Losing the Cognitive War in the 21st Century: The 9-11 US Embassy Episode

This item appeared in my Daily Telegraph Blog, where there are now over 350 comments, some of them worth reading.

Losing the Cognitive War in the 21st Century: The 9-11 US Embassy Episode

The West continues well into the teens of the 21st century to lose the cognitive war with the Islamist camp. The latest catastrophe of international proportions has been the attacks on 9-11 against US embassies in Libya and Egypt (two places that went through major changes during the “Arab Spring”). A combination of well-planned rocket attacks used the cover of outrage at an inflammatory movie about Islam, to kill an American ambassador and three other embassy officials. The Muslim street in the Arab world has turned violently hostile to the US, and their own leaders, when not helpless to resist, are in cahoots, even with nuclear Iran. Angry Muslim demonstrations riots spread all over the globe, and American (and Western) policy in the region is “in tatters.”

The results have made clear how poorly we Westerners conduct ourselves on the global stage, and how the news media self-inflicts some of those wounds. At the heart of the drama stands a President of the US, who plays win-win checkers against enemies who play I-win-you-lose three-dimensional chess; and at the same time a Western news media which rushes to publish as news, the poisoned meat of lethal narratives.

Let’s look at what happened from the perspective of a-symmetrical cognitive war, in which weak aggressors use non-violent methods to at once put a much more powerful enemy in a position where he cannot use his own force, and then maximize the use of their own force, largely (at the early stages) for symbolic effect. Here al Qaeda affiliates make a daring assault on US sovereign territory, killing an ambassador. Their cover, a movie made that outrageously insults the prophet, and predictably arouses the angry violence of the crowd. The US loudly denounces the film and protests the riots, but does not make any moves to even demand the punishment of the perpetrators. Crowds who have no fear, knowing that neither the US nor government troops will not shoot back, gather outside other US Embassies in the Arab world. The riots spread to other countries.

This massive symbolic attack, on 9-11 – if you will, this global insult to the Peace of Westphalia and the basic principles of the UN – comes off almost as brilliantly as 9-11. You couldn’t script a movie better. The POTUS loses face on a massive scale, especially in the Muslim and non-aligned world, where matters of face have enormous cultural capital. He looks like a dismaying fool to the Europeans, who are struggling with both crises in their ambitiously high-minded (win-win) projects, and their increasingly restive and aggressive Muslim immigrant populations who have failed/refused to assimilate (i.e., they, like their co-religionists back home, will riot at perceived insult).

The people even our mild-mannered administration are willing to call “the enemy” – “al Qaeda and its allies around the world” – carried out a brilliant cognitive war op. Right up there in the global hit parade with 9-11 and the Cartoon Riots of 2005/6. And the implications on the ground: US Embassies, our sovereign territory on foreign soil, are under threat from crowds who have lost their fear. The Arab Awakening has given power to the Islamists, who cannot control – if they are not in league with – the Jihadis. As even the POTUS admits indirectly, the US has lost its closest Muslim ally in the Middle East, and gained no new ones.

Before even knowing about cognitive war, we heard complaints about how poorly we in the West were conducting ours, indeed how the aughts (‘00s) were the occasion of catastrophic losses in a cognitive war with a remorseless foe. Those losses were all the more inexplicable in that the foe who had “picked” this wildly asymmetrical war with us, represented every kind of value and attitude upon whose opposition the West had built the remarkably free society that we enjoy today. But, we were told by our intellectual luminaries, these folks were part of the “socially progressive, global Left.”

After all, without a profound commitment to tolerance and fairness, there’s no way we can hope that this, the first global millennium, can produce a peaceful and varied global culture. And yet the foe to whom we lose repeatedly on countless small and large battlefields of their choosing, embraces exactly the opposite of progressive values: misogynist, homophobe, anti-Semitic, racist, theocratic, fascist. Indeed, it’s hard to find, even in the worst periods of Christian and post-Christian, paranoid, Jew hatred, anything quite as delirious as the Hamas death cult of suicide-mass-murder.

Our losses in the first decade continue; our hemorrhaging, unabated. We have, apparently, learned nothing. And without a turn-around on the cognitive plane, we are condemned either to a world of quiet submission to a warrior aristocracy, or a bloodbath that will overtake even the second world war’s tens of millions. To contribute to having the much-needed turnaround occur while violence need not be a weapon of first resort, consider what this incident reveals about Western weaknesses in the cognitive theater of war.

The major problem concerns how we interpret Arab Muslim political culture. Our view of the “Arab Spring,” was shot-through with a kind of messianic hope that our fondest beliefs – people are the same everywhere – were now proven by these “brave facebook protesters” who would bring “democracy” to the good people of Egypt. Now that Egyptians had “lost their fear of the government,” – what CNN and BBC commentators emphasized repeatedly during the dramatic street demonstrations – they would choose democracy. We anticipated a huge victory for progressive forces on the planet.

And because we present ourselves as a gentle giant, which has renounced power for positive-sum relations – we just want to be your friends, we tell the Muslim world – we renounce the kinds of everyday violence necessary for “maintaining order” in pre-modern, alpha-male-dominated, political cultures. So our embassy guards are given unloaded guns, to ceremoniously maintain a façade of modern civility amidst people we refuse to believe are hostile. The guards’ “rules of engagement,” and now, since “Arab Spring,” Arab governments’ rules of engagement, systematically restrain the use of force. We cannot defend ourselves on the ground in a hostile political culture, nor can we retaliate for losses.

Of course, it is all dreadfully mistaken, and the worst scenarios of the Cassandras are now coming to fruition across North Africa and beyond, even as we are radically unprepared to deal with these developments. And yet, in order to maintain our pleasant progressive fantasy, we ignored all the evidence – of misogyny, of anti-Semitism, of anti-Americanism, of brutal religious zealotry in the “revolutionary” Arab street. And now, on the basis of a ludicrous film, they riot and threaten violence for the sake of their honor – all behavior no self-respecting progressive would tolerate for his own people.

We were and are in part able to carry off this astonishing act of denial, to self-inflict this debilitating wound, by adopting as a firm principle: there are no significant cultural differences. All cultures are equal, and one cannot “judge” another culture, or its religion. As Saïd insisted, the most terrible sin a (Western) progressive can make is to invidiously “other” another culture. If they behave like “enfant terribles,” then we’ll apologize for upsetting them in the hopes of calming them down.

While this may be a fine way to proceed with “others” of good will, its dogmatic assertion in 21st century international relations, has forced us to ignore major hostile cultural forces which have come to the fore in the 15th century AH (1979-2076). Driven by both religious and honor-shame dynamics, Islam has produced a deeply toxic brew of tribal warrior psychosis and millennial cult of death and murder. And yet we, as our president and his top officials insists, should not discuss “radical Islam” lest we insult Muslims. Then we get slapped in the face on the global stage by the very Islamists we don’t talk about.

What should we expect? Our POTUS, in order to “live up” to our democratic principles and oppose dictatorship, threw America’s most reliable Muslim friend in the Middle East, the anchor of our decades-long policy in a volatile region, to the mobs bent on his public humiliation. And rather than pay attention to the fascist theocratic forces at work here, we either ignored the Muslim Brotherhood, or, when they scored huge electoral victories, we redefined them – astoundingly – as basically secular and moderate. We not only played “sour grapes” with our hopes of democracy, we ate the bitter grapes of our enemy’s victory, and claimed they tasted okay.

In the world of honor and shame where most people live, we Americans, Westerners, progressives, come off as fools. We, on the other hand, consider those juvenile games beneath us, deny they have importance. Yes, it’s true that the embassies were attacked, that the attacks continue to spread and intensify, but let’s not exaggerate the damage to our position and let’s not make things worse by retaliating. “Mursi may not be our ally, but we don’t consider him our enemy,” Obama gaudgingly admits in a brief semi-nod to reality. (What firm evidence supports the second assertion?) Obama’s concern for “saving face” apparently lies with his standing among the American people, not in the world in which his “face” is ours. Indeed, the only people he has not apologized to so far, are the American people, his people. Phaeton in his father’s chariot, insisting he has not lost control.

And the most terrible thing is, Obama lost face not only in the eyes of foes so deadly even he will admit they’re “the enemy,” but to by-standers.

If you want to know who the strong horse is in the eyes of people around the globe, now in our twelfth year since 9-11, do not look to any Western figure. Our champions, like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky, score own-goals, and we cheer them on. If this were merely a war of words, it might not be so bad, but the purpose of their war or words is to better position to strike on the battlefield. This is not a war we who treasure freedom can afford to lose.

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