Josh Earnest is under fire for saying this morning that our war against ISIS “in some ways, this is actually just a war of narratives.” Here’s the more complete context, from Mediaite:
Earnest cited new government initiatives to team up with Internet tech companies to shut down outlets that spread ISIL propaganda. “They’re trying to poison the minds of vulnerable individuals. If we can prevent them from trying to do that, we can do that. There has been a stepped up cooperation from technology companies to do that,” he said.
“The other thing that we can do is work to try to lift up the voices of prominent patriotic Muslims in the United States. There are millions of them!” he continued. “They can speak to the poisonous, empty bankrupt mythology that’s being propagated by ISIL.”
“In some ways, this is actually just a war of narratives,” he concluded. “We want to get out our counter-narrative against ISIL. And we’re having some progress, we’re making some progress.”
Aside from the from ill-spoken “actually just” (modified by “in some ways”), he’s right. Look, as with any military conflict, the propaganda war matters — and when the enemy’s strategy is based in part around persuading people across the globe to take up arms in the name of jihad, then the propaganda battle matters a lot. Our tech companies can and should do better at halting the spread of ISIS propaganda. Our Muslim communities should speak loudly and clearly against ISIS.
But here’s a key problem — the Obama administration has been painfully slow to realize the immense propaganda value of military victory — especially military victory over a jihadist foe who bases a substantial part of their theological argument around their own military prowess. ISIS recruited young Muslim men by the thousands not because they came up with a cool and novel interpretation of the Koran (it’s a very, very old interpretation,) but because — for a time — they were the strong horse. In other words, they were proving the validity of their ideas on the battlefield.
I know from personal experience, however, that defeating jihadists is its own theological argument, one that can leave jihadist sympathizers thin on the ground. Military defeat makes all the wrong kinds of martyrs, and when jihadists die without accomplishing anything, the flow of recruits tends to slow. Indeed, now that it is much more widely known that ISIS is facing battlefield losses, it is having more trouble recruiting foreign fighters. Certainly that’s partially the result of our own propaganda efforts with Muslim allies, but if ISIS were still on the march, all the propaganda in the world wouldn’t defeat their “narrative” of victory and conquest.
So, yes, narrative matters. But you have to understand how it matters and which narratives we can best impact. The United States has little influence over Muslim theology. It has considerable influence over the battlefield. That’s where we should concentrate our efforts.