Author: Donald M. Bishop, publicdiplomacycouncil.org, Monday, July 13th 2015
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President Obama’s recent statement that the United States will deploy all the elements of U.S. national power – “military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, development and perhaps most importantly, the power of our values” -- in a comprehensive strategy against Daesh has already sparked debate. Many criticized his saying that “Ideologies are not defeated by guns; they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.”
I agree in part with the critics. Where armies and militias are in motion -- where innocents fear execution, beheading, or power drills – this is where arms and force are decisive. Troops move, cities fall, civilians die, and refugee camps fill faster than new visions can be embraced.
Those who served with me at the Embassy in Afghanistan will, I’m sure, recall my mantra – “win the war first.” I meant that the effectiveness of our many development and public diplomacy programs depended on – to use Lincoln’s phrase -- “the progress of our arms.” As David Kilcullen recently wrote, “trying to fight the Islamic State without actually fighting” is “doomed to failure.” Over to you, General Dempsey.
That said, I agree with the President too. He is sound when he says the United States must bring to bear every element of our national power, and the bundle must address ideas, visions, and ideologies.
This has long been a principle of military doctrine. Soldiers have a knapsack way to describe elements of national power -- “D-I-M-E” -- diplomatic, information, military, and economic. What the President called “this larger battle for hearts and minds” is another label for the information element.
The need to demonstrate “better ideas” was also a bedrock principle during the 44 years of the Cold War. Some strategic thinkers describe the conflict against Daesh as today’s chapter in a “Long War.” When the President calls it “a generational struggle,” he’s on the same page.
Just because a husband in Iraq must abandon his values to protect his family in the face of drawn guns does not mean that engaging and promoting values and visions is irrelevant. Just because today’s need is to defeat Daesh on the battlefield does not mean that ideologies are cloud nine stuff. There’s today, but there’s tomorrow too. There’s the battlefield, but there are lands and peoples beyond. There are places seeded with “extremism” that have not yet tipped into violence, so ideas may help prevent it.
Ideas help “shape” a battlefield. They influence how others in the theater – those not yet facing an immediate threat, perhaps – will chose sides. Ideas aid in recruiting and mobilization. They influence governments so that they choose policies that win support against insurgents. Now that ideas flash around the world on the net, they encourage or dissuade movement of foreign fighters.
This first wave of criticism, then, missed the point. The President has announced a framework. Now the key questions are: Will the promises be kept? How will it be implemented? What are the specifics?
Here’s one man’s list of operational questions for the President as he fleshes out the “hearts and minds” part of the strategy.
1. How many people will you add to the State Department’s effort to counter violent extremism? Tens or hundreds? How many will have firsthand experience listening to audiences? How many will have the hard language and cultural skills needed for success?
2. Some previous initiatives were long on rhetoric and short on money – “unfunded mandates” that petered out. How much new money will be provided?
3. If there is no increase in funding, what programs or functions in Public Diplomacy will be trimmed to free up funds?
4. How will you shift the State Department’s overall priorities to give more focus to the “values” dimension of the fight against Daesh and violent extremism?
5. Many development programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development advance values. How will you strengthen the alignment of USAID and Public Diplomacy programs, both in Washington and at American embassies and consulates?
6. You said the United States will work with partners. The launching of the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi as a platform to “support the efforts of governments, religious leaders and scholars, corporate leaders, public figures and individuals to stand up” seems a good start, but it’s just a start. What’s next?
7. You said one task is to “counter ISIL’s hateful propaganda, especially online.” Social media do not reach all the populations influenced by Daesh. How will you strengthen U.S. international broadcasting, for instance?
8. In a contest for hearts and minds, will you surge the international education and exchange programs that bring foreign scholars and leaders to the U.S.?
9. Will you reverse the downward trend in support for foreign area studies and critical languages in American schools and universities?
10. The armed forces – in their information operations, civil affairs, and military information support operations (MISO) functions – have ideas and resources. How will you improve coordination and alignment of these DOD elements with the State Department’s Public Diplomacy?
The President’s remarks have hopefully opened a sophisticated, well-organized, audience-focused, multifaceted, well-funded, and nimble Public Diplomacy strategy. It could win bipartisan support in Congress. Properly launched and resourced for the long run, it could be a major part of the President’s legacy. Or it could be yet one more “top priority” that withers away.
The work may have begun, but it needs to be operationalized and scaled up. Show us the money, Mr. President. Show us the people. Show us the leadership.