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What the Islamists Have Learned

How to defeat the USA in future wars.

12:35 PM, Nov 22, 2006 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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If I were an Islamist, a terrorist, a sworn foe of democracy, here is what I think I would have learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is what I would write down in my hard-earned manual of instruction.

BY THE WILL OF ALLAH, in all wars to come, may it prepare our brave martyrs for combat operations!

Today, the purpose of war is sharply political, not military; psychological, not physical. The main purpose of war is to dominate the way the enemy imagines and thinks about the war. Warfare is not, these days, won on a grand field of battle. Nor is it won by the force that wins series after series of military victories. Nor is triumph assured by killing far higher numbers of the enemy. The physical side of warfare no longer holds precedence.

The primary battlefield today lies in the minds of opposing publics.

The main strategic aim of war today is to dominate the mind of the enemy's public, and then ultimately to dominate the mind of that public's leaders.

Let me offer three examples. At what moment did the war in Vietnam come to an end? At that precise moment when America's leaders decided that they could not resist the unrelenting storyline of the enemy, which had long prevailed in their own press. The press surrendered first, then the leaders of the nation.

Observe that the Cold War ended not in an explosion of unprecedented violence, but rather at the precise moment when the Soviet elites no longer believed their own storyline. Superior ideas cowed them, superior will, superior narratives. Quite suddenly, the invincible Soviet elites folded, accepted humiliation, allowed the Wall to come down, and watched in bitterness as hundreds of millions of formerly captive peoples chose new forms of government.

The endgame was psychological, not military. There was a military component--Star Wars--but nobody knew whether or not that would ever work. It was the idea of that weapon, and will or Reagan to proceed with it.

The weaker political will yielded to the stronger will.

Yet, as always, will followed storyline. First comes narrative, then the acts that give it flesh in history.

What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends.

Experience shows that the mainstream press of the United States is alienated from the U.S. military. In addition, the American press is extremely vulnerable to anti-U.S. propaganda. Thus, the American public will be fed nearly everything that foreign adversaries--our band of brothers--wish to feed it about the war. Therefore, I write:

Maxim # 1: To defeat America, impose upon the imagination of its media your own storyline.

Even if you can muster only 10,000 soldiers over the entire countryside of Iraq, paint the narrative like this: The Americans are irresistible occupiers, and yet they cannot prevent small (even individual) acts of destruction. Daily, unrelenting acts of destruction demonstrate that chaos rules. The American strategy, and the American storyline of the war, are invalidated by continuing chaos, highly visible, every single day, on worldwide television. The new dominating story is that the Americans cannot win.

Even though our own forces (for nearly two whole years now) can no longer afford to fight in a single operation lasting longer than a few hours, our martyr-brothers cannot be prevented from committing daily acts of destruction--the more stomach-turning the better--which demonstrate a ferocious will and a determination to destroy.

In such wars, my brothers, whichever party maintains the stronger will, along the most durable storyline, always wins.

To defeat the United States, then, it suffices to demonstrate that their vaunted military, for all its awesome power and tactical bravery in the field, cannot halt daily "chaos." To achieve this victory over America, it is not even necessary to create actual "chaos," but only its appearance. This definition of chaos cannot be made on cerebral, analytic, statistical, or comparative grounds. (In October the Times of London reported, "An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France" this year, with 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services and nearly 3,000 police officers injured. We don't need comparisons like this or comparisons with traffic deaths and violent crimes in individual U.S. states.)

No, the shadowy existence of this "chaos" in Iraq is projected by a steady stream of stomach-churning, atavistic, destructive acts, staged day by day where the cameras of the U.S. press cannot resist them. Some of these acts bring orange explosions and black smoke, others consist simply of dumping dead and tortured bodies where the public cannot avoid discovering them.

We design these images to show that our fighters will go where the United States will not, that our brave martyrs have harder linings in their stomachs than anyone in the West, and that our ferocity and determination, day after day, cannot be resisted.

The aim of our terror is to induce surrender before the great battles are even fought. This is the true meaning of "asymmetric" warfare. The weaker side in military strength may demonstrate conclusively that it has a stronger stomach for relentless, unstoppable acts of terror.

Besides, brothers, there seems to be a psychological tic in the minds of American journalists, which prevents them from understanding that our terror is ultimately aimed at them. Today, yes, they think it is aimed at their government, and will cripple their political opponents within that government. Without qualm or fear, therefore, they do our bidding day after day. Willingly, gleefully, with much self-congratulation, they pump our storyline into the bloodstream of the Western public.

This is far easier than anyone ever taught us. This is our new discovery, our contribution to the history of warfare. Before our very eyes, the West grows fainter and weaker every day.

Maxim # 2: Take heart, then, my terrorist brothers! Bin Laden is even more correct than we knew before the last two years. The West does not have the will to resist. Those elites among them who do have the stomach to fight back, inexorably, day after day, are being undermined by their own media.

Now and in the future, the media will do our work. All we need are martyrs sufficient in number to keep a steady stream of orange flames and black smoke before their cameras, and to dump before them bodies that are stone-cold dead, and bear all over them the unmistakable blue marks of power drills and other disfigurements.

Of such martyrs, we need each day only a handful. In 365 successive days, we need fewer than one thousand.

This small band of brothers can defeat the most powerful army in human history. The path, my brothers, is to come to dominate the minds of their public, which they must suppose is supporting them, and in reality turns quite quickly into our best ally.

This is not so huge a task, my brothers! In the long run of glorious history, the time required is like the blinking of an eye.

Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.