Every administration organizes the Pentagon its own way; there is no right or wrong way to go about it. So we shouldn’t read too much into news that the Pentagon Office of Support to Public Diplomacy has been eliminated. It is nevertheless slightly dismaying.
For years the talk within the U.S. military and the U.S. government has broadly been that we are terrible at “information operations,” thus ceding this critical battlefield to our enemies. I heard many iterations of this complaint while touring Afghanistan recently. Yet
every attempt to correct this deficiency runs up against overblown concerns that the U.S. is too pure to engage in — gasp — “propaganda.”
For instance, in 2006 there was a tempest-in-a-teapot scandal when news emerged that the “the military had paid the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based Pentagon contractor, to plant articles written by American soldiers in Iraqi publications, without disclosing the source of the articles. The contractor’s work also included paying Iraqi journalists for favorable treatment.”
Never mind that no one contended that the articles in question made false claims. Never mind also that paying for publication is a standard practice in Iraq and many other countries around the world. It is certainly the sort of tactic Iranian agents do not hesitate to resort to. Nevertheless the decision was made at the highest levels of the Bush administration that this was an embarrassment and could not continue.
Similar “outrage” has greeted other revelations that the Pentagon was daring to engage in information operations. Thus we read in today’s New York Times:
Questions over the proper role of the Pentagon in public diplomacy have lingered since it was disclosed in 2002 that the Defense Department had created the Office of Strategic Influence; that office, a forerunner of the Pentagon public diplomacy office, was shut down
after members of Congress expressed concerns that its behind-the-scenes efforts to shape public sentiment in wartime might undermine the military’s credibility.
Now the public diplomacy office (which—full disclosure—was started by a good friend of mine: Michael Doran) has been closed amid anonymous complaints that a set of talking points that it produced last year were “blatant propaganda.”
I agree we shouldn’t engage in “blatant propaganda.” If it’s too blatant it’s self defeating. But what’s wrong with skillful, not-so-blatant propaganda? Not only is there nothing wrong with it, it is an essential task at which we are now failing. We cannot afford
unilateral disarmament in the battle of ideas.