Iran's propaganda machine is much more effective than the Americans'.
This week, Iran released missile launch video and said belligerent actions would be met with harsh reprisal. The fact the video was apparently doctored to conceal technical failures in the launch, and the fact that the missile launches were mostly short-range missiles and not the more concerning longer-range missiles indicated by the government in Tehran, will probably go largely unnoticed in the part of the world where the video was intended to be digested.
Last year, Iran made a show of strength by kidnapping British sailors patrolling Basra on the pretext that they were trespassing in Iranian waters. When one confronts stateless terrorists, one expects grainy videos of disheveled prisoners being subjected to public humiliation by being made to read ultimatums and participate in propaganda. It is, however, surprising to see such maltreatment accorded uniformed soldiers captured by Geneva Convention signatory states. Ratification of terrorist conduct isn't new for the regime in Tehran, though. Ratification by directly apeing it on television may be a clearer admission than previously available of exactly how uncivilized the nation's leadership is. Interestingly, British doctrine for soldier interactions with captors, updated to handle the realistic probability that capture will be by stateless criminals uninterested in honoring the international laws governing civilized behavior, turns out to fit in just fine when Tehran stages a kidnapping. In the Middle East, where the video was intended to be digested, Tehran's behavior was interpreted not as barbarism but evidence of strength.
Iran has been reassuring anyone who would listen that bombings and murders and assassinations within Iraq are not a product of Iranian training or funding or direct involvement, but result solely from US policy blunders.
Well, that latest point might be half-true. The policy blunder of the United States is a failure to articulate its objectives in a way anyone -- foreign or domestic -- can understand. Years after ousting the tyrant who used to run Iraq, Americans haven't established a "victory condition" sufficient to support departure from the theater of operations -- or explain why Americans should be in the area indefinitely. The result is widespread belief -- supported by opposition propaganda -- that Americans efforts are a failure and that the United States is in an endless, losing battle against local forces. In short, failure to articulate its definition of success has left opponents to define it however needed to depict its impossibility.
Without a clearly articulated vision of success, America can hardly claim victory is feasible. Indeed
On the theory advanced by some critics -- that inability of Americans to leave with their heads up proves their failure -- the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan are also a failure, in that they're still there and still face both embarrassment and failures in local relations as a result.
The question I see is whether anti-Soviet military presence in newly democratized countries (or, in the case of Germany, re-democratized) is a good model for countering the new crop of religious radicals (the Soviets were arguably radical in asserting there was no God and punishing unapproved religious conduct as China now does) and their hypocritical efforts to bring righteous government to the masses by murdering them until they accept some self-proclaimed caliph as their absolute master. The basic idea is the same: a frightening ideology that promises to steamroller the engines of human progress threatens to overtake legitimate governments by force, and has shown willingness and capability to throw weak governments into chaos at the expense of local life and prosperity. Communism and Islamofascism aren't much different in that regard. The question is simply whether the tactics that were applied to the last eruption of the threat are good tactics for the current bout.
It's an interesting parallel to attempt, and we shouldn't look at the end of the Soviet Union as a model for relations with the proponents of the present evil. I think that Americans and the Soviets eventually reached a kind of realization that their assets and interests were too important to risk by a serious escalation. By contrast, Iran has little compunction -- and stateless terrorists none at all -- about killing people who stand in their way. Like the beginning of the conflict against international totalitarian movements masquerading as communism, the beginning stages of the conflict against reactionary tyrants pretending to advance Islam is doomed to be violent.
As in the old conflict, we will need to pay close attention to the terms in which the conflict is cast, and take care not to lose control of the framing of the conflict. Losing control of how the conflict is framed in the public dialog will result in propaganda defeat, and cause great increase in the duration and cost of any American effort toward any objective American policymakers may eventually deign to articulate.
It may not be possible to prevent other players from cheating, but it doesn't hurt to announce the rules. The United States' failure to articulate an achievable military purpose when it sent forces into Iraq (or failure to articulate a follow-on purpose after it was clear Mr. Hussein's regime no longer controlled the country) invited critics to supply their own framing of the issues, tailor-made to ensure the United States has as little opportunity as possible to achieve political objectives involving the region. The United States has made this error before, and lost the propaganda conflict for minds despite success on the field.
The powers that be should wake up and smell the coffee. What effect swords (bullets), if their achievement can be readily undone by an unchallenged pen (video)?