This article was originally posted in the National Post on February 2, 2008.
Free societies possess one great advantage over their enemies: They learn. Because free societies openly discuss their errors, they can repair their errors.
With the release of the final Winograd report on the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel has entered a period of intense self-examination that will ultimately only enhance its self-defence. None of Israel’s enemies ever has or ever could do such a thing. That may explain why Israel has become ever more powerful and successful over the past 60 years, and its enemies ever weaker and more frustrated.
Yet, while the Winograd report shows Israel’s strength, it is not so clear that the report will itself contribute much to it. The report painstakingly considers a series of failures and mistakes by Israel’s high command. It gives dangerously little consideration to the Jewish state’s single most important problem: its inability to deal effectively with the campaign of anti-Israel defamation waged by Hezbollah — aided by the negligence, and sometimes the complicity, of international organizations and the global media. As Noah Pollak reports in the autumn 2007 issue of the Israeli quarterly Azure:
“[Then-UN secretary general] Kofi Annan announced, with no evidence whatsoever, that Israel had intentionally killed four members of UNIFIL; human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) churned out scores of reports condemning Israel’s war effort, alleging war crimes and largely ignoring Hezbollah … and journalists gave flood-the-zone coverage to Lebanese civilian casualties, producing false reports on the [July 30, 2006] Qana bombing, doctored photographs and news stories that were arranged and directed by Hezbollah. In its battlefield tours for reporters, Hezbollah went so far as to fabricate ambulance drive-bys, as apparently the payoff from using these vehicles as props for the international press was preferable to using them to help wounded Lebanese.”
Hezbollah’s most effective weapon was not its rockets or bunkers, but its falsified photographs and film clips. These images shaped world opinion to Israel’s detriment, giving the country’s enemies something close to a veto over Israel’s tactics.
One of the most notorious of these falsified incidents occurred near the town of Qana. In the words of one exhaustive review of the evidence: “The site, in effect, became one vast, grotesque film set on which a macabre drama was played out to a willing and complicit media, which actively co-operated in the production and exploited the results.”
Israel’s friends in the blogosphere tried to set the record straight after the fact. But as withering as the corrections could be, they arrived late, and never carried the impact of the initial misreporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and the BBC.
To quote Pollak again:
“By the halfway point in the conflict, the narrative of the war had been skewed from one in which Israel was defending itself from attack by an Iranian-backed terrorist organization to one in which Israel was, once again, savagely killing civilians. A survey by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center found that of the 117 stories the BBC ran during the conflict, 38% identified Israel as the aggressor, while only 4% identified Hezbollah as such. As Harvard’s Marvin Kalb reported in a recent study, ‘On the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, Israel was portrayed as the aggressor nearly twice as often in the headlines and exactly three times as often in the photos.’ ”
This is more than a matter of media bias.
In our age of global communication and the disproportionate influence of easily manipulable photographs and video, a new theatre of war has been created, one in which the battle is not fought over territory or against armies and terrorists. The battle is over images, narratives and beliefs, and the tactics and strategies required to fight it bear little resemblance to conventional war.
To adapt von Clausewitz’s famous remark: Modern warfare has become PR by other means. In this new war, the NGOs and the media are not observers. Often they are combatants themselves, indeed the most powerful and lethal combatants. And responding effectively to them demands a new approach to war, an approach that sees information as a weapon as vital and indispensable as tanks and missiles.
Israel does not excel at this new form of war. None of the democracies do, but no other democracy is as ferociously and consistently targeted as Israel, and none has as thin a margin of survival.
We are still awaiting the report that will press Israel and the other democracies to rethink the failure of its information strategy, and that will begin to show the way to a new strategy of national defence for what might be called the Era of Misinformation Warfare.