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03 January 2007

Magical realism and information operations

The beliefs, and processes of belief formation, of target audiences in information operations has always been underappreciated by operations planners and intelligence officers alike.

The Economist has an excellent piece examining one of the more pervasive beliefs in the Islamic world, and the impact of that belief on the narratives surrounding the Long War.

This is not the first time that elements of the fantastic have been noted in the propaganda of the jihad. In fact, many of the near legendary aspects of the Afghan conflict against the Soviets drew heavily upon this tradition, and was built upon by militant Islamists in other theatres.

Outside of those primary targets, similar narratives have been encountered even in what one would consider otherwise secular and “reality-based” environments from European political discussions to Asian business settings, proving time and time again that cognitive factors cut across cultures, education systems, and professions. Memetic influences rely upon common initial human conditions.

So the intelligence professional would be well advised to look to the smokeless fire…

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02 January 2007

Counterfactuals and the secret world

The narrative of history over the past century will no doubt continue to undergo revision as the most secret of documents continue to emerge from the processes of declassification.

The lessons of the hitherto secret world, and the counterfactual scenarios which can be spun from decision points in which policy may have turned in different ways based on that information, will continue to be of great interest to scholars of the art and science. The political science and international relations theorists would do well to examine this area more closely, though it will no doubt call into question much of accepted wisdom and formulated dogma that passes in those academic circles.

The discussion of the 1973 murder of two American diplomats is a fascinating case in point. The information underlying the case, and the developments of analysis and understanding of its implications, has been simmering for some time. It is fascinating to observe the public discussion evolve over that period. And frankly, the same case could likely be run as a teaching scenario in a modern, updated form with very little effort – simply filing off a few names, changing a few places, and inserting any other terrorist proxy / future “negotiation” partner. The decision logic which underlies the interaction with enemies, ignoring their hostile actions, remains the same.

It is against this background we continue to wonder at the Beltway world that offers up foreign policy analysis and recommendations in the vacuum of actual information or facts. The numerous pundits and self declared experts which would make claim to understanding of complex and rapidly developing events, as if the full picture were even capable of being perceived, are a unique form of professional hubris enabled by complex layers of cognitive bias.

We do not for a minute assume that the best or only truth lies in the classified world – indeed, we view with equal wariness the gaps in the community’s understanding. But there has been a recent surge in the number of false prophets, and of other would be wise men, proffering advice on the public stage but informed only by the public news and mainstream journalism. Their credibility, like the journalists, is deeply discredited when they embrace illusions seen in the mists of the current heavily engaged information environment – many of which illusions that are merely projections of the viewer’s own desires and beliefs.

Cases such as the events in 1973 serve best as warnings to the analysts and officers in this new century. If only the wider circle of foreign affairs and national security intellectuals would also take note.

h/t Powerline

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