February 21, 2007 | Scripps Howard News Service

A Failure to Communicate

In Iraq, we have been losing not clashes of arms but clashes of perceptions. Our enemies understood early on that they could not defeat American troops in combat. But they were clever enough to realize they didn't need to. Instead, they could win a war of ideas.

Their strategy was audacious: They would target their enemies –“occupiers,” “infidels” and “collaborators” — only opportunistically and sporadically. Their most lethal weapon, the suicide-bomber, they would deploy against ordinary Iraqis shopping in the market, waiting on line for jobs, sitting in cafes.

One might have expected the fabled “Arab Street” to erupt over the slaughter of fellow Arabs. It did not do so. Muslims around the world ought to have been furious over seeing their co-religionists killed in cold blood. They were not.

Nor were Europeans outraged at the mass murder of innocents. On the contrary, many expressed something close to admiration for what they persisted in calling the “Resistance.”

The media, for their part, were not diligent in reporting on the affiliations, motives and strategies of the killers — whom they referred to as “insurgents” or “militants” or something equally non-judgmental. They talked about “the violence,” and the “security situation” — as though the cause of the bloodshed was not specific individuals, groups and regimes but a force of nature, like a hurricane or a tornado.

The White House, the Pentagon and the State Department allowed this spin to go almost unchallenged — and eventually to become the dominant “narrative.” What could they have done instead? They could have made the truthful case — forcefully and relentlessly – that ruthless fanatics were intentionally killing innocent Iraqis; that civilized people do not excuse such barbarism, no matter the cause or grievance; that principled people fight and defeat it.

On a BBC radio show, an interviewer asked if I agreed that the situation in Iraq was dire: I said I thought it was: Iraqi non-combatants — men, women and children — are being murdered by the score. So surely, I added, the one thing we must not do is turn the country over to those dispatching the killers.

Startled, he suggested that the presence of Americans was responsible for the violence. I asked him to be more precise: Is it the sight of Americans that causes people to kill one another? Or is it perhaps our smell?

A second and also cunning aspect of the anti-American/anti-Iraqi strategy has been to stoke sectarian fires, knowing that Americans would not want to be caught in a civil war. A year ago this month, the Golden Mosque in Samara — the holiest Shia shrine in Iraq — was bombed. It was a stroke of tactical brilliance. Once again, international outrage at the predators was muted (nothing like the protests in response, for example, to Israeli attempts to repair a ramp near the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). But Iraqi Shia, until then restrained despite repeated attacks, turned to militias both to protect them and to take revenge against what they saw as their complicit Sunni neighbors.

Having lost so many clashes of perceptions, the US has now had to change its strategy for the clash of arms. Under a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, American forces are not just training Iraqi forces to “stand up so Americans can stand down,” they are actually attempting to provide security to the residents of Baghdad, to clear out the terrorists and keep them out.

To accomplish that will require sophisticated counter-insurgency techniques — a subject on which Petraeus has literally written the book. But beyond making progress, Petraeus will need to show progress through the media to the world: a terrorist cell eliminated, a weapons cache seized, a torture chamber located, a neighborhood stabilized, a market teeming with people no longer afraid they won't survive the afternoon. Purple fingers once a year will not suffice.

The enemy knows what it has to do in response: Litter the streets of Baghdad with bodies. If the dead are Americans, that's a bulls-eye. But if they are just ordinary Iraqis heading for work or taking their children to school or buying rice for dinner that can be spun as a victory, too. The “international community” will direct its anger not at the killers but at those brave enough to stand up to them. Is that not perverse, illogical and immoral? Is it not insane? Of course it is. But most people won't understand why until and unless the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department learn to wage a more effective war of ideas.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.