It isn't exactly Walt Disney. In fact, the animation is
primitive and the characters not likely to inspire a series of
spin-off merchandise. Still, the Iranian cartoon TV version of
American history - all told in 11 minutes - certainly knows how to
get its point across that the United States is murderous, rapacious
and to be feared.
From the representation of a goofy-looking Christopher Columbus to an Iraq-invading and equally goofy Uncle Sam, the cartoon is a history of death and destruction. The character of Uncle Sam does away with his enemies, one at a time - be they Native Americans, buffaloes, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans or Soviets. And one at a time, their heads end up on the wall as trophies on his ranch.
Crude as the propaganda is, anyone watching this stuff in Iran is likely to have his view of the United States confirmed. And thanks to the public service provided by memritv.org, Americans can now also catch glimpses of the kinds of programs that roll across the television screens in the Middle East. It can make for pretty depressing viewing. It is not unlike something Michael Moore might have produced.
Some people clearly have no problem seeing the value of such information warfare, though it sometimes appears these days that the U.S. government has a blind spot when it comes to engaging in the battle of images and information - even as we are looking at the shut down of numerous Voice of America programs, including the English-language service. This will happen if budget cuts contained in the State Department authorization bill are allowed to stand. At this time, Voice of America itself does not broadcast into the Middle East (though a number if semi-official so-called surrogate broadcasting services do).
On July 2, Iran also opened up an English language news channel, broadcasting to the United States. This mind-boggling initiative in a twisted kind of way mirrors efforts by the U.S. government to educate ordinary Iranians. The channel says on its Web site ( www.presstv.ir) that it aims "to break the global media stranglehold of Western outlets." However, instead of feeding their viewers a diet of fact-based reporting, it is based on distortion and lies about this country and its leadership. Iranian television thus joins Al Jazeera, which started its English-language broadcasts last year.
Now, this all media activity also happens at a time when terrorist groups are becoming increasingly media savvy. Just how sophisticated these efforts have become is detailed in a new special report that was released in June by Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe. The report is titled "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas" and it makes for absolutely chilling reading.
The report finds that Sunni insurgents in Iraq and their supporters are engaged in a massive media campaign through the Internet to reach the best educated and savvy segment of the population in Arab countries. And jihadists have far more than the Internet at their disposal. Through the Arab media (sometimes even the Western media), which rebroadcasts their images and message, they have great reach throughout the region, where their message is lapped up. The broadcasts can, for instance, be recruitment videos, including interrogations or executions. In some cases, suicide or car bombings are evidently staged for the benefit of the camera - making the video itself the weapon in a war of terror. The medium can be anything from the text of a book to blogs and message boards to streaming video and audio.
Also distressing, but not surprising anymore, is the conclusion of the report. In this war of ideas, there is little to counter this torrent of propaganda. Yet, it is not without its weaknesses, which we ought to be able to exploit. For one thing, there is a lack of coordination and message control, and secondly there is a growing rift between homegrown nationalist groups and al Qaeda affiliates.
It will take coordination of U.S. government assets, a lot of patience and above all funding to bring our own efforts at idea warfare up to the challenge we face. We could start by saving Voice of America - the main organ of the U.S. government in communicating with the world - from the budget cuts and committing additional resources. If our enemies can see how important this is, can't we?
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times