Coalition Loses the ‘Psy-Ops’ Advantage in Iraq

As the current symphony of violence reached its grotesque crescendo in Iraq last week, I happened to be in Paris attending a NATO conference on psychological warfare. This somehow seemed appropriate because it is in the realm of “psy-ops” that the coalition is suffering its biggest setbacks.

I don’t mean to underestimate the sheer physical challenge confronting 160,000 allied troops in controlling a country of more than 22 million people. But from a purely military perspective, nothing that has happened in the last two weeks poses an insurmountable obstacle. Rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr seems to have ample money and firearms, probably supplied by Iran, but he has no more than 6,000 ill-trained fighters in his Al Mahdi militia. Most Shiites scorn him as a parvenu. The Sunni terrorists in Fallouja, many of them former soldiers and members of the secret police, are a more formidable bunch, but they too are nothing that a few thousand Marines can’t handle.

In fact, there may be a tactical advantage to tackling the Mahdists and other menaces now, instead of leaving them to a ramshackle future Iraqi government to deal with. But whatever progress coalition forces are making -- and they do seem to be succeeding after some initial setbacks -- it isn’t registering with most people around the world.


I have in front of me newspapers from the last few days gathered while traveling in Europe. London’s Sunday Telegraph features a gruesome photo of a dead German lying in a pool of blood near a masked Iraqi fighter holding a sniper rifle. Its competitor, the Sunday Times, has a cheerful front page: “Apocalypse Now?” (At least there’s a question mark.) Tune in to CNN or the BBC, and it’s no better. You see pictures of blindfolded Japanese hostages and wounded Marines. And that’s only the English-language media. The coverage is far more scathing on Arabic TV channels Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, which falsely claim that U.S. forces are deliberately targeting civilians.

All of these images matter because any guerrilla war is, above all, a battle for hearts and minds. No guerrilla force can hope to defeat a well-trained regular army in the field. Its objective is simply to inflict so much punishment that forces will be withdrawn. Iraqi fighters seem to have an instinctive understanding of the psychological aspect of this struggle. They are replaying the very images that forced the U.S. out of previous conflicts. Their hostage-taking recalls Lebanon in the 1980s; their abuse of corpses recalls Somalia in the 1990s.

As President Bush indicated in his press conference Tuesday, such atrocities won’t sap U.S. will in the short run. They might only increase the determination of a nation still smarting from the agony of 9/11. But our enemies are enjoying more success in terrorizing less-committed coalition partners, relief organizations, potential investors and the U.N. Many of them have either left Iraq or are on the verge of doing so. The terrorists’ most spectacular coup was the bombing in Madrid that helped elect a Socialist government committed to pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq. (Too bad that didn’t stop the jihadis from plotting fresh bombings in Spain.)

The coalition showed its own flair for psy-ops during the conventional war last year. Embedding reporters with allied troops was a stroke of genius that dispelled the ludicrous distortions of Saddam Hussein’s misinformation minister. But the coalition has shown less skill in countering enemy propaganda of late.

To give only one example: Why is it that the daily press briefings in Baghdad are conducted by two Americans, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt and Dan Senor, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority? Even when an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Sadr, it was announced by Kimmitt and Senor. This gives the rebels exactly what they want by furthering the impression that they are fighting against a U.S. occupation rather than an emerging democracy with broad international support.

Why not put an Iraqi face on current operations by having Iraqi officials brief reporters? Or, to emphasize the international nature of the occupation, why not have a British, Polish or Italian briefer?

This is a small thing, to be sure, but it is indicative of the ham-handedness with which the coalition has approached the hearts-and-minds campaign. Vietnam ought to serve as a potent reminder that the U.S. can win every battle on the ground but still lose the war unless it retains “information dominance.”

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.