Donald M. Bishop, "Quotable: Lamb and Franco on strategic communications in the Long War,"
Friday, September 23rd 2016
“U.S. foreign policy elites tend to believe public opinion at best complicates a steady hand on the strategy tiller. In turn, the public distrusts any U.S. Government management of information for fear that it will be twisted and used in attempts to control the body politic.”
Headline: “National-Level Coordination and Implementation: How System Attributes Trumped Leadership”
Subhead: Strategic Communications
Author: Christopher J. Lamb with Megan Franco
Source: Richard D. Hooker, Jr., and Joseph J. Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, Washington, National Defense University, pp. 227-230
Strategic communications is another capability area important for irregular warfare. The reason is simple: without some element of popular support, it is difficult for terrorists to survive and impossible for insurgents to do so. Hence, every effort must be made to convince the population that any support—even passive support—is not in its interests. While this line of reasoning seems straightforward and is supported by experts on irregular warfare, it was not a proposition embraced by senior leaders. Many acknowledge the disastrous implications of negative propaganda and perceptions—for example, often citing the consequences of Abu Ghraib or rhetorical missteps such as the expression “axis of evil”—but only a handful give the importance of U.S. strategic communications serious attention in their writings: Secretaries Rice, Rumsfeld, and Clinton and Under Secretary Feith. There are several reasons for this.
Americans are prone to believe that actions speak louder than words and that success generates goodwill while failure does the opposite. Generals believe that defeating the enemy will encourage friends and that failure to do so emboldens enemies and inclines fence-sitters to lean toward the enemy. The diplomat’s equivalent of this is to argue that policies generate support or resistance and no amount of packaging or “spin” will fool our foreign counterparts. Beyond these generalizations, there are other objections to putting too much stock in managing communications. U.S. foreign policy elites tend to believe public opinion at best complicates a steady hand on the strategy tiller. In turn, the public distrusts any U.S. Government management of information for fear that it will be twisted and used in attempts to control the body politic. Overall U.S. culture is not comfortable with managed information at all, preferring a “free market place of ideas” without interference from governmental institutions.
Moreover, there is a wide consensus that strategic communications is not an American strength. Some question whether it is even possible to have a strategic communication strategy without a larger overarching strategy for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others believe we do not have the sociocultural knowledge needed to assess our target audiences and message effects and that we are too self-absorbed to focus on foreign audiences (suggesting, for example, that the White House tends to confuse strategic communications with the President’s public affairs effort). Some also argue that American moralism and unilateralism incline us to discount the value of strategic communications. Americans tend to believe they and their government are different and better and that our motives are transparent and thus easily discerned from our actions. Furthermore, many believe foreign cultures embrace double standards that make it impossible for the United States to compete in strategic communications. Utter lack of restraint on the part of terrorists is seen as justifiable frustration or evidence of U.S. weakness, whereas a rare case of excess force on the part of American forces is seen as typical and evidence of massive arrogance and evil intent. In other words, some suggest foreign attitudes are so entrenched that attempts at persuasion are hopeless.
For all these reasons, we tend not to do strategic communications well—something more than 15 major reports are in unanimous agreement about. Virtually all those reports conclude the U.S. Government does not have a strategic communications strategy worthy of the name, lacks the expertise to execute a strategy, has no dedicated organization for doing so, and expends far too little resources to mount a serious strategic communications effort. Constant dollar spending on public diplomacy has declined since 1994 despite the bump in spending following 9/11. By 2007, the United States was spending about what France did on public diplomacy. DOD spent far more on television and newspapers for U.S. forces than it spent on military information support operations (formerly psychological operations). On top of all that, the three primary strategic communication disciplines in the U.S. Government—public affairs, public diplomacy, and military information support operations—feuded with one another to a dysfunctional extent. Senior public affairs leaders torpedoed the Office of Strategic Influence in the early days of the war on terror. After that, most of the effort was contracted out and earned a reputation for spotty, if not deplorable, performance.
Even so, as victory proved elusive in Afghanistan and Iraq, DOD increasingly emphasized the importance of strategic communications. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized that “[v]ictory in the long war ultimately depends on strategic communication by the United States and its international partners.” DOD, and according to some accounts the CIA as well, spent years trying to encourage the Department of State to take the lead and mount a better strategic communications effort. By 2009, however, the lack of progress had disillusioned some DOD leaders. For example, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was fed up with the “cottage industry” that had grown up around the strategic communications mission. Admiral Mike Mullen published an article that argued the United States should just communicate its strategic intent through its actions and normal coordination processes. Mullen stated that if the United States made good policies and ensured its actions were consistent with those policies, it would not need a special effort to sell its image aboard. He cited the Great White Fleet’s voyage around the world and the Marshall Plan as examples. Americans could simply show up and do the right thing because it is, “well, the right thing.” Admiral Mullen’s approach was quite consistent with historic American norms and no doubt resonated with many Americans who believe actions speak louder than words and do not require a strategic communications bureaucracy for their interpretation.
Those who study irregular war and strategic communications argued the contrary case. As one response to the admiral’s article noted, “However benign our behavior seems to us, it helps to explain it to others.” The Great White Fleet’s mission was so open to misinterpretation that it created “a first-class war scare” in Japan and the United States that had to be defused by careful diplomacy. The Marshall Plan similarly was open to interpretation, with some arguing it constituted “a declaration of war by the United States for control of Europe." Research indicating that many, if not most, Afghans do not know about the events of 9/11 or relate them to the presence of American forces in their country suggests that even in the information age, American interventions are still subject to gross misinterpretation. Admiral Mullen’s “frustration over poorly coordinated and poorly performing organizations currently trying to do strategic communications” was understandable. Yet many have argued that abandoning a strong and specialized strategic communications effort would be a mistake:
"Because terrorists . . . can further their agenda in part by offering a hostile narrative about the United States, we need to emphasize strategic communications more rather than less. It is true that the American example is a great one and that the world is often indebted to the United States for its expenditures of blood and treasure. But it is also true that our actions and intentions, even when strategically and morally sound, will not always be easily recognized as such by foreign audiences, which is why the image of a great nation needs its custodians, and those custodians need a good organization to support them.
Secretary Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta finally found a willing partner in Secretary Clinton, who made strategic communications an area of emphasis. She argued the ideological battle is slow and incremental but important. It drove her crazy, she stated, that “we were losing the communications battle to extremists living in caves.” She had her staff develop a strategy and a new Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Despite some initial resistance from White House staff, President Obama was supportive, and Secretary Clinton got the center and her strategy off the ground. While Clinton’s initiatives represented progress, the body of expert opinion argues the United States still has a long way to go to improve performance in strategic communications. Many argue that the independent U.S. Information Agency that existed during the Cold War needs to be resurrected.
Ambassador Christopher Hill demonstrates the classic Foreign Service Officer attitude while acknowledging the need to do better: “greater public diplomacy became the cure for why the popularity of the United States had fallen so precipitously during the time after the Iraq invasion. Even though it was the policy that needed improvement, there was no question that our diplomats needed to do a better job of explaining and reaching out to nontraditional audiences” (189–190).