Pentagon Abandons Strategic Communication?
Tuesday, December 18th 2012
A couple of public diplomacy colleagues have asked me what we should think of the Pentagon memo issued earlier this month, the one that seems to say Strategic Communication is out. Over. Finished.
“What did you say?”
Does this mean the end of MIST teams at embassies? No more military websites targeting foreign audiences? Is it the end of a fat foreign media analysis landing on your desk every morning? No more social and cultural adaptation training for troops deploying?
First of all, Defense policy pronouncements and Pentagon doctrine dumps do not suddenly appear in the form of a unilateral memo from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
As the eagle-eyed Rosa Brooks (herself a veteran of the E-Ring concurrence wars) pointed out in Foreign Policy, this particular memo was cleared by no one in DOD before being slipped to a friendly journalist. That’s a good way to get some attention, but it is not the way DOD makes policy.
I enjoyed Rosa’s candor when we were together in the Flournoy OSD/P years. As she pithily put it in her Foreign Policy article, “What we have here isn't a DOD-wide policy change -- it's just a badly drafted memo explaining that OSD's Public Affairs shop is changing its terminology and internal structure because it finds strategic communication confusing.”
Now, there is no question that many public diplomacy professionals think the military’s involvement in strategic communication – and other information arts that closely resemble public diplomacy – has gone too far. Congressional staffers have repeatedly asked, “Why are you (the military) doing this?” Many State officers suspect the military is treading on the diplomats’ turf. And, to be sure, there are many military officers who fervently wish State and other USG agencies would act much more aggressively to counter the extremist message among vulnerable populations, so soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would not have to.
Since 2001, the U.S. military has become increasingly aware that America will not win the “war on terror,” or the “war of ideas,” or anything else – with bullets. Whether it is Petraeus with his counter -insurgency (COIN) doctrine, Admiral Stavirdis with his “We’re All In This Together” approach at SOUTHCOM (and now EUCOM), or General Stanley McChrystal’s much over-subscribed "Leadership" graduate-level seminar at Yale, America’s military top officers have been rethinking how we go about the the matter of “prevailing” in the kinds of struggles America will face in the 21st century.
At the National War College and throughout the DOD schoolhouse, promotable majors, captains and lieutenant colonels are the strongest proponents of strategic communication. Their Iraq and Afghanistan experiences have taught them – over and over again – that we do not succeed in these environments unless we engage with empathy, work to understand the host nation society, and focus our attention on the “information end state” we intend to leave behind when it’s all over.
P. J. Crowley, a military communicator with a brief State Department career, explained strategic communication thusly in his blog: “The word strategic communicates importance, something directly related to a vital interest or a core function. The evolution of the concept of strategic communication within the military a decade or so ago reflected the emergence of a 24/7 global media environment, the interconnected world of the Internet, traditional media, satellite television and now social media and citizen journalists. In this world, governments communicate with each other and with broader society. People communicate vertically and horizontally and have access to more and better quality information than ever before.”
Despite George Little’s memo to the combatant commanders, strategic communication – or at least the need for it – will not go away. The effort across the U.S. Government to synchronize our words and our deeds, to improve our ability to communicate consistently through our actions as well as our declarations, will not end.
The military can’t see themselves doing “public diplomacy” – that’s for diplomats. Public affairs is too passive and reactive for what the warfighter has in mind. Information operations (IO) might be closer to the mark, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO) is a defined subset of IO.
What many senior military officers are asking for is a national communication strategy, combined with Administration leadership, which results in broad, consistent and coherent interagency coordination of America’s engagement with foreign audiences.
I doubt that OSD/PA’s phrase “communication synchronization” will long endure. I mean, how do you make a clever bumper sticker out of that?