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A War Played to Many Audiences

Op-Ed, Boston Globe, page 19

March 31, 2003

Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School

 

THE IRAQ SPECTACLE now running 24/7 is simultaneously war and theater. In both arenas, it is in General Tommy Franks's words 'a campaign unlike any other in history.'

Think of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the producer of this extravaganza, General Franks as the director, and 250,000 US and British fighting men and women as the supporting cast. What was the producer's intended message for the first week of the war? The Bush administration's actions and words sought to create the impression that the war was over before real fighting began. This 'psyops' campaign -- Pentagon-speak for psychological operations -- targeted the hearts and minds of Saddam's cronies and commanders attempting to persuade them that Saddam was a lost cause whom they should abandon or betray. Following Sun Tzu, 'supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.' Had Rumsfeld's pronouncements become a self-fulfilling prophecy, who could object?

For secondary audiences of this ultimate in reality TV, the swirl of images and finely spun words has been confusing, and sometimes misleading.

Investors found the promise of a swift, clean victory so attractive that they pushed the US and international equity markets to their biggest weekly advance since 1982.

Having failed to end this drama in the first act, President Bush now faces a war that poses challenges beyond anything seen before. First, American forces are fighting not to destroy the Iraqi adversary and its population. Rather, the objective is to liberate an Iraqi population in order to rebuild a stable, pluralistic society. Military strategists are thus constrained to fight in ways that advance, not undermine, prospects of the nation-building program to follow.

Second, this war is being conducted in a global goldfish bowl. Embedded journalists, anchors, commentators, and a watching world critique every action, every hour.

Third, never before has a war been fought with so much regard for so many audiences. These viewers begin with the Iraqi leadership, but extend to the US public; thereafter the Iraqi people; and finally governments and people around the world.

The complexity of communicating to multiple audiences simultaneously is illustrated vividly in the 'shock and awe' attack on Baghdad. Pentagon advertisements promised a knock-out blow. An attack 'beyond anything seen in previous wars' would so stun and disorient the Iraqi leadership that the regime would implode.

But who was most shocked or most awed by the opening phase of the war? Unquestionably, images of the assault on Baghdad stunned TV audiences around the world with mushroom clouds rising from the rubble and images of Baghdad burning. On the morning after, it was not Al-Jazeera but The New York Times whose banner headline proclaimed: 'US Bombs Ravage Targets in Baghdad.' Viewers of these grizzly scenes surely envisioned thousands of civilian casualties.

The reality could hardly have been further from the image. Because Pentagon plans for an opening blow of 3,000 smart bombs were cut back to 1,300 in order to minimize civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure in Baghdad, Iraqi leaders saw with their own eyes less damage to key assets than during the 1991 Desert Storm bombing campaign.

On the day after the attack, Iraq's information minister announced how many Iraqi civilians had been killed: three! For his supporters, Saddam Hussein's claim that Americans and their allies are unwilling either to kill or to die might appear to have been confirmed.

If Saddam's strategy of drawing American soldiers into Basra and Baghdad for street fighting succeeds, the gaps among competing audiences of the war will become unbridgeable. Forced to choose between American casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties, one can understand why leaders will choose the latter.

But vivid pictures of innocent Iraqis dying are just the scenes Saddam seeks in his script for this confrontation. Should destroying Saddam's regime require a bloody show with not just hundreds, but rather thousands of deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians and Jenin-like images of razed civilian apartment buildings, governments around the world will demand a cease-fire and compromise.

Shaky governments in Pakistan, Egypt, or Jordan could be toppled. Terrorist acts against 'crusaders' will intensify. And even in death, Saddam could depart with the hope that victory in the battle of Baghdad could prove a major defeat in the larger war against terrorists and tyrants.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham. "A War Played to Many Audiences." Boston Globe, March 31, 2003.

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