Narrative Battle & Public Diplomacy in 21st Century

Advanced Cyber/IO, Communities of Practice, Cultural Intelligence
John Marke

The Narrative Battle & Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century

By John Marke

Warfare in the 21st century is about the battle for the mind – it is about ideas and perceptions. Understanding how people make sense of what’s happening around them, i.e., socially constructed reality is a key element of this dynamic.

Military strategists, at least the ones I favor, i.e. Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart, and John Boyd, would all agree that ideas have consequences and are perhaps more consequential than bullets, especially in today’s environment of limited war.  What we think, what we say, and how we act need to be congruent – that is the essence of integrity.  Clearly articulating our ideas and demonstrating the integrity between ideas and actions – are vital components of war and peace in the 21st century….and they must authenticate basic human values of justice and truth.  There is a moral dimension to war; and without a firm commitment to justice and truth, no narrative will be sustainable.

I choose to look at Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield as the context for exploring the importance of the narrative in war because it is timely but has also passed into history, as contrasted to Iraq or Afghanistan which are battles still in play as of this writing.

Case Study: Operation Defensive Shield

The eye-opener for me was the almost pathologic failure of Israeli public diplomacy during the second Palestinian Intifada in 2002 in Operation Defensive Shield.  Israel found that there is no substitute for pro active attention to “the narrative” and the need for an overarching strategy that is part of the overall strategic and tactical operations.

Well into the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) Hamas sent a suicide bomber to the Park Hotel in Netanya killing 30 civilians and wounding an additional 140 while they were celebrating the Passover holiday seder.[1] Ben Mor, from the University of Haifa, provides an excellent summary of the action; and I draw on Mor as well as references he provided from reports of the State Control Committee to the Knesset describing public diplomacy successes (not too many) and failures (more than enough).

The most obvious (in retrospect) failure was a lack of continuity at the policy level.  Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Labor) emphasized the limited focus and scope of the operation, i.e. we are not on the West Bank to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and Chairman Arafat was not a target; while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (Likud) tied Arafat to terrorism more explicitly, in a broader statement defined the purpose of the military incursion ‘‘to defeat the infrastructure of Palestinian terror in all its parts and components.”

My assessment, and in the interests of full disclosure I tend to be very pro Israeli, was that P.M. Sharon had a hidden agenda, i.e. to take out the political infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.  Well, actually let’s call it an agenda that was “not articulated” because it was anything but hidden. Even Israeli journalists were quick to point out the discrepancy between the military actions, which seemed to focus on destroying Palestinian Authority infrastructure, i.e. targeting Palestinian Preventive Security forces that had, heretofore been cooperating with Israel, while largely ignoring Hamas. It was also well known fact that Sharon sought and failed to get political support for a resolution in the Knesset for dismantling the PA and for the expulsion of Arafat.  If there was a hidden agenda, it would be impossible to subject it to the impeccable pre-mission planning you would expect from a highly sophisticated military organization like the IDF, and keep it hiddenThe absence of clear political objectives created uncertainty up and down the military chain of command. This played out during the confrontation at Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.

  • March 29th – Israeli tanks and bulldozers attack Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound, Arafat retreats to the basement and vows that he would rather die than surrender. It is first stage of what Ariel Sharon, says would be a “long and complicated war that knows no borders.” Guardian, “Middle East timeline 2002: January to March,” 2002
  • April 2nd Arafat, responding to Sharon’s offer of permanent exile, says he will rather die than leave the West Bank
  • April 14th Secretary of State Colin Powell holds more than three hours of talks with Arafat in his Ramallah compound
  • May 1 Arafat’s imprisonment in his Ramallah headquarters ends as the Palestinians hand over six high-profile prisoners to Anglo-American custody

What were they thinking?

“Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remained trapped in his office early Saturday where he told CNN by phone that he was under “complete siege.”  “They have destroyed completely seven of our buildings around my office and (are) firing (at) my office with all their armaments,” Arafat said as Israeli tanks were parked outside his office.  CNN correspondent Michael Holmes reported hearing fierce exchanges of fire overnight in the compound.  When Arafat was asked if he would rein in the violence as requested by the United States, Arafat angrily said the Palestinians were currently suffering from “the terrorist activities of the Israeli occupation.” He also scoffed at the U.S. announcement that the Israelis had promised he would not be harmed. Arafat said the focus should be on “the problem of our people, of our liberty, of our independent Palestinian state.”

For weeks the eyes of CNN and the world were on Arafat trapped in his office compound in Ramallah, precipitating a visit from the US Secretary of State even.  This is not controlling the narrative.  Would it have been too difficult to ask, “Now that we’ve surrounded Arafat’s compound, what do we do if he doesn’t come out?”  The Arafat flashpoint showed how the lack of a clear political objective and a clear political narrative can produce unforeseen consequences as ambiguity and uncertainty as operations unfold.  This is a problem, yes, but not a systemic one.

The Jenin Incursion illustrates the failure to resolve the systemic tensions between military operations and public diplomacy where the focus and desired outcomes may not only be different but seemingly conflicting.  Here accomplishing the mission and doing so in a safe (for the IDF) manner trumped any thought of public perceptions.

This was a tightly packed, broken down, refugee camp densely populated with hostiles and civilians.  Measuring 0.42 square kilometers (about 600 yards x 600 yards) and home to 13,500 people, I can think of other places I would rather do a search and destroy mission.

Israeli intelligence knew that numerous terrorist attacks had been launched from Jenin…that was no secret.  The Incursion was an opportunity to go in and clean up the opposition. The problem was, “the opposition” knew they were coming; booby trapped the places and set up for a siege.

Transparency is an absolute necessity in managing the narrative.  And the IDF high command blacked out news coverage due to what they perceived as negative reporting on earlier operations.  No international press was present for the roughly 18 days of camp occupation. This would come back to haunt the IDF because there was no independent verification of what was (or was not) taking place in Jenin.

The IDF ran into an ambush losing 13 killed in action and decided to flatten anything that looked suspicious with bulldozers. The bulldozers were the armored D-9’s standing, 20 ft. tall and weighing more than 50 tons.  Rumors spread of the “Jenin Massacre” where supposedly hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were buried under bulldozed houses.

For an important and decidedly tricky operation, the IDF went in with a reservist Brigade commanded by a newly minted Lt. Col  with less than two weeks on the job (the old commanding officer left the brigade shortly before the Incursion was launched). Other troops included some special operations people (IDF version of SEALS) and engineers to clear booby traps and run the dozers.  None were trained in urban combat operations. Total IDF force on the ground was about 1,000. Most would concede they were woefully undermanned for an operation of this scope.

The terrorists originally thought IDF would call in air strikes.  Fatah leadership later told Time magazine that it was only when they saw IDF troops advancing on foot that they decided to stay and fight.[2] The IDF ultimately scored a military victory but at the cost of losing the narrative battle as word of the “Jenin Massacre” spread through the international press corps.

Military imbalances are often offset by public relations imbalances in the 21st century. IDF was accused of atrocities and there were no reporters around to either confirm or deny the claims. Eventually the IDF was cleared of these charges.  Around 52 residents were killed, including 5 women and 4 children under the age of 15.  Of the 43 dead men, 8 were 55 or older and probably not involved in the fighting.  Amnesty International concluded this was no massacre.  But who reads retractions?

The final flashpoint was the Siege of the Church of the Nativity.  IDF forces cornered some 250 “terrorist” (which turned out to be 49 terrorists, some PA policemen, and the rest civilians on the run from IDF arty and tanks) taking refuge in the Church, a sacred place for Christians and Muslims.  The Church is built on the site that is believed to be the birthplace of Christ. Franciscan monks, far from being hostages, refused to leave the Church and inserted themselves between the IDF and the Palestinians to prevent, in their terms, “a bloodbath.”

IDF sniper fire killed 9 and wounded 40 during the siege, including the Church’s bell ringer. IDF also confiscated press credentials from journalists trying to cover the siege from a near-by hotel and fired on a press car.  Of the 250 “terrorists” 13 were exiled to European countries and 28 sent to Gaza in a European brokered deal that ended the siege.  The rest were released.  After 39 days center stage, the IDF failed to arrest any of the “terrorists” but managed to shoot up one of the most sacred sites in the Holy Land, and earned the enmity of the United Nations, the Vatican, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  An excerpt of his “appeal” follows:

“…We strongly denounce and condemn the attempts of the Israeli Occupation Authority to break into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Shelling and bombing have set the sanctuary of St. George Church, where children are baptized, on fire. Several of the rooms at the monastery adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, where the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Bethlehem resides, were also burned. The shells, bullets and bombs resulted in massive losses and obvious impact on the structure of the Church which is considered to be a spiritual, humanitarian and cultural landmark of Christianity. Several of the besieged inside the church were also hit by the shells.

“We charge the Israeli Government and its occupation forces with responsibility for this vicious attack on the most important Christian Churches in the world. We affirm that these Israeli acts of occupation are shameful assaults on the sanctity of holy things and a disgraceful violation of the religious consciousness of Palestinian Christians, in particular, and all Christians throughout the world, in general. The Occupation Authority has overstepped all boundaries and acts without restraint, ignoring all spiritual, human and cultural morals…”

One Israeli journalist remarked that it was only the proximity of foreign journalists that prevented the IDF from calling in the bulldozers.

The “David and Goliath” theme haunted Israel, and she lost the narrative battle with the world media at the Arafat compound, with the Jenin Massacre, and with the Siege of The Church of the Nativity.  A fact finding report from The State Control Committee to the Knesset found:

“….the persistently recurrent pathologies of Israeli ‘‘hasbara’’ (public diplomacy) resurfaced: There was no overarching, integrative, and comprehensive conception of public diplomacy (emphasis added), and there was no agreed-upon body (with regular representation in the Cabinet) that could oversee, coordinate, and guide its conduct; issues related to the division of labor and responsibility especially in the sensitive area of handling the foreign press were not clearly defined and resolved; and Arab propaganda was not labeled a strategic threat and thus was not the focus of intelligence collection and analysis (emphasis added).”[3]

We see from the Israeli example that a poorly drafted and executed “narrative” can have catastrophic consequences.  The basic problem with the Israeli strategy is it lacked integrity.  Actions and professed values were out of synch.  The lack of integrity caused confusion and lack of a shared vision.

Integrity means actions support belief, and beliefs support actions.  Israel narrative, i.e. its espoused beliefs, did not match how its soldiers behaved. Tactical implementation (bull dozing refugee shacks), was at odds with the narrative of Israel as “terrorist victim,” and grand strategy (win the peace).  Policy, set by the civilian government, was at best ambiguous.  This translated into public diplomacy failures and, in many cases, caused needless risk to IDF soldiers along with some very public failures to accomplish mission. In a very real sense public diplomacy failure and military failure fed off each other.

The narrative must support a vision – a shared vision with everyone in the command.  Leaders at all levels must have absolute clarity and know what is expected of them. It must be strong enough to cut through the fog of war….it must become part of the operational culture, the essence of Schwerpunkt.

Additional Thoughts

Pick a better metaphor than “Narrative Battle.”  War, as we have seen in the past decade, is not about a final, definitive victory.  Today, in 4GW, winning is about longevity, endurance, incremental gains. This quote from your Narrative paper is unrealistic in a 4GW conflict:

“And when the competition reaches its culmination, what we have said, shown, and done will clearly establish why we’re right and truthful…and why the adversary is both wrong and a liar.”

Today the enemy’s narrative largely consists of capitalizing on our screw-ups, whether that is collateral damage, mistreatment of POWs, or overly aggressive patrolling.  Our first order of the day: don’t screw up.

Reputation is earned in inches per year and lost in feet per second.

All of our incremental gains can be wiped out in an instant.  So in a very real sense, war has a lot to do with risk management, i.e., minimizing your losses.  Identify potential flashpoints, something the Israelis could have easily done before launching operation Defensive Shield. “What do we do if Arafat doesn’t leave his compound?”  “What are the high profile Holy Land sites?”  “What are our SWAT resources for hostage situations?” “What are their rules of engagement, i.e. when do snipers fire?”  These are the sort of questions commanders need to be thinking about – war and public diplomacy are interconnected and interdependent – characteristics of complex systems.  Complex systems also produce surprise. We need to develop heuristics for dealing with surprise for dealing with uncertainty.

In this sense the best and most credible narrative is almost effortlessly derived from acting with integrity – what we say, think and how we act are mutually supportive, with transparency – no cover-up’s, with clarity – policy is crystal clear, and has consistency – no double standards.  We have achieved Schwerpunkt – shared vision throughout the command.


Clearly articulating your ideals in a shared vision demonstrating the integrity between ideas and actions – is vital components of war and peace in the 21st century….and the vision must authenticate basic human values of justice and truth.   Without a firm foundation, without a commitment, to justice and truth, the narrative will be unsustainable.

  • Winning the peace?  You need to spend a lot of time thinking about this.  One cannot dismiss morality in this undertaking.
  • Don’t take a conventional, public relations approach, to the problem of developing and integrating the narrative into your operations and plans.  You need people who come at this from a complex-adaptive-systems (CAS) point of view – no linear thinkers need apply.
    • Do a gap analysis – where are you weak? where are you strong?
    • Get people to think in CAS
    • Resilience
    • You cannot reduce complexity but you can (maybe) harness it
  • Risk Management – some of the “next generation” risk management theory we’ve been working on at DHS certainly apply to 4GW operations.  The Israelis could have identified and mitigated many of the risks they ran into in Operation Defensive Shield had they incorporated risk management theory.
    • Operation Defensive Shield would make a great case for exploring/teaching.  You should think about writing it up.
  • It’s not about winning, it’s about not losing, i.e. endurance.  Think “Iron Man” competition rather than football…as sports metaphors.

John Marke

[1] Mor, Ben D, Public Diplomacy in Grand Strategy, Foreign Policy Analysis, 2006


[3] Ibid, p. 170

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