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The battle of ideas
Question of the Day
The United States is currently locked into a global war whose primary battleground is not Iraq, Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan but in that ill-defined terrain of the mind where the beliefs, convictions and passions of men reside. As difficult and unpleasant as it is to admit, America is not winning on this psychological battlefield; if we do not reverse this trend quickly we may someday find ourselves in danger of losing on a physical battlefield.
In a recent interview, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli — the senior military adviser to the secretary of defense and a highly decorated combat veteran — told me he believed only 40 percent of winning a war was based on the "kinetic fighting" at which American Forces excel, while fully 60 percent was predicated on winning the battle of ideas. "Look at our enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan," the general explained. "He is cutting people's heads off, murdering women and children, blowing up religious sites — and yet we say he is winning the information war? That's got to change."
Another highly decorated veteran of combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Col. Lee Fetterman, said of this battle of the mind, "Wars are won in the will, and if someone or a group of someone's hates another group with enough passion, it can be a very long and difficult struggle."
If some of the Army's most accomplished battle leaders of today understand the critical value of ideas and how important they are to winning wars, why do we seem to be lagging behind an enemy who, as Gen. Chiarelli points out, butchers women and children? Many in the United States shake their heads in incredulity, particularly when American efforts to care for the dispossessed are contrasted so sharply against such brutality. Upon closer examination, however, we find the reasons may not be so hard to understand.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when America possessed considerable admiration and respect in the minds of people across the world. But over time that prestige has tarnished while at the same time our domestic condition improved to unprecedented heights. It seems we began to believe all the stories about how great we were while inversely showing less and less consideration, respect and appreciation for those beyond our borders. This undesirable condition has worsened over the past decade, and as is now becoming very clear, works against our self-interest.
Shortly after Desert Storm, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended, instead of working to further diminish tensions and develop a partner relationship with Moscow, we took the unnecessary step of expanding the NATO military alliance toward a weakened Russia, we unilaterally abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because it suited our preference and in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom we diplomatically bludgeoned longtime allies France and Germany, completely disregarding their opinions and concerns.
Today, we need Russian diplomatic help with North Korea and Iran, but now that Russia is no longer weak, Moscow is much less inclined to act in ways that benefit the United States. We need French and German help in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and true to our historic friendship they have helped — but that help was much delayed in coming and has been less than it could have been as a result of the way we ignored them in the run-up to the Iraq war. And, ominously, because of perceived double standards, even popular opinion in Turkey — one of our most critical allies in that part of the world — has turned sharply against the United States.
I could offer a number of specific policy and organizational recommendations for reform, but frankly none of that will matter unless there is first a fundamental change in the mind of Americans. If we do not accept that along with our many and substantial virtues we are also guilty of sometimes not insignificant pride, arrogance and hubris, no reform is even possible. It is imperative that our national leaders concede the fact that part of the reason we're not winning the global battle of the mind is our past behavior, our insistence on having things our way and our unwillingness to compromise on non-critical issues to our friends and allies.
We can't undo the past, but we most assuredly can change what we do from here forward. Perhaps a slice of "humble pie" with a holiday meal would be in order to facilitate a fresh start in the new year.
Our success on future battlefields could depend on it.
By Mark Davis
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