Information Operations: Successes and Failures

By Robert R. Reilly

From my experiences in the Cold War and since 9/11, I have formulated a few brief principles for the conduct of wars of ideas. First, do not go into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with. Second, do not go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea. Third, wars of ideas are conducted by people who think; people who do not think are influenced by those who do. Try to reach the people who think.

Successful information operations understand the target audience, have the right message in the right format to reach that audience, and have the means to deliver the message through the media used by the audience. Miss any of these links and you have a failed information operation. You can have the medium but not the message, or you can have the message but not the medium ‚Äď or you can be without both.

It is been generally acknowledged that we have been¬†in the new war of ideas at least since 2001. The National¬†Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2006) stated that ‚Äúin¬†the long run, winning the War on Terror means winning¬†the battle of ideas.‚ÄĚ Until recently, this emphasis was¬†reflected in every U.S. government strategy document,¬†including the National Defense Strategy of the United¬†States of America (2005), which calls for ‚Äúcountering¬†ideological support for terrorism.‚ÄĚ

This emphasis, however, has not produced results¬†in practice. In fact, the U.S. side has failed to show up¬†for the war of ideas. Strategic communication or public¬†diplomacy, the purpose of which is to win such wars, is¬†the single weakest area of U.S. government performance¬†since 9/11. By almost every index, the United States is¬†not doing well. Some say it has already lost. After a six-month journey through the Muslim world in 2006,¬†Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of Islamic Studies at¬†American University, said, ‚ÄúI felt like a warrior in the¬†midst of the fray who knew the odds were against him¬†but never quite realized that his side had already lost¬†the war.‚ÄĚ In a threat assessment issued in September¬†2013, the Bipartisan Policy Center‚Äôs Homeland Security¬†Project, chaired by former 9/11 Commission chiefs¬†Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, stated that ‚Äúeven¬†though core Al Qaeda may be in decline, ‚ÄėAl Qaeda-ism,‚Äô the movement‚Äôs ideology, continues to resonate¬†and attract new adherents.‚ÄĚ In fact, Al Qaeda is present¬†in some 16 areas around the globe, according to the¬†report, twice what it was five years ago. On September¬†28, 2013, The Economist reported that, ‚ÄúFrom Somalia¬†to Syria, al-Qaeda franchises and jihadist fellow¬†travelers now control more territory, and can call on¬†more fighters than it any time since Osama bin Laden¬†created the organization 25 years ago.‚ÄĚ

How can this be? Why is the U.S. not winning?

My job here is not so much to answer this question as it is to reflect upon some practical experiences from the past that may shed light on the subject of what we have done that has worked, on what has not worked, and an overall view on what we have failed to do altogether. Yes, we need a new strategy against al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, but we cannot charge ahead unless we have something to charge ahead with.