Of budgets and priorities and the War of Ideas

It has been noted that the whole of the U.S. Government is not engaged in the War of Ideas.  This war, the inappropriateness of the noun “war” notwithstanding, is a war of information, of understanding, discourse, perceptions, and confidence.  It is, at its essence, a psychological struggle that requires a holistic effort and intelligent staffing and budget priorities.  However, increasing budget numbers can only do so much if the whole picture isn’t being considered. 

Success for an Information Age economy, requires strength, stability, and confidence.  The gravest threat to the United States is not a weapon of mass destruction, but weapons of mass disruption.  This type of WMD is not restricted to “dirty bombs” or attacks on unprotected chemical industries, water supplies, or food supplies.  It can, and will likely, be more subtle. 

image In Unrestricted Warfare, two Chinese colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, describe a new type of war, a “non-military type of war which is prosecuted by yet another type of non-professional warrior.”  What the colonels go on to describe isn’t the sympathetic Muslim with access to a few pounds of explosive material, but a “financier” or a “stock speculator” or a “media mogul” who, for their own reasons, wreak havoc in a special kind of terrorism.

Worse, we can do it to ourselves, which we are. 

The blogosphere jumped on the recent announcement that RFE/RL let go a key analyst: Daniel Kimmage.  With Kathleen Ridolfo, who was also fired, Kimmage was co-author of Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War Of Images And Ideas and author of the more recent Al-Qaeda Media Nexus: the Virtual Network Behind the Global Message.   Kimmage will undoubtedly land his feet, as will the other analysts. 

imageThe budget cuts that have Kimmage and others going elsewhere, as well as the demise of Newsline, is in part an indication that we’re losing the War.  The steep decline of the dollar against the Czech Koruna has made operations significantly more expensive.  While a short-term solution is to increase funding for RFE/RL, under the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  The BBG could re-allocate is scarce funds from questionable ventures or increase spending, but that’s plugging the hole in the dike. 

The long-term solution is to look deeper and inward and realize the United States is threatened by more than physical attacks, but psychological and economic attacks that may or may not be orchestrated, or even engineered by outsiders.  Some may look at this as symbolic of the end of empire, but it is simply losing focus and playing too tactically. 

The announcement from RFE/RL is really just a small issue dealing with an amount, as friend Marc Lynch points out, “which doesn’t even amount to a rounding error in the Pentagons budget” (or David Betz’s point that the whole RFE/RL budget is the equivalent to 1/2 of an F-22 pilot). This cut is symbolic of a deeper failure that we must confront if we’re to win the War of Ideas and if “victory” will have any meaning at all. 

Very briefly, let me say a few words on what should be a longer and separate post: Does Smith-Mundt apply to the BBG and does it apply RFE/RL’s to-be-launched English-language website (www.rferl.org).  In my opinion it is supposed to based on the intended coverage of the Act.  Should it?  No, and if you’re a reader of this blog you knew that.

On the King’s of War blog David notes Kimmage is scheduled (still?) to speak next week, 21 May 2008.

The email announcement from RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin describing the cuts and a new resource is after the fold. 

Dear Newsline Subscriber:

The weakening U.S. dollar is placing our company, which broadcasts in 28 languages to 21 countries, under enormous budgetary pressure. Recently, I was faced with the difficult choice of scaling back RFE/RL’s broadcasting efforts or making cuts to our research and analysis capabilities. Because our core mandate is to broadcast uncensored information to parts of the world where free and independent media are fragile or nonexistent, I chose the latter.

As a result, I deeply regret that we are no longer able to produce “RFE/RL Newsline.” However, in the next few months, we will be launching a newly designed English-language website (www.rferl.org) dedicated to translating and highlighting the best RFE/RL content from our broadcast services.

The new site will feature more video, blogs, and interactive content along with continued in-depth reporting from our broadcast regions. Budget permitting we also hope to launch a headline service in the near future and will keep you apprised of progress on this new project.

I want to thank the many analysts and researchers whose excellent work over the years made “RFE/RL Newsline” one of the most influential and well-regarded reports from our broadcast regions.

Jeffrey Gedmin
President, RFE/RL, Inc.
Prague, Czech Republic

2 thoughts on “Of budgets and priorities and the War of Ideas

  1. This is exactly why government-directed strategic communication is inadequate to the challenges of our time. A decentralized, private, entrepreneurial approach to the war of ideas is essential to winning. We just can’t rely on government to “get” the war of ideas and take the action necessary to win it. We could spend years, even decades, holding panel discussions and writing journal articles talking about what government should be doing and yet accomplish nothing. In fact that is exactly what has happened since 9/11. Whereas the intelligence, creativity and enterprise of people interested in waging the war of ideas can be better utilized by organizing and taking action outside of government.

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