The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Uncovering the Wars of Ideas and Images behind the Global War on Terror; A Study of Media Performance and Influence, Propaganda, and Strategic Communication

  • Published

The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Uncovering the Wars of Ideas and Images behind the Global War on Terror; A Study of Media Performance and Influence, Propaganda, and Strategic Communication by Timothy S. McWilliams. Createspace, an Amazon company, 2011, 286 pp.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds represents a missed opportunity. Author Timothy McWilliams could have provided guidance for employing the instrument of public diplomacy in any larger strategy directed at transnational terrorist threats such as al-Qaeda; adversaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and their sponsors in the Middle East and the global Islamic community. This account fails to do so, instead attacking Arab and American news media for the content of their coverage of the Iraq War (pp. 83–213). Until the concluding chapter, the book also largely ignores Afghanistan, one of “the two major fronts in the Global War on Terror” (p. i).

McWilliams identifies the challenges posed by antagonistic media sources in Iraq during the insurgency. His excellent example of the Tet offensive reveals how military success was distorted by shoddy news reports that gave the appearance of a defeat (pp. 25–49). He also correctly recognizes that the Johnson administration’s rosy assessments prior to Tet soured many reporters on the war and fuelled a false quagmire narrative (pp. 27–29, 44–49). The author illustrates how partisan Arab media sources systematically presented disinformation that favored the insurgents and manipulated the American news media during the Iraq War (pp. 75–113, 151–85). Furthermore, he outlines the pressures that led to shoddy, inaccurate reporting by Western media sources—such as a dangerous environment that forced a reliance on those partisan Arab sources and a hypercompetitive and compressed news cycle that favored instant scoops over measured and sober reporting (pp. 51–60). McWilliams also addresses problems that fed the insurgency and that can be attributed to the Bush administration and coalition forces (pp. 99–105, 110, 112, 158–59, 171, 203, 212–13).

Unfortunately, this study’s one key shortcoming is its criticism of the news media rather than the American administrations whose media strategies virtually guaranteed hostile reporting. McWilliams spends the balance of the book arguing that American news media outlets undermined the war effort in Iraq as part of the Fourth Estate’s desire to influence national security policy—a modern replay of how a news media politicized by the events of the 1960s undermined the Vietnam War effort. Unfortunately, he takes the media’s ideology for granted, asserting without evidence that the upheavals of the 1960s produced reporters driven by an ideological perspective that conflates the media’s watchdog role with undue paranoia about the government and the use of military power (pp. 41–48, 79–89). The author also glosses over the exaggerated and largely false case for war that the Bush administration supplied to the news media prior to the conflict. It should come as no surprise that a news media “once bitten, twice shy” would become suspicious after the collapse of claims regarding Saddam Hussein’s possession of credible weapons of mass destruction, his support of groups like al-Qaeda, or the idea that regime change would prove easy. Skeptical coverage was the natural reaction to the Johnson and Bush administrations after they badly botched or misrepresented their cases to the news media.

Because of the book’s framing of the lead-up to the Iraq War, it ignores the diversity of views in the American media. Although McWilliams identifies Kenneth Pollack as a critic of the war’s handling, for example, he oddly omits the fact that Pollack was also one of the most prominent proponents of invading Iraq in the first place (p. 193). Numerous members of the mainstream media backed regime change, including the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, the Economist, Judith Miller and editor Bill Keller of the New York Times, and Peter Beinart of the New Republic. Moreover, many journalists critical of the handling of the war (such as Thomas Ricks, Bing West, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran) did so not because they supported abandoning Iraq, but because they sought a better strategy.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds also wastes far too much space complaining about a defeat not crucial to victory and coverage by the international media, thus neglecting development of the far more important story about the role of public diplomacy in the strategy for winning over the Iraqi people. The author argues that a counternarrative emerged to combat the quagmire analogy, but a handful of embedded journalists and blogs catering to a military audience does not a counterrevolution make (pp. 180–81, 186, 199–201). Further, although he refers to providing social services, behaving in a culturally sophisticated manner, protecting the population, and getting off the forward operating bases that isolated troops from the Iraqis, these observations are unsystematic and cursory (pp. 99–105, 158–59, 171, 175, 180, 203). Far more specifics are needed than a couple of brief paragraphs alluding to administrative reforms in public diplomacy and efforts to employ media to facilitate the pivotal turning of Sunni tribes in Al Anbar province against al-Qaeda (p. 175). McWilliams should have concentrated on the role of strategic communications at the local and provincial levels in winning over the various factions of the Iraqi people despite negative coverage and public exhaustion.

The book’s conclusion that “the American mass media did not serve the U.S. democracy” is unfair (p. 212). An early withdrawal would have been an unmitigated disaster since the situation in Iraq needed to become an opportunity for creating a friendlier state in the Middle East, not a chaotic mess in a vital region that Iran would love to control. But success demanded the right strategy, and Bush and Cheney’s dogged defense of Rumsfeld and Casey’s hands-off approach to stabilization operations ensured failure (pp. 158–59, 175, 180). Negative media coverage contributed to midterm election results that the book itself identifies as central to the Bush administration’s acquiescence to a counterinsurgency strategy that succeeded (pp. 175, 180). In that respect, a flawed news media facilitated a positive strategic change in defense of democracy.

Toby Lee Lauterbach

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."