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Rumsfeld’s (Not Bad) Idea

I hesitate to forward a suggestion made by Don Rumsfeld, who is likely to go down along with Robert McNamara as one of our worst secretaries of defense. While the United States was on the cusp of the worst military defeat since Vietnam, he seemed strangely disengaged—more focused on futuristic transformation than on reversing the sad course of events in Iraq.

That puzzling impression is only reinforced by Fred Barnes’s excellent Weekly Standard article on the origins of the surge. Barnes notes that “In September [2007], Rumsfeld had rejected the idea of a surge when retired general Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army and a member of the advisory Defense Policy Review Board, met with him and Pace.” But by December, “with Bush favoring a strategy nearly identical to Keane’s, he didn’t object.”
Fairly or not the conclusion one can draw is that Rumsfeld’s attitude was: “Surge, splurge. Who cares? I’m more interested in tinkering with the Future Combat System!”

But simply because Rumsfeld was overly focused on “transformation,” and often the wrong kind of transformation (favoring high-tech weapons systems of little use against guerrillas and terrorists), that doesn’t mean that all of his prescriptions were incorrect. Just last week he gave a speech suggesting that America needs a strategic communications agency—an idea that isn’t original to him but that he is right to advocate. Rumsfeld noted that Congress and the Clinton administration made a tragic mistake by folding the US Information Agency into the State Department in 1999. According to a news account of his speech:

A 21st-century version of the USIA is needed to harness new communications techniques—from blogs to online social-networking sites to talk radio—to counter a constant torrent of propaganda from radical organizations, particularly in the Middle East, he said.

I completely agree. In fact it’s an idea I’ve pushed in the past myself. (See, e.g., this New York Times article.) I would only add a point about the direction that this new USIA should take.

It would be a mistake to do as Charlotte Beers and Karen Hughes have done with the public diplomacy portfolio at the State Department and try to use their communications machinery to drive up America’s favorability ratings as if Uncle Sam were a candidate running for office. It would be nice if everyone around the world liked us, but that’s unlikely to happen, and it shouldn’t be our primary goal anyway. The strategic communications effort should have two objectives: (1) to help moderate Muslims battle the radicals; and (2) to increase respect for American power so as to send a firm message that it doesn’t pay to mess with us.


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