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Counterinsurgency and modern political communications

General Petraeus in Baghdad, 2007

This is the second of a series.

Generals David Petraeus and James Amos have written one of the most important documents so far this century with their “Counterinsurgency” field manual published in 2006. It serves as a terrific warfare parallel for the domestic political challenge facing conservatives. Here is how the manual’s introduction opens:

“This manual is designed to fill a doctrinal gap. It has been 20 years since the Army published a field manual devoted exclusively to counterinsurgency operations. For the Marine Corps it has been 25 years. With our Soldiers and Marines fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is essential that we give them a manual that provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations. Such guidance must be grounded in historical studies. However, it also must be informed by contemporary experiences.”

The recommendations within it have been applied in Iraq and as a result, the U.S. has won the second war in Iraq. The first was the three week campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the second was the battle with the insurgents.

Now we need a few bright, experienced minds out there to update the political communications manual which today has doctrinal gaps so wide you can drive a bus loaded with wide-eyed twenty-something Barack Obama supporters right through them.

The war metaphor continues to apply nicely to American politics. In fact, 2008’s Republicans and Democrats are the contesting forces locked in World War One 1916-style communications trench warfare. Little ground is gained on either side despite the expenditure of enormous resources. What’s needed is a new strategy for making a breakthrough. Think George Patton and his Third Army moving faster and covering more ground than any force of its size.

It’s abundantly evident that the best and the brightest are not yet calling the shots in Republican politics. If they were, they’d be making use of all the good arguments and evidence being provided by our think tanks and punditry class. They’d be tapping the talents of private sector communications, public relations, and advertising professionals to reach all those Americans who don’t listen to talk radio or visit conservative websites.

Also from the manual’s Forward:

“The Army and Marine Corps recognize that every insurgency is contextual and presents its own set of challenges. You cannot fight former Saddamists and Islamic extremists the same way you would have fought the Viet Cong, Moros, or Tupamaros; the application of principles and fundamentals to deal with each varies considerably. Nonetheless, all insurgencies, even today’s highly adaptable strains, remain wars amongst the people. They use variations of standard themes and adhere to elements of a recognizable revolutionary campaign plan.”

It’s not 1980 any more. Neither is it 1994. Ronald Reagan is gone and Newt Gingrich is no longer setting political strategy. Karl Rove’s consultant tricks were just enough to bring victory in 2000 and 2004, but Karl is now out to pasture and being called “the architect” by some of his colleagues at Fox News. If he had produced a better design on his drafting table we wouldn’t be facing the prospects of complete Democratic Party control in Washington.

In late 2005 some of us wondered aloud how it was that so many Karl Rove-types considered their job over once an election was won. Even before that many conservatives were voicing concerns about Republican leaders failing to use their power to advance an agenda.

The sad fact is that a majority of our elected officials aren’t all that different from those who developed the strategy in Iraq following the over-throw of Saddam Hussein. They might have been experienced, smart people, but they weren’t able to adapt. Our political leaders didn’t drift from conservative values because they forgot what these values were. They drifted because they didn’t know how to materially change the facts on the ground when it comes to public opinion so those values could be advanced.

There was no way they were going to cut government spending when the press, left wing interest groups, and the Democrats were prepared to eat them alive. To actually do something to implement limited government meant they would’ve had to make an intellectual argument in defense of sensible policy. Clearly these leaders weren’t up to the task.

Do we need more troops? Then what? General David Petraeus knew the answer to both questions. If Republicans are going to change what’s politically possible, they’re going to need to have citizens (public opinion) backing them up. Yes, they’re going to have to be ready to answer line by line why some government programs must be cut and the others discontinued. But they’re also going to need a higher percentage of Americans understanding why real fiscal discipline is no longer an option, it is required.

To win those Americans, our Republican leaders are going to have to understand how the currently-uninformed get their information. The counterinsurgency effort that U.S. forces are currently conducting in Iraq was based on the complicated realities created during 2004, 2005, and 2006. Surely if our military leaders can tackle that violent mess successfully, our political leaders here in the peaceful U.S.of A. can regroup and retune how they conduct political communications in 2008 and beyond.

Up next: Political troops, energy and action.

©2008 John Francis Biver

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