Winning the battles but losing the war?

To beat the terrorists, America needs to use ideas, images as well as weapons

November 19, 2006|By Larry P. Goodson | Larry P. Goodson,Special to The Sun

The United States is increasingly despised around the globe, a growing body of public opinion research indicates.

This evidence is difficult for me to square with very different testimony offered by hundreds of people during my years of living and traveling abroad. Each asked some variation on the question "How can I become an American?"

Those hoping to come to the United States were not members of al-Qaida seeking entry to launch a terrorist attack, nor were they dissidents spurred by dissatisfaction with the governments in their foreign homes.

These were simply people who saw America as a "land of opportunity," characterized by a heady mix of economic possibilities and individual freedom, and it was that land of opportunity that beckoned most.

So how is it that they have come to detest us so much, and what, if anything, can or should we do about it?

This puzzle is particularly relevant here at the U.S. Army War College, where my job is to help senior U.S. and allied military and civilian leaders better think about strategy and its relation to public policy.

These days, we spend a good bit of our time considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overall "Long War" the U.S. has declared on militant extremist Islamists. Our goal is to weigh the appropriate mix of tools to use in advancing U.S. foreign policy goals.

These tools fall into broad categories, including the diplomatic, informational, military and economic (producing an acronym -- after all, this is the military -- known as DIME).

Most of our students know a good bit about the military tool because they are professionals. Too often, this is the tool preferred by American policymakers, although it is the most expensive tool in our kit. By comparison, our nation's use of the diplomatic and economic tools appears much less capable. And our effectiveness in using the informational tool falls abysmally short, despite the global appeal of Hollywood and the generally attractive values shared widely in the United States.

Achieving strategic success requires balancing all of the tools. We cannot achieve tactical or operational success militarily if we are shooting ourselves in the foot informationally. That is precisely what we have been doing in Iraq and that combination explains why we have been winning lots of battles but possibly losing the war.

An array of U.S. policies viewed by others as unattractive or even threatening combined with our clumsy use of words and images have convinced many people around the world that we are no longer the shining beacon on a hill that we have aspired to be and that others have struggled to reach for much of our nation's history.

Decisions to declare certain enemies "unlawful combatants" and detain them in off-shore locations (such as Guantanamo), deny them the rights guaranteed to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, and allow methods of extracting information that many people around the world may view as torture casts doubt on our claim to the moral high ground. Pictures from Abu Ghraib and other excesses from soldiers closer to the front further confirm the suspicions of those who have begun to doubt the virtue of the United States.

A multitude of specific actions and words, often tactically sound, have combined to create a growing belief in the return of the "Ugly American," arrogant and ignorant at the same time. All of this is leading us down the path to losing the war, because it cannot be won by the military alone. Indeed, military action frequently gets in the way of strategic success, which can be achieved only when the war ends on terms favorable to us and leaves a post-war situation that does not threaten our security.

We live in an age of globalization, when the excesses of the past are no longer acceptable to many on the planet. A country cannot invade another country, kill its soldiers and people, disrupt its economy and call that action a strategic success. In such circumstances the victor's postwar security is likely to be threatened by challenges rising out of the social and economic turmoil that would follow such a conflict -- leaving aside the moral issues.

We will only succeed if we can help countries successfully build their nations, join the global economy and participate as sovereign equals on the world stage. Achieving those ends may occasionally involve using our military, but the other elements of power will frequently be more important.

Most important is the informational tool, the element of power that we are failing to use well. Information is vital because America is most effective in achieving its goals when it is a place everyone wants to be a part of, not one that is widely hated.

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