The New (contracted) USIA

On the heels of my posting in Information Operations (IO) by the Defense Department that sound, taste, and smell suspiciously like Public Diplomacy, comes news of a $20 million contract by the military command in Baghdad to monitor news and provide “public relations products”. This is troubling on many levels.

Let’s start with PHK’s post on WhirldedView questioning whether the Defense Department, known for “private contractors like the Lincoln Group, SAIC, Rendon and SY Coleman Inc. to produce and disseminate fake “good” news reports for placement in the Iraqi media”, is the appropriate agent of American public diplomacy. Regardless of whether you think DOD should be the lead, it is and that’s the plain fact. The $20m contract is reinforcing the lack of support that any semblance of a USIA-like entity can provide from within the government directly or in a managerial capacity to provide oversight of the contract. Instead, DOD must do it.

Consider who is doing the contracting. Origination of the contract from the “military commanders in Baghdad” is akin to the an Embassy contracting out and symbolic of the power of the Combatant Commands, in this CENTCOM. No big deal by itself but its emblematic of the leadership role of Defense over State in the region.

Now comes the biggest point: more privatization of American public diplomacy. It is one thing to recruit American business to participate in, or even design, public diplomacy programs, but we’re talking about very Rendon-like skills here. Check that, this is outsourcing a capability State used to provide publically through its Foreign Media Reaction website. The FMR, by the way, used Embassy personnel actively monitoring local news and was pulled off the public website after GQ Magazine cited State’s own FMR product skewering Karen Hughes after her failed Listening Tour. FMR sorta lives on in the form of Rapid Response & other material from State’s Media Reaction Division, but nothing public and not like the FMR that systematically and more proactively monitored foreign language media. More importantly, nothing on the same scale.

The new diplomatic corps in Defense consists of soldiers, airmen, and sailors that are, in the Iraqi theater at least, going to be backed by their own version of the USIA.

U.S. military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid a two-year, $20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.

The contract calls for assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part of a program to provide "public relations products" that would improve coverage of the military command’s performance, according to a statement of work attached to the proposal.

Is this really where we should be going? State functions increasingly being (re)developed in Defense, and through outsourcing?

5 thoughts on “The New (contracted) USIA

  1. Nice to see our religious moral born again President is now having job opening for lying and it pays 20 million bucks. I remember the US use to tell kids not to lie and now Satan is running the White House. The bible did say that Satan would have someone use God’s name while following Satan’s orders. The bible was right. I wonder how the religious people feel about being tricked into following Satan. No wonder God doesn’t bless America anymore. I hope the Red States see Bush for the Satan he is and this followers and vote to put people in office that really do follow God’s word and work for peace and stop the racism.

  2. I wonder if you have not answered your own question? Are there issues with DOD running with this ball? Certainly, but if the desired home is State, and State can’t be trusted to be a team player (“State’s own FMR product skewering Karen Hughes…”) then what are the other options?

  3. Michael,You ask a good question about what of “DOD running with this ball”. As I see it, there are at least two top-level issues at stake here. The first is the construct of our nation is based on a civil-military relationship that does not place the military on co-equal footing with the civilian. By running point, expectations of the military changes dramatically without thinking out the reprucussions. How will this change the relationship with and the role of the military? This is magnified by the fact the military, as Charles Stevenson argues in Warriors and Politics (an excellent re-consider of US C-M theory to be reviewed here soon), has two masters: Executive and Legislative. When we are not in a “state of war” — which I argue we are not truly in, and hence the difficulty in recruiting public support — how will Defense cede authority back to State, Executive, etc?
    The second issue, as I see it, is the face of America. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, etc are excellent individuals and form the finest and most professional fighting force the world has ever known. That said, they are the Armed Forces of the United States. Do we want to project this militarized image of the US (as we mostly do now)? One of the few (only?) things the Shared Values campaign got right is the lack of militarization *within* the US. It isn’t who we are (we project it instead, critics would argue). Why is it we can ID a serviceman often by sight on the street or in meetings? What about when they wear uniforms?
    The question of options is the issue. State *must* step up to the plate. As it is, it is becoming irrelavent. Fortunately, we do have a capable Defense Department (at least more so than State… and it’s good LTC John Nagl works for Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, for example), so all is not lost. But it’s not the solution we should hope for.

  4. Not that I disagree with any of the points being made here, but would submit that the real matter rests in how USG presents a unified ‘face’ to the world? There is no military answer any more than there is a state answer, but there is a synchronized answer – one in which all ‘faces’ are consistent.

  5. You bring up a good point. The problem I see is with ‘ownership’ and not execution and the direction we’re going is military ‘ownership’ of the American public persona, or the face of America? As more than the conductor of public diplomacy, the military is increasingly the formulator of PD and brings to the conversation an inherent culture that is military and not civilian. Does bringing the military into functions of the (civilian) state (or State) change the civil-military relationship? Are the long term implications being ignored here?

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