in the present political and cultural environment, that requires the use of general purpose units. Can a modern media-centric state fight a big war at all, no matter how badly it might need to ? How might the US compete militarily with a great power adversary with a powerful economy and military that is, however, not favored with ". . .an independent media to keep it informed and to provide a check on government power" ?

Perhaps more realistically, how will the US perform in a low-intensity conflict that it can't afford to back away from (probably over resources, or the security of some otherwise vital interest), in which the insurgents have the covert or more or less overt backing of such a major power ?

The US has enjoyed the great good fortune of not having great power involvement on the other side in its present conflict. There is no reason to assume such immunity will continue forever, and the circle that could not be squared in Vietnam will probably have to be confronted again, over strategic interests of much greater importance, under even more unfavorable cultural and political conditions.

The large nation state still seems to be the best vehicle by which to secure the liberty and prosperity of great numbers of people: protecting the law-abiding from harm, while still managing to reserve to these same people a reasonable degree of liberty and self-government. But we still have to answer the question as to whether such a polity can successfully protect itself, in a world with (1) states that have great economic and military power, but do not care so much for liberty; (2) well-financed criminals all over the world endowed with greater destructive power and mobility than ever before, who function well in the new globalized world; and (3) other entities created by the marriage of liberty and technology, that pursue their own interests without reference or care for the strategic interests of free peoples and states. The issue is in doubt.

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