Fear and defeatism infect the West

Why are the American and British governments worried about 'losing the propaganda war' to a lame terrorist with a camcorder in the desert?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Despite their overwhelming military superiority in Afghanistan, and their sophisticated media management machines, the American and British governments are seriously worried about ‘losing the propaganda war’ to Osama bin Laden, a lame terrorist with a camcorder in the desert.

Meanwhile, on the home front, any sprinkling of white powder is now enough to start another anthrax panic. These anguished discussions reveal the uncertainty, bordering on moral defeatism, at the heart of the West’s ‘war on terrorism’.

It is no surprise that so much attention should focus on the propaganda war, since this entire operation is an exercise in propaganda. In the classical wartime scenario, governments would launch a propaganda campaign in order to justify their military efforts. Here, however, we are dealing with a war through the looking glass: a military campaign that is intended to serve a propaganda or PR purpose, staged primarily for domestic consumption. In searching for bin Laden, the aim is to discover a new sense of purpose and mission for our disoriented Western societies.

The propagandist impulse behind the operation is evident at every stage, from an American official’s admission that dropping near-useless food parcels was a ‘symbolic’ gesture (1), to a US military source arguing that sending in Special Forces to jump off black helicopters would ‘look great on CNN’ (2).

As a propaganda campaign, the Bush-Blair war in Afghanistan is largely an exercise in gesture militarism. They are concerned to be seen to be doing something, but much less sure about what they should actually do. That is why there is so much confusion about the West’s war aims, and why more commentators are starting to doubt the purpose of half-heartedly blowing up piles of Afghan rubble. As the bombing began on 7 October, we posed the question ‘Now it is war – but for what?’. A week later, this is a question that the authorities are finding increasingly difficult to answer with any conviction.

Despite the fact that the Taliban has seemed barely capable of firing a shot back at the US airforce, there is a discernible mood of creeping defeatism in the Western camp. The US and British governments clearly have the military capability to do as they please over Afghanistan. Whether they have the moral will and authority to carry off something decisive is another matter.

spiked writers have noted how, since the initial burst of bellicose rhetoric that followed the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the West has become increasingly defensive about this war. Bush and Blair have gone out of their way at every stage to stress that they have no argument with the Islamic world (3). After four weeks of indecision, the US-UK authorities finally took the plunge and launched some relatively low-level air strikes against Afghanistan. Yet they have appeared almost apologetic about bombing their enemies, claiming that they are doing all that they can to avoid killing anybody in this war.

This defensiveness is in stark contrast to the way that the Western powers conducted past wars. For example, Britain’s 1982 Falklands War was fought in an atmosphere of unrestrained jingoism. One tabloid newspaper famously carried the headline ‘GOTCHA’ to celebrate the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano with the loss of more than 350 lives, and then prime minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the media and the nation to ‘just rejoice’ at Britain’s bloody victory.

Ten years ago, the US-led Gulf War against Iraq was a far more devastating attack than the current adventure in Afghanistan, deploying 2500 aircraft compared to just 40 on the first night of last week’s raids, and leaving behind many thousands of Iraqi casualties, including hundreds of civilians killed by a missile in one bomb shelter. Yet there was nothing apologetic about the war propaganda emanating from Washington and Whitehall.

Even two years ago, in Kosovo, where the NATO allies seemed uncertain about their war aims and unwilling to commit ground troops, they showed no compunction about bombing Serbia’s civilian television station and tried to brush off questions about NATO attacks on a passenger train and convoys of ethnic Albanian refugees.

The new nervous insecurities within the Western establishment are best illustrated by its fears about losing the propaganda war. The American and British governments have made clumsy attempts to get the media to stop broadcasting statements from Osama bin Laden and his supporters. At first the New Labour government tried to justify this by suggesting that he might be passing on ‘secret messages’ to terrorists around the world. (Although, given that his main message appears to be ‘kill Americans and their allies’, it is a little hard to see what the big secret might be.)

In reality, the Western elite simply wants everybody to see no evil, hear no evil, for fear of what the response to bin Laden’s message might be. The loss of nerve within the West is such that the authorities believe a grainy piece of videotape could turn the world against them. The same anxiety and insecurity is evident in the tendency for Western reports to exaggerate the scale, militancy and coordination of international Muslim protests against the US air strikes.

We have argued from the first that, in responding to the horror of 11 September, the Bush administration has sought to find an external focus for overcoming American society’s internal loss of cohesion and direction. In searching the Afghan hills for bin Laden, the West is really looking for itself. The strategic problems that the campaign has run into already suggest that there is no solution ‘out there’ to America’s domestic malaise.

Instead, America (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Britain) is in danger of turning further in on itself. The crisis has tightened the grip of the pre-existing culture of fear on Western societies – as we suggested it would, the day after the attacks on New York and Washington (4). The USA has now been sent into a national paroxysm of panic by a handful of anthrax cases and one death, apparently caused by cranks sending infected mail. The lines between sci-fi and reality, between international and domestic crises, between the rational and the irrational are all becoming blurred, as what might once have been war fever begins to look more like plain fever and fear.

So, while Afghanistan is reduced further to rubble, Western society also appears to be corroding from within. Remind us again: what is this war for?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issues: After 11 September

(1) More symbol than sustenance, by Josie Appleton

(2) See ‘After the bombs, what next?’, The Sunday Times, 14 October 2001

(3) See Apologetic imperialism, by Jennie Bristow; Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick; The Italian gaffe, by Dominic Standish

(4) See After the attack on America, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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