Exploiting the liberties of free societies, terrorists are using the mass media to sow divisions among and within the democracies, terrorism experts report. The March bombing of the Madrid subway proved that low-budget terrorist attacks could be used to influence democratic elections and, by virtue of Spain's sudden military withdrawal from Iraq, to drive wedges between the staunchest allies in the international antiterrorism coalition. Senior Spanish and U.S. officials now believe al-Qaeda will plan more attacks in the United States to try to force President George W. Bush from office.
Playing directly into the terrorists' hands is Bush's increasingly shrill challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Democracies long have been vulnerable to manipulation by hostile foreign powers. President George Washington foresaw this in his Farewell Address of 1796. Though the popular notion is that the main point of the address was to warn against entangling alliances, the most persistent theme of Washington's speech was to warn against foreign subversion of America's democratic process. In his words, "It is easy to foresee that from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken, many artifices employed," to undermine the national identity and sense of purpose. Specifically, Washington feared that foreign adversaries would use the new democratic system to turn Americans against themselves.
Even now, external enemies are attacking the political fortress of the United States and its democratic allies through propaganda by word and deed. In his taped statement aired on the Wahhabi satellite TV network Al-Jazeera on April 15, Osama bin Laden not only sought to divide Europe from the United States by offering a "truce" with European countries that pull out of the coalition in Iraq, the al-Qaeda leader also explicitly feasted on the feeding frenzy among bickering American politicians about whether President Bush was to blame for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Good propagandists will turn their enemies' words against them, and the best will sow suspicion and division among them. This is happening now in the United States, where the terrorist enemy and its allies are using the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign in their jihad against the nation. Previous cautions against rash campaign words that provide aid and comfort to the enemy were thrown out the window long ago. Kerry steadily has become more and more shrill in his denunciations of the president as a leader, a man and a politician. Straying from legitimate policy differences with Bush or a healthy national debate about how best to fight the terrorist enemy, the Democratic nominee in waiting has yanked off the safety and fired full auto at the president.
Al-Jazeera and other anti-U.S. propaganda outlets have been quick to magnify whatever Kerry says in an attempt to show what a failure the United States has become under the Bush presidency. Kerry's increasingly strident and careless statements on the campaign trail reverberate abroad. His foul-mouthed interview with Rolling Stone became part of an Al-Jazeera feature on March 16. Although Kerry voted to let the Iraq war go forward, the Wahhabi-owned TV network noted, "He has suggested Bush's handling of the campaign is 'f-ed up.'"
"Bush misled Americans on the degree Iraq posed a threat," Kerry said in the Al-Jazeera broadcast, and the president is not "working closely enough with the international community." Bush's exclusion of France and Germany from competition for U.S. taxpayer-funded contracts to rebuild Iraq, Kerry said, was "dumb and insulting." Al-Jazeera rebroadcast, in Arabic, Kerry's allegation that in combating terrorist structures inside the United States, Bush and the Department of Justice have smeared "innocent Muslims and Arabs who pose no danger."
Such words, one of Kerry's former Senate colleagues says, grind down the image of the United States abroad and damage Washington's efforts to maintain allies and supporters in the Arabic-speaking world. With near-daily doses of extreme and careless quotations from the anti-Bush camp, Arab audiences are led to believe the worst about U.S. intentions and policies in the war on terrorism. Rather than helping the war effort with positive alternatives to counterterrorist policies they consider flawed, Kerry and other politicians are fanning the flames of hostility in the Islamic world.
The government-controlled press in Syria generally ignored President Bush's State of the Union address in January, "but on its front pages highlighted criticism that came in its wake, particularly Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's calling Bush's [foreign] policy 'arrogant and inept,'" according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors Middle Eastern news and propaganda organizations and publishes translations and analyses in English. Even in Jordan, an Arab kingdom that has been an ally in the war against the terrorists, the editor of the Al-Arab Al-Yaum newspaper commented, "When President Bush gave his address, to hearty applause by his party in Congress, the Democrats shook their heads in condemnation."
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, is reported to have e-mailed messages to foreign media outlets, pledging to "repair the damage" that President Bush allegedly has inflicted on the world. The Tehran Times, an English-language newspaper in the Iranian capital, reported Feb. 8 that unnamed Kerry staffers sent an e-mail to the Tehran-based Mehr News Agency apologizing for the conduct of the United States in the war on terrorism and saying that Kerry is the man to make things new again. "Disappointment with current U.S. leadership is widespread, extending not just to the corridors of power and politics but to the man and woman on the street as well," the message said. "We also remain convinced that John Kerry has the best chance of beating the incumbent in November and putting America on a new course that will lead to a safer, more secure and more stable world."
The Kerry campaign has claimed that all of this was the work of overseas Democrats and cannot be laid at the door of its candidate.
But recent statements from Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr, the extremist Iran-backed Shiite cleric whose guerrilla army has been killing U.S. soldiers and Marines, appear to echo this and some of Bush's other Democratic critics. Within 48 hours of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's (D-Mass.) first major characterization of Iraq as "another Vietnam," al-Sadr picked up the theme.
Soon after Kerry denounced Halliburton, the oil company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, bin Laden singled out the firm. "I stopped briefly at a gas station," Kerry said on March 30. "If prices stay that high, Dick Cheney and President Bush are going to have to carpool to work. Those aren't Exxon prices, they are Halliburton prices." In his recording released two weeks later, according to a MEMRI translation, bin Laden denounced major corporations but named only Halliburton: "This war makes millions of dollars for big corporations, either weapons manufacturers or those working in the reconstruction [of Iraq], such as Halliburton and its sister companies."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) observed in a recent Washington Post commentary: "Instead of trying to chart a path of progress, many of the president's critics have devoted themselves to fomenting public despair over a war, which they keep repeating, should never have been fought. At the same time critics of the Bush administration insist it should have done more to combat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before Sept 11." Thompson added, "They miss the more profound lesson that national tragedy should have instilled: that the only deterrent to terrorism is strength and that weakness - real and perceived - is an incitement to further attacks."
The steady, daily attacks on the war and the motivations behind it, Thompson warns, risk undermining the strong international position of the United States and turning it into one of weakness.
"Weakness is when America's leaders compare Iraq to Vietnam, announcing to the world a faltering resolve to see our mission through." This signal, Thompson argues, causes wartime allies to lose heart. "To our allies in the Middle East and beyond, these predictions of defeat send a clear and chilling message to hedge their bets, because the United States cannot be counted on. And to our enemies, they can send an equally clear message: You can win."
Neither Kerry nor his ally Kennedy seems to have learned from his own Vietnam experiences, say critics, when both used extremist rhetoric to sow defeatism at home even though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were destroying the communist enemy on the ground.
As in Vietnam, the Kerry camp seems not to care. The very day bin Laden's tape was broadcast, Kerry stood in East Rutherford, N.J., accusing the president of manipulating the war for personal political gain. "Everything he did in Iraq, he's going to try to persuade people it has to do with terror even though everybody here knows that it has nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda and everything to do with an agenda that they had preset, determined," Kerry said.
Islamist forces are not alone in using Kerry's words against the United States. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, whose regime is on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, also favors a new American president. The regime's mouthpieces, including the Communist Party daily Rodong Sinmun, have been using Kerry's statements as propaganda to discredit the U.S. government.
"North Korea has been paying keen attention to the U.S. presidential election in recent weeks, reporting Democratic presidential primaries and various opinion polls through its state media," the English-language Korea Times, published in Seoul, reported in February. "Most of the reports are focusing on the criticism against Bush and Sen. John Kerry's surge as viable presidential candidate." Rebecca MacKinnon, former Beijing bureau chief for CNN and now a media fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, says that North Korea's state-controlled media have been portraying Kerry "in a positive light."
As the Financial Times reported in February, "In the past few weeks, speeches by the Massachusetts senator have been broadcast on Radio Pyongyang and reported in glowing terms by the Korea Central News Agency [KCNA], the official mouthpiece of Mr. Kim's communist regime. ... 'Senator Kerry, who is seeking the presidential candidacy of the Democratic Party, sharply criticized President Bush, saying it was an ill-considered act to deny direct dialogue with North Korea,' said the news agency. ... Pyongyang's friendly attitude toward Mr. Kerry contrasts with its strong anti-Bush rhetoric."
Like other wartime enemies of the United States, al-Qaeda is relying on presumably unwitting allies in the international peace movements. In his April 15 tape, bin Laden called the antiwar demonstrations a "positive interaction" and cited "opinion polls which indicate that most European people want peace." He appeared to view the Spanish public's ouster of conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in favor of an anti-U.S. socialist, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, as a sign of weakness in the West.
That component of strategy is nothing new. The North Vietnamese regime relied heavily on American antiwar protesters to undermine the national will and defeat the U.S. military through political means, in ways that Hanoi could not win on the battlefield. The present North Korean regime is following suit, propaganda specialists say. Providing the ideological inspiration for a strong section of the antiwar movement through its loyal political allies in the United States and elsewhere, the regime of Kim Jong-il continues to use the old Soviet active-measures model of international political warfare. The Workers World Party (WWP), a small, numerically insignificant but organizationally superior group based in New York City, slavishly supports the policies of the North Korean government, and its leaders frequently visit Pyongyang. One of its front groups, International ANSWER, coordinates the largest peace protests in the United States [see "Marching for Saddam," March 4-17, 2003].
Pyongyang continually exhorts the peace movement around the world. On Feb. 4 the official North Korean Communist Party paper Rodong Sinmun said, "The antiwar struggle is the main form of the struggle for world peace at present and its principal target is the United States."
The paper continued, "It is impossible to avert a war and achieve the world peace without a struggle against the U.S. imperialists. ... The people of all countries of the world should lift their antiwar, anti-U.S. voices and bind Yankees hand and foot to keep them from starting a war." Later in February, in a more subdued tone, Rodong Sinmun cited Kerry as a more preferable leader than Bush. U.S. national-security leaders have long recognized how the terrorists exploit our democratic system, but have been slow to counter it effectively. Insight obtained a copy of a U.S. Army intelligence briefing titled Al-Qaeda's Use of the Mass Media in Infowar/Netwar. Referring to information warfare (IW) - the use of information and information systems as instruments of conflict - and the social or societal IW medium called netwar, the Army report is based on two years of assessments of more than 200 documents.
Little secret intelligence is needed to understand al-Qaeda's strategy. Open-source information can meet up to 85 percent of the terrorists' intelligence-information needs, according to the report. Public information "provides understanding of strategic plans and intentions [and is] especially useful in forecasting cultural turmoil and societal upheavals, and in planning/conducting IW operations," according to the Army briefing. "AQ [al-Qaeda] is familiar with the art of war, but U.S. military has ignored past lessons in favor of technology, and is ignorant of its current foe," the report says.
Part of al-Qaeda's "counterpropaganda strategy," according to the Army report, is to "turn people's eyes toward their leaders to put enemy [U.S. and coalition partners] on defensive, and take the initiative to affect public opinion."
That is nothing new to students of history and statecraft. George Washington devoted much of his Farewell Address to the need to defend the country against foreign subversion designed to corrupt the national identity. He recognized the difficult situation that "real patriots" who resist foreign intrigues "are liable to become suspected and odious," while those espousing "pretended patriotism" - what he called "tools and dupes" of foreign interests - "usurp[ed] the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests."
J. Michael Waller is a senior writer for Insight.