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American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots: the Pentagon’s $300 million to “engage and inspire”

American public diplomacy wears combat boots. Not only is the Pentagon in the critical last three feet of engagement virtually and in person with audiences around the globe, especially in contested areas, but it is the Defense Department that is putting up the money to expand public diplomacy. The Pentagon’s 3-year, $300 million contract for private companies to “engage and inspire” Iraqis to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government, described by Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, is more than an effort five years too late. It is one more shining example of the significant failure of the U.S. Government to come to grips with the present need and commit the resources necessary to engage in the Second Great War of Ideas that began in earnest nearly a decade ago.

Shortly after 9/11, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke wrote that the battle of ideas is “as important as any other aspect of the struggle we are now engaged in.” Seven years later and the reality that real security cannot be achieved through bullets and bombs is finally gaining traction. Simply put, we “can’t kill our way to victory” when there is no capital, flag, or heart to be captured or “won.”

Our national security, which includes our economic security, depends on the ability to effectively counter misinformation, create understanding of our policies, and develop partnerships. We are nearly a decade into the Second Great War of Ideas and the Pentagon remains America’s unwitting public diplomat engaging the world’s audiences. American public diplomacy will continue to wear combat boots until the top leadership at the Department of State realizes that it must fully and aggressively commit to engaging and challenging non-state actors from individuals to armed groups.

The Defense Department has come to understand the essence of this struggle, but the State Department has not. With the exception of the current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, the senior leadership at State remains detached from the requirements of the psychological struggle for minds and wills. In hindsight, however, it is not surprising. American public diplomacy was formally established in 1948 by the Smith-Mundt Act but problems similar to those today within the State Department contributed to the decision create what was operationally and conceptually a Department of Non-State, the United States Information Agency, to engage the non-state actors of its time. The horse-trading that led to the abolishment of the USIA was supposed to merge the non-state with the state, but recent reports and testimony show this has yet to be realized.

So it should be of no great surprise that America’s real public diplomats increasingly come from the Pentagon, ironic considering that few Americans today know anybody in uniform. There are several reasons for the leadership and initiative by the Defense Department in engaging foreign publics. The obvious is that the so-called Global War on Terror has been fought largely by the military. Neither the President nor the Secretary of State took the podium to describe what was going and why. It was the Secretary of Defense. The President also demurred to General Petraeus to report to the country and Congress on the status of Iraq. Present day debates over the nature of the threat and how to prepare for the future even challenge the civil-military relations in our country.

The $300 million contract may be surprising to some, but it makes sense the the Defense Department would make the substantial investment to counter adversarial misinformation as well as to penetrate psychological firewalls that have gone up in Iraq before the Pentagon realized and internalized the importance of public opinion. That the Defense Department has taken the lead in this area is more than just a fatter budget than State. It is because they have the imperative to act and the time to deliberate on their experiences. The resurrection and update to population-centric counterinsurgency (which today defies geo-political boundaries) has led the appreciation that public opinion matters. Success in the struggle for minds and wills means fewer warfighters get killed and cleaving the enemy from their base and “engaging and inspiring” locals to participate in the fight. The Defense Department has the luxury of people and money and infrastructure to send its people to “internal” academic institutions (in addition to public institutions), such as the National Defense University, the different War Colleges, the Command and General Staff College, the Naval Post-Graduate School, etc., where experience is built on experience as lessons learned are shared, analyzed, and refined. It is in this atmosphere that the Defense Department can convert lessons learned into doctrine, publish thought pieces in the many peer-reviewed journals and magazines, and collaborate in conferences and symposiums. This does not make their policies perfect, or at times any good, especially as they relearn painful lessons once tried before, but nobody else is doing what needs to be done.

Unlike the 1940′s when the President, the Secretary of State, an Assistant Secretary of State, and Congress were actively pushing to expand America’s ability to engage in the contemporary “a war of ideology and a fight unto the death,” there are no equivalent champions today. The Secretary of Defense is doing what he can in the void left by passive or ineffective action by the State Department over the years despite prodding. The Pentagon must act if no one else will.

The result are tactical responses like the $300 million public diplomacy contract that will do little to nothing to address the strategic requirements of ideological warfare, including both local capacity and our capacity to engage. On the mechanics of the program, the effort goes into gray areas we had previously learned (through the hard way) to avoid. The focus should not be on the provision of news, but on expanding and improving current US-branded efforts and, more importantly, building and protecting a domestic professional media which we know, but have apparently forgotten, is a central tenet of democracy, our goal in the region. The contract acknowledges the need to bolster local media, but short-term infusions of programming does to build local media.

The outsourcing of content development by the U.S. Government is nothing new, nor is the intent to “engage and inspire” audiences. Early U.S. information campaigns relied heavily on programs developed by major media, such as CBS and NBC. The contract should also draw upon civilian media, and not just American media, to partner with local stations instead of using firms specializing in military Information Operations and Psychological Operations.

But as we fund and discuss information activities, we must keep in mind the most important information activity of all: our actions. The success of the “guy in a cave” in out-communicating the U.S. is largely our own doing. Our adversaries are adroit at exploiting what the military succinctly calls our “say-do gap,” that difference between the propaganda of the deed and the propaganda of words. The Pentagon is finally institutionalizing the lessons learned but the State Department remains mired in the past, with the notable exception of Under Secretary Jim Glassman who is operating without visible support from senior leaders.

As it is too late for much change this Administration, we can only hope the next President and Secretary of State will push for and receive the support necessary from Congress to make the necessary changes to empower and resource a civilian Department of Non-State, either within or without the existing State Department, to remove the combat boots that prevents deeper and fuller engagement with partners and locals. It is not just the Defense Department that must be aggressive in this global struggle, but the State Department and the Department of Non-State, wherever form it takes. Until we grasp the fundamentals here, the “guy in a cave,” populist leader of a state, or social outcast with a keyboard will continue to out-communicate the United States.

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  • Jason Sigger says:

    “The Defense Department has come to understand the essence of this struggle, but the State Department has not. With the exception of the current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, the senior leadership at State remains detached from the requirements of the psychological struggle for minds and wills.”
    You know, I read this post and the first thing that came into my mind was “Why isn’t this a State Dept program?” Why not just move the $300 million over to State and run the same thing? At least you’d lose the conspiracy theory that DOD is trying to use propaganda against the US and foreign media.

    October 6, 2008 at 6:02 am
  • Anon says:

    One thing that occurred to me while reading this is how, in some cases, it may be necessary to out-source public diplomacy efforts like this. It strikes me that, just as DoD is learning (or re-learning) how to fight an asymmetric war, public diplomacy efforts are also becoming an asymmetric battle.
    This is especially true on web-based public diplomacy/propaganda. A terrorist in a cave can utilize whatever existing platform is available, be it YouTube, Blogger, anonymous message boards an so on, and then quickly switch to whatever is new and better. The government meanwhile has to meet accessibility requirements, has restrictions on what sorts of terms of service and contracts they can sign and has to be very careful not to be seen as endorsing particular products (meaning all these free, ad-supported services can be completely off-limits).
    I’m not sure what the solution to these problems are, particularly when the intention for such restrictions is good (such as ensuring handicapped accessibility). I do wonder if the Pentagon’s freedom from some restrictions (such as Smith-Mundt and others) will allow them to react fast enough to really make a difference. Indeed, can any government agency react with enough swiftness to overcome its inherent disadvantages in asymmetric information battles?

    October 6, 2008 at 10:47 am
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    Simply put: yes, why not the State Department? Defense wants State to step up, but they aren’t but it’s not for lack of the Under Secretary’s efforts. Some of the overseas audiences are quite savvy, to the point of knowing that much of what we’re broadcasting, transmitting, or just disseminating to them cannot be viewed by Americans (I’m am always surprised / impressed to find quotes from Arab and other speakers to this effect… that by the way pre-date my interest in the subject).

    October 7, 2008 at 6:10 am
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    Anon, I agree that DoD is re-learning how to fight the war of ideas, ideology, public opinion (each related like a Venn diagram where almost all surface area is shared).
    To be clear, the Pentagon is not under Smith-Mundt, neither is the entirety of the State Department (although the pertinent offices of State are), nor is the rest of USG covered by the Act.
    I believe the Government can react quickly enough if the commitment is made. But more importantly, can it be reformed to be proactive and ahead of the curve? General Caldwell at Fort Leavenworth is working hard o n this, as are Generals Casey, Petraeus, McKiernen, and a host of others, not to mention the Secretary of Defense.

    October 7, 2008 at 6:17 am

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