The Return of Ideological Warfare

By April 28, 2004 No Comments

If the 20th Century had a consistent theme running through it’s history, it would be one of ideological conflict between and within nations over the best course for human society to take. Over the last decade, with the challenge thrown at us by the Soviet Union finally collapsing, so many people thought that the issue had been settled. Not so.

At War Again

We are engaged in an ideological war again, but seem so dismayed by its unexpected return that many of us have forgotten the habits and reflexes that let us survive the last one. The intention of this article is to review some of the characteristics and responses necessary in waging ideological warfare.

There are two fronts to any ideological war – the external front of military competition and conventional measures of strength, which consists of formal warfare between states, and the internal front of ideas, deception, subversion and other measures short of war itself.

In the current war of the Jihadists against all of Western Civilization, there have been few opportunities for direct military competition – not that this has made the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq any less significant to those who are there. There have also been no real networks of state-sponsored organizations engaged in working the internal front inside our societies, and this has made recognition of the threat much more difficult.

In the War against the distillation of Fascism, Militarism and Nazism that confronted the Western Democracies in the 1930s and ‘40s, the ability of racialist/militarist doctrines to compete for allegiances inside the Western democracies was limited, and the resulting ideological clash was fought with conventional and – eventually – concluded with nuclear weapons. Over fifty million people died in that war and a conflagration on this scale could always happen again.

The next conflict, that of the Soviets against the West, fortunately did not result in a general war – although there were many ‘proxy’ and peripheral conflicts between 1945 and 1991. The main sphere of conflict was on the internal/domestic front, particularly as the Soviets had a three-echelon structure with which to engage in internal ideological warfare within the Western World. This structure consisted of organizations and messages created directly by the Soviet Union itself; the messages which arose out of NGOs, official bodies and within domestic organizations (like the Western Communist Parties) which were heavily influenced or directed by the Soviets while maintaining an artificial veneer of independence; and lastly by ignorant sympathizers within the West.

Organization for Ideological War

It was not long ago that messages directly from Soviet press organs such as Pravda, controlled groups like the World Peace Council, and members of Western communist parties within numerous ‘peace’ groups could largely direct an enormous public fear of nuclear armaments into supporting Soviet foreign and defence policies, while handicapping NATO’s responses to the real Soviet military threat that existed at the time. Our defences on the internal front were weak, and they required constant reminders about just what messages were coming from whom, and what the messengers were really like.

The chief aim and tactic of Soviet ideological warfare against the West during the Cold War was to undermine the psychological trinity of beliefs that were necessary to sustain our societies in those years. This trinity was outlined in our April 2003 newsletter in an article taken from a presentation by Maurice Tugwell (see ‘The Psychological Aspect of the War on Terror’). In short, every society engaged in a conflict needs to believe three messages: We’re the good guys; they’re the bad guys; and we will win. In ideological warfare one must meddle with the identical beliefs of one’s opponents, and the Soviets were getting pretty good at this in the years before they collapsed. Now the Jihadists are attempting the same.

The Jihadists have no great structure with centralized control behind it with which to wage ideological warfare inside Western societies. Rather, what they do have are two loose networks that roughly approximate the old Soviet echelons. In place of the centralized primary echelon of the old USSR, they have a network of Wahhabi Jihadists who share a common ideology, common experiences, and who reinforce their ideological precepts with each other in their own internal communications. Their orthodoxy is rigidly self-enforced, in the manner that True Believers of many stripes have always managed to accomplish.

Outside the networks of al Qaeda activists, there is the wider second echelon of Islamic apologists and activists who may not (consciously, anyway) share the Jihadists’ goals and aspirations. Yet there is within Islam an ideal of ‘brotherhood’ that, while seldom realized when Muslims are left alone, functions perfectly well when any outsiders are engaged in a conflict with some part of the Islamic world. If asked to sympathize with the US or some Western European nation over the idea (if not the reality) of the community of believers, it is not possible for many Muslims to support the West. However, for various reasons – some of which represent entirely honest impulses – they are making attempts here in the West to undermine our psychological trinity.

The third echelon of the ideological offensive against the West consists of the same third component that was present in the last years of the Cold War – indeed; some of the very same people have appeared in this role in both campaigns. This component consists of those within our societies who either refuse to see or believe in the good we represent, or whose self-destructive components of their own inner natures lead them to desire the destruction of our own society. In place of the informed criticism that is necessary for healthy debate, there is only automatic negativism. They are those who, if responding to a toast of ‘My Country, right or wrong’ will invariably reply ‘My country is always wrong’.

Well trained soldiers know how to carry on when the plan falls apart. The Soviets could not, and did not, minutely control every aspect of their campaigns against the West – they expected the second echelon to run itself, following broad themes outlined from the USSR, and knew that the third echelon, while usually predictable, would automatically bristle against any attempt to directly control it. The Jihadists do not seem to have any real organization to match the old Soviet propaganda organs, and rely entirely on autonomous networks of self-motivated activists for all three echelons.

By Their Messages Shall Ye Know Them

The main goal of ideological warfare is to sap the vitality of the “Trinity” outlined above inside the targeted community. In undertaking this, the echelons seek to instill doubt where there is confidence; mislead and misdirect; redefine meanings; and deny the validity of any accomplishment.

Typical messages might include arguments for Moral Equivalence. This is used to imply that both parties are ‘equal’ insofar as sordid behaviors and ambitions go. The Soviets, for example, stressed that employment was a human right, so that when criticized for Gulags or the psychiatric abuse of dissidents, they might point to strikes (forbidden in the USSR) and unemployment as Western ‘human rights abuses’. Another argument about the Soviet military buildup of the 1970s was to point out that both the USSR and the US had nuclear weapons, and that therefore both were equally reprehensible; indeed, the US was held to be worse, because they actually had used the bomb.

Muslims who support the idea that Iran, Pakistan and, even Saddam’s Iraq, should be allowed to have nuclear weapons have embraced these old arguments. Additionally, Jihadists and Islamists alike believe that Islam is a perfect society, whereas the Western World is invariably flawed and imperfect. Ergo, who are we to criticize them?

This last part is true enough in some ways, although we are less flawed and imperfect than most other societies. One can also recall the widow of the late Ahmad Said Khadr, who defended the enlistment of her sons as Jihadists as being preferable to having them being exposed to “drinking and homosexuality” if they stayed in Canada (although using our medical system seems fine to her). Somehow, being a Shaheed would not strike most people as a morally superior being to a gay alcoholic. The latter is largely harmless to everyone but himself and many have contributed far more to the arts of civilization than any suicide bomber ever will.

Another favorite argument is that old “You provocative, me reactive” ploy. In the early 1980s as NATO responded to the Soviet buildup begun in the 1970s, every new deployment of some American or Allied weapons system was held to be a dangerous and destabilizing new element; while the latest Soviet/Warsaw Pact deployment was presented as being only a just and measured response.

This argument is also well known to terrorists of all stripes and Jihadists employ it too. Hamas, for example has denounced the deaths of three of its leaders in recent months as provocative outrages which must be avenged, while their own actions are invariably held to be the due and proper reaction to the numerous indignities inflicted by Israel, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. For Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is merely reacting to a thousand years of Western outrages, and so all of their actions are just. Admittedly, only the Western left is likely to believe this, but that can be enough sometimes.

Another common tactic is to Redefine Terminology. It was hard to do this in the arms-laden lexicography of the Cold War, but the Soviets certainly entertained very different definitions of ‘détente’, ‘peace’, and ‘arms control’ than the West usually did. Entering the current fray are groups like “Muslims Against Terrorism”; which at first seems welcome because they are prepared to criticize the 9/11 attacks. However, the group defines terrorism as any use of force, and that therefore, the liberation of Afghanistan or the incarceration of al Qaeda members by the US in Cuba are also forms of terrorism and thus equally reprehensible.

Then there is the old Promise of Peace ploy, which almost invariably snags the interest of Westerners. While al Qaeda itself has seldom offered the prospect that peace is possible (only recently offering Europe a ‘Ceasefire’ if they pull out of the Middle East – an offer which the French and Germans took the lead in dismissing without discussion), other elements of the Jihadist construct can raise the issue.

The promise of peace is normally embraced by Western liberals because of their reflexive belief that all intelligent people are rational in the same way. The Soviets made full use of this promise, and added arms control and disarmament to the bag of potential rewards for cooperation. Naturally, every move by the belligerent is for ‘peace’ while every initiative in response is a danger to ‘progress’ toward it.

The nature of the Jihadists makes negotiation almost impossible to open and certainly impossible to respect. Nation states cannot be expected to bargain with non-state actors, and certainly not with those who employ terrorism. However, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has seen some use of this ploy. Hamas and the Jihadists have always been almost entirely outside the peace process, and the process has been derailed by Yasser Arafat anyway. Nevertheless, the deaths of the three Hamas leaders were immediately described as being a ‘blow’ to the already moribund negotiations – an argument soon echoed by the chancelleries of many Western nations that should know better.

What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable. This aspect of ideological warfare also leaves Western liberals vulnerable to exploitation by playing on the notion that mutual understanding and tolerance can relieve tensions. In the Cold War, as in the war against the Nazis, most of us understood the enemy all too well. However, the Soviets were always happy to encourage the third echelon, the independent activists from within the Western World, to claim that all would be well once we got to know each other.

The plea for “understanding” from an ideological opponent is usually one-sided. In short, the Soviets expected that understanding them would mean forgiving them, and therefore that we would budge on key issues. One might remember the claim that the Soviets needed higher military levels than the Western World because they still felt uncomfortable and exposed from their losses in the Second World War. Our response that the Second World War taught us to be uneasy about promises from dictatorships with large standing armies was always dismissed out of hand by Moscow… and our internal third echelon.

This approach of you-should-tolerate-us-though-we-don’t-need-to-tolerate-you is very much evident among the second echelon in the current conflict. We are expected to understand the perspectives of the Jihadists, while seeing no corresponding move to understand ours.

A last theme in this form of struggle is the proposition that Self-Defence is Immoral. This argument is normally advanced only by the third echelon within liberal democratic societies. During WW II and the Cold War, our opponents knew better than to directly suggest this theme to Western audiences, and certainly neither the Nazis nor the Soviets tolerated an independent domestic peace movement. However, Western pacifists were free to advance the notion that arming ourselves and standing up to aggression was somehow wrong, and that the lamb must lie down with the lion.

In this current conflict, the third echelon of the Jihadist threat is busy undermining some of our defensive measures, usually from behind a screen of concern for our immigration policies, human rights, and due judicial process. While defending these practices is vital, we need some means of identifying and removing the Jihadists among us – obstructing this process does us no good.

Unfair Practices in the Ideas Marketplace

It has been the Western World’s fate to always be lodged in ideological conflict with totalitarians and ‘True Believers’. This makes it difficult for us to respond in kind to our opponents’ populations. The Soviets used to jam broadcasts from Voice of America and Western media outlets; and sought to license every photocopier and computer in the country. The Chinese and Cubans still attempt these things.

Today’s Jihadists are easier to reach, but they’ve shown they can be very selective in what they listen to and are self-policing in terms of their ideology. We will not be able to influence the first echelon of ideological warriors; as true believers they are deaf to reason.

Dealing with the second and third echelons will be more problematical – they live among us and take full advantage of our openness and news media. To inoculate our public against their communications, it will be necessary for all of us to take a remedial course in dealing with the enemy’s misinformation and ideological warfare. But we need show no tolerance for their messages and should display only scorn for their messengers.