Discussions of U.S. government Strategic Communications in journals and various symposia usually devote earnest attention to the problematic shortcomings of our information campaigns in the operational environment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The finger of blame is most often pointed in various directions: toward bureaucratic disagreements, toward functional overlap, toward inertia, etc. Essentially, the problem is identified as something that can be remedied by re-arranging the boxes in some organizational chart, or by devoting more attention to minor tweaks of message here and there.
Here at SMC, we have tried at times to tactfully hint that the real difficulty in trying to demonstrate to friends and enemies in the Arab world our competence and the righteousness of our national cause is one of a more intractable type. It is the "you can't unshit the bed" predicament.
When the honeymooning husband tries to impress his new bride by cutting a really awe-inspiring fart and instead soaks the marital mattress with a watery evacuation of fecal material, there is no time for hand-wringing and blame-placing. Our hero has to get up and deal with the situation as it is, not as he would prefer it to be.
And even if he can assure his discomfited wife that everything is jake, he still has the hotel maid to convince.
An article in the new Joint Force Quarterly, The Missing Component of U.S. Strategic Communications (5-page pdf), looks at our influence programs and initially makes a cogent observation:
Why the U.S. Government has had such difficulty conveying its own strategic messages in the current political and social environment, however, is not explained mainly by its failure to develop interagency bureaucratic mechanisms, by interagency rivalry, or even by flawed style. Moreover, failure to create a 24/7 global communications system with appropriately trained public affairs personnel is only symptomatic of the real problem, not causal. Rather, the principal reason is a failure at the national level to find interagency agreement among the various departments and branches of government on the substance of what we want national strategic communications to convey to audiences of interest, and with what sense of urgency. This major flaw is specifically noted in the 9/11 Commission Report with regard to its communications policies: “The U.S. Government must define what its message is, what it stands for.”
Therefore, national-level failure to agree on what the United States stands for (that is, what national values strategic communications should reflect) is the principal impediment to developing a synchronized and effective program of strategic communications.
Unfortunately, the author veers from here into an asinine Culture Wars argument, as if the Muslim world's problem with with the U.S. is that they are more offended by our tolerance of homosexuality, pornography and other "Hollywood values" than they are by the tangible political programs of the United States in the Middle East over the past few decades (not to mention actions of a more recent vintage).
Other abstractions once broadly accepted as important components of the American values system are similarly being challenged, creating uncertainty with regard to national consensus on common values. For example, the assertion by our government that part of our purpose for fighting in Iraq is to help establish personal freedom and protect human dignity is evolving to mean something different than it did two generations ago. Fighting for personal freedom, for many in the United States, may now mean that we as a nation are fighting the insurgents in Iraq for the purpose of legitimizing homosexuality and homosexual marriage as appropriate lifestyles and institutions in the Islamic world as part and parcel of the changes to traditional interpretations of family and marriage that are being championed within America by many agents and interest groups. Assuming that tolerance and acceptance of so-called alternative lifestyles eventually do become a broadly accepted American national value, the problem then becomes how to shape strategic communications messages to persuade a conservative Islamic world that largely eschews homosexuality as a legitimate value, even as they observe the drama of confusing and vitriolic values-based conflicts over this issue in the United States and Western Europe.
Similarly, our government periodically asserts that we are fighting in Iraq for freedom of speech and expression. In practice, the Islamic world frequently interprets this to mean that America is sending combatants to die in the conflict in order to promote the protection and distribution of graphic Internet pornography or to promulgate “Hollywood values” that not only countenance but also promote adultery, infidelity, and promiscuity. Or the Islamic world interprets this as an extension of perceived U.S. devotion to secularism to promote the environment for establishing an ACLU-equivalent organization in Middle Eastern states that will one day aim to remove the Koran -- as well as Allah -- from Islamic public life, public discourse, and public institutions. The above perspective of prospective target audiences for strategic messages noted, the issue before our government then becomes, “Are these in fact accurate representations of the national values that we wish to impart to foreign audiences as justification for fighting in Iraq and elsewhere?”
Strategic communications are the expression of the fruit that grows from the soil of national values. So-called communications that do not convey specific normative expectations rooted in such national values are quickly dismissed as counterfeit by foreign target audiences.
Not by a long shot. That one line does sound kind of sublime, though.
And the author of the Joint Force Quarterly piece is clearly clueless about what is arguably the most effective U.S. PSYOP ever, the series of programs that are collectively termed "Cultural Infiltration." Through these ops, we have successfully influenced (and continue to influence) countless millions of people to admire the United States and desire to emulate our way of living.
The hearts and minds of the Muslim world will be captured or forfeited by the legacy of U.S. kinetic actions, and whether our choices are seen there as justifiable. Not by risible reasoning that they "hate our freedoms" more than they hate us for killing their people.
This business about having to reach a consensus regarding American cultural values is not the fulcrum on which success in Information Operations must pivot. There is no need to alter our national character in order to appease Muslim expectations of propriety, no matter how much this would please some elements domestically. The Culture Wars deke is a partisan domestic propaganda cudgel anyway. The beleaguered hotel maid could tell you that.
We will never be able to reach with words the Allah-intoxicated Islamist any more than reason can prevail upon someone whose unconscious is in the thrall of an activated God archetype anywhere.
For such cases, there are expedient means (not necessarily kinetic) that cannot be openly discussed in a public forum.