One of the greatest but key challenges for a dominant military force like the international coalition now involved militarily in Libya is managing and winning the information war.
Lesser military powers know that if they can decrease the morale and resolve of the citizens of countries like the U.S., France and Great Britain, support will wane and pressure on the countries’ leaders will increase over time.
Last week, before the first missile or air strikes occurred, I made predictions about what Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi would do as soon as allied forces began military operations. These include: 1. claiming civilians (women and children in particular) have been killed by coalition strikes and 2. destroying “civilian” buildings and claiming the allies caused it. These predictions appear to have come true.
Gaddafi, like Saddam Hussein and countless other dictators, knows he cannot defeat an allied force militarily, but he does know he can erode public support and political will for the coalition through effective public relations and potentially accomplish his objective, which is to remain in power. Unlike U.S. public affairs, dictators and terrorists alike aren’t constrained by law, codes of ethics and bureaucracies that slow information flow but correctly help ensure accuracy and proper coordination.
Therefore, dictatorial regimes like Gaddafi’s have an outright advantage in the information war. They can and always will exploit and lie, knowing it will be reported by the media and shared rapidly through the social web. This then forces the greater power to refute the claim, which takes time – some times days.
Well, don’t the media see through the lies and manipulation? Yes they do, and it shows in their reporting, but claims will still be reported in a 24-hour news cycle because claims are part of the story line and early on reporters usually cannot prove the claim is false. For Gaddafi, it doesn’t necessarily matter that the coverage reports “the claim cannot be confirmed” or “Gaddafi loyalists refused to take reporters to the scene.”
Gaddafi’s objective is to plant questions and seeds of doubt in people’s minds that will grow when, for instance, the first allied strike actually does lead to civilian casualties, assuming it hasn’t happened already. And then the burden of proof shifts from the lesser power to the greater one. This is the critical juncture when the reporting narrative shifts and the greater power is pushed into crisis management mode. Again, Gaddafi knows this.
As soon as the first civilians are killed, the narrative shifts from claims of events to actual occurrences followed by reports questioning if the coalition can survive repeated occurrences of civilian deaths, especially when protecting civilians is the reason for the coalition in the first place. And if the greater power doesn’t get the communication right, it could be disastrous, not only for the military operation, but politically at home.