Book Review: Losing Hearts and Minds?

Losing Hearts and MindsBack in January I posted the Washington Times book review of reviews Losing Hearts and Minds?: Public Diplomacy and Strategic Influence in the Age of Terror. However, after reading the book myself, I found Josh Sinai’s review incomplete (although I do recommend reading his review as well as mine below).

Carnes Lord, a professor at the Navy War College, takes on the question of how to win the “hearts and minds” in, just as Foreign Affairs wrote in their review of the book, a controversial manner. A look at the table of contents, one finds he is taking a rather in-depth look, with chapter titles ranging from Strategic Influence and Soft Power, Public Diplomacy and Psychological-Political Warfare, Problems of Organization, and, Defense Department: Into the Act?. Lord sets out to look at bureaucratic obstacles, friction from domestic politics, and the impact of media.

From the start, I found myself in agreement with “controversial” label from Walter Russell Mead’s review in Foreign Affairs, but I don’t know if our independent assessment was for the same reason(s). I had trouble with Lord’s definition, arguments and positions.

To start, I disagree with his confinement of public diplomacy to essentially be positive propaganda, but this conforms to his larger vision which I’ll get to later. Public diplomacy to Lord is not about tangible programs but radio, TV, and print. In effect, as he apparently sees it public diplomacy is primarily about media diplomacy.

Lord places public diplomacy within “psychological-political warfare” (often referred to as Information Operations), itself set within the more comprehensive “strategic influence”. Strategic influence is, finally, connected with Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power. Under strategic influence, Lord places tools like humanitarian assistance, development aid, and state or nation building, among others. I think he errors in defining based on means and not purpose. His broad definition of “strategic influence” is more along the lines of “smart power“, however. But, we can move beyond semantics.

Other issues in the text either undermine his intent or demonstrate a deeper failed appreciation of how the VOA (by the way, the book’s forward was written by a former VOA director) and other tools of public diplomacy actually work. One such example is his argument that there was nothing wrong when the US military paid Iraqi journalists to run American-written articles as their own in Iraqi newspapers. According to Lord, the security situation made these acts “hardly outrageous”, especially when countering misinformation (p62). Later on the same page, Lord writes criticism of the litmus test by the USIA to prevent “liberal academics and others previously used” to reinvigorate public diplomacy as “irony” because “with few exceptions, conservative speakers or ideas had been conspicuously absent from American public diplomacy efforts prior to Reagan.” These arguments are made in his chapter titled “Problems of Legitimacy” without any sense of irony.

This may be an instrumental difference in opinion between he and I, but I think it goes to the heart of “hearts and minds”. How do you maintain your own legitimacy when you do things that are counter to the basic precepts of the institution you are attempting to build (in this case democracy)?

Perceptions and linkages by foreign media and of the local people (rightful or not) is the real center gravity, but this is discounted, ignored, or misunderstood by Lord. He tows the line that the bad news should be drowned out by the good without accepting or rather understanding the importance of perceptions. This is clear in his emphasis on a five year-old assessment that “our sins are very evident…[but] our good deeds” are not in al-Jazeera’s coverage (p40). He suggests a hard power route with al-Jazeera because they report America “in the worst possible light”, suggesting their reporters should have been ejected from Iraq and the station itself should have been electronically jammed (p48-49). These tactics don’t grasp the full depth and breadth of the mission and the importance of perceptions in the crisis of legitimacy, moral or otherwise, vis a viz the opponent.

Telling is that instead of activist information and outreach campaigns that engage on all fronts, instead the fruits of the “enormous investments [in Iraq] of the US government (and private sector)” will turn around our image. Is the passive “all shall be revealed” strategy the best course? At the very least he loses focus and perspective in his argument with statements such as this that are sprinkled throughout the book.

The essential thrust of Lord’s vision of public diplomacy that comes out is an emphasis on talking with virtually no listening. There is some tangential mention of bilateral communication (not in so many words), but overall all the “three broad missions” of public diplomacy, as he sees them — information, political action, and education and culture — emphasize talk (not withstanding his comment on the need to “educate the world about the nature of American conservatism”). At times, this rather narrow definition is at odds with Lord’s own recommendations and comments throughout the book.

Lord does do well by bringing in the Defense Department into the discussion and informs the reader of contemporary applications of “strategic influence”. But his emphasis on the future role of the Department of Defense in public diplomacy is not because of institutional barriers in the Department of State (the oft-cited reason elsewhere), but because “public diplomacy”, in his narrow construction is best kept with traditional diplomacy, although he does suggest there might be a place for “defense public diplomacy”.

Lord’s discussion of three possible models of how to institutionalize the reconstituted USIA and other public diplomacy / strategic influence capabilities is interesting. From the “Czar” model to the “Counselor” and ultimately to his “US Trade Representative” model, his strength in understanding how bureaucracy works comes through.

The book was interesting and included some history to add context (although that too was sometimes incomplete), but there was a political undercurrent that undermined any objective goals of the book. I also found the book self-limiting in defining a narrow audience of public diplomacy and in over generalizing the enemy, both to the detriment of his argument.

There is a disconnect between this book and fundamental concepts of counterinsurgency, for example, what it takes or even what it means to win hearts and minds, and even the fundamental concepts of public diplomacy or strategic influence, throughout the examples and discussions in the book. If read in conjunction with literature on the subject or knowledge on public diplomacy, this book may serve as a useful counterpoint. But absent that, this book becomes a text on propaganda (in the non-pejorative sense) tools and simplified tactics of countering misinformation. One last note, I did enjoy Lord’s comment that “most public diplomats are liberals, like most American journalists.” A point that is emblematic of his issues with public diplomacy today.

4 Replies to “Book Review: Losing Hearts and Minds?”

  1. Just so you know, I don’t agree with his main argument, as a tragedy is a tragedy whether in Virginia or Baghdad, but I think that this part is interesting:”The next time you hear Dick Cheney or George Bush blame the public attitude regarding Iraq on the media’s failure to report “good news”, examine carefully our reaction to the shooting at Virginia Tech. Look at our collective shock. Our horrified reaction. The public sorrow. Yet, in truth, this is an exceptional, unusual day in America. It is not our common experience. But we cannot say the same about Iraq”
    There is something to be said about the psychology of what makes news that reminds me very much of Bruce Schnier’s “Psychology of Security” essay.

  2. Thanks for the informative review. I was considering buying that book, but like you I don’t agree with his idea of public diplomacy as positive propaganda.BTW, there’s an interesting piece here about the Virginia Tech shooting and what it means for media/vs Iraq.

  3. I think the article you linked missed the key element: what happens after the violence? If you feel you can do something about, you talk about tighter gun laws, improved security, etc. If you can’t, you get pissed at those who can or who you believe should do something about it. Now imagine years of that.

  4. Good points. I also think of the way the Israelis handle every suicide bombing. They become so common that the Israelis immediately clean up the debris and corpses and make sure people go on with life. I suppose if they stopped to mourn every bombing they would collapse out of grief.

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